“Have you been to Egypt” my friend enquired? “Yes”, I replied. “While the Egyptians built pyramids for their dead kings, the Sri Lankans built stupas, as temples to venerate and worship relics of Buddha in Anuradhapura, their first capital city” he added.
About three kilometres away from town when he showed me the crown of a white stupa, jutting above the forest cover. There are many places in Anuradhapura that had been erased to the ground and still more yet unseen. This stupa ,which is called the Ruwanweli Mahaseya, is cropped out of a decisive battle between the titans of Hindu and Buddhist cultures. It was built by king Dutugamunu who proclaimed his victory over the south Indian Hindu King and to venerate the relic of the tooth of Buddha.
I was standing barefooted in the hot sun and walking over a granite floor which was more like a live hotplate. My mind was also treading over the ever hot, controversial, cultural and religious history of Sri Lanka. Like many natives, I almost ran around the stupa and stopped in some shade or on a make shift gunny bag mat, that had been placed around the stupa, to prevent the soles of the feet from getting burnt.
During 205 BC, Elara or Ellalan a south Indian Chola Saivite Hindu king, invaded Anuradhapura and governed the kingdom. He was just and according to legend, had a bell hung in his courtyard, for any person to ring, seeking justice. One day the crown prince who was the only son of Ellalan, had killed a calf, by driving his chariot rashly, on the street, which occasioned the grieving mother cow to ring the bell seeking justice. The King seeing the cow ringing the bell, enquired the people and coming to know of his sons crime, conducted a public trial. He found his son guilty of rash driving, negligence and inhuman cruelty, meted upon an animal. Though he was pained to sentence him, as the prince was born to him after many long years he went on to hold, that the law was supreme and all were equal before it. He then sentenced the prince to be driven over by his own chariot. Having seen that the sentence was executed he wept in grief.
Shiva a Hindu God pleased with the king, appeared before the court and brought back to life both the calf as well as the Prince. It was long thereafter in 161BC when Dutugamunu, a Sri Lankan Buddhist King, with the support of ten other native kings, mustered a huge army of elephants, horses, chariots and infantry to lay siege upon the Capital. The siege was hard and long. Finally Ellalan dared to break the siege and seated on his favourite, experienced war elephant broke the ranks of the enemy, to only succumb in battle. Sri Lankan books and legend proclaim that Dutugamunu from his war elephant, unseated Elallan from his and then speared him to death.
Tamil sources say the elephant carrying Elallan was first surrounded by many elephants which attacked and the king was shot by a poisoned darts from all sides. This according to the texts was an unethical cowardly act in warfare. However, leaving legends and stories aside, the world now sees a stupa said to be erected by Dutugamanu himself on the very place where Elallan and his elephant were fallen to death. Dutugamanu had also inscribed an edict, that there shall be no horns or trumpets blown or drums beaten or any revelry at this spot, which is a honour to the valiant Elallan. This edict is honoured by the people of Anuradhapura even today and this gives credence to the legends of either side.
I now turned my attention, to the religious Stupa proclaiming victory and honouring Buddha. My feet still on a cloth mat and myself under the shade I noticed it had tall fortified walls on its all four sides. The walls were adorned by sculptures of more than a thousand standing elephants, lined up to guard the place. This I believe is the only one in the world with this unique feature. I guess this suggested the war won by elephants.
A flight of stairs leads to the elevated platform and the tallest stupa in the world measuring an imposing 103 metres or about 1100 feet. Here, later kings were crowned and what came to be the site for all religious ceremonies. The supremacy and might of the victory as well as the spread of Buddhism, stood tall, unchallenged for several centuries except for sporadic victories made by the south Indian kings. During this period of peace and prosperity, many more Stupas came to be built by the successors of Dutugamunu but none excelled the gaiety nor equaled the importance of Ruwanweli Mahaseya.
A great big city grew around it and several Buddhist monasteries attained supreme importance. Away from the stupa and through the many ruins of dwellings, monasteries and halls I came across a twin, artificial,granite pool. It was watered by underground ducts and the flow of water up to a certain level was maintained by a regulated constant discharge system. These tanks are not functional now. The largest of it measured about 142ft by 51ft while the smaller tank measured 91 ft by51 feet. They were said to be used by the monks living in the monasteries and also by the king during certain ceremonies.
The glory of Anuradhapura came to an end after 993 AD. The Chola kings once again gained supremacy in South India and Anuradhapura fell again. However these Stupas were left undisturbed except that Buddhism was no more a declared state religion. The Independence of Sri Lanka once again saw Anuradhapura glow after being declared a sacred Buddhist city.
As we drove out of the complex we passed a security zone and a huge airforce base. This played its part in the ethnic war waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam against the Sri Lankan Government. Interestingly in 2007 this Air base used by the Lankan Army was attacked by 21 LTTE men and women commandos which operation was called Operation Elallan. The mid night battle was decisive. It claimed the lives of many soldiers on either side. The Airforce lost many helicopters, jets, beach crafts and sustained damage to many aircraft more so the peace in Anuradhapura came to be disturbed.
Pensive I became as we drove past the sacred city of many stupas and battles. I tried my best not to think about the conflicts, since the time of Elallan as well as the covert operation in his name, which was fought, many thousand years later. I fidgeted but I could not escape the Ghost of Elallan and the Wars.
I then remembered that in spite of the superimposing constructions such as the Pyramids of Egypt or the many Stupas of Anuradhapura, man has not realised that all greatness rests in peace but it is our pride, prejudices and egos that turns us blind, deaf as well as dumb to resurrect “ghosts”.