Jetavana, back to the people

After 30 years of excavation work, the wonders of this site can once again be viewed by the people. Kumudini Hettiarachchi speaks to one of the chief men behind the project, Central Cultural Fund Director-General Prof. Sudarshan Seneviratne

It is a walk down the misty corridors of time to an era when the ancients of Sri Lanka not only had the knowledge and the technology but also the will and the resources to build colossal monuments.

Jetavanaramaya, that massive edifice, which came up during the 4th-5th Centuries, born of a king’s wrath, is ready to be re-dedicated to the people on June 18 as the first citadel of this land, Anuradhapura, celebrates the advent of Buddhism. As the echoes of “Sadhu, Sadhu” chanted by white-clad devotees bearing trays of lotuses who wend their way to the eight most holy places or Atamasthanaya, reverberate across the ancient city of Anuradhapura, during Poson, many will be the gasps of wonder at the Jetavanaramaya.

For not only is the Jetavana stupa compared to the third pyramid of Giza in Egypt but it is also believed to be the spot – the Nandana Pleasure Grove – many centuries earlier, at which Thera Mahinda who brought his message of peace to this island-nation preached for seven consecutive days.

It was after this momentous event that the Grove took the name of “jotivana” which means “the place where the holy one had made the true doctrine shine forth………..It is also said that the great thera and his associate monks were cremated here after their death”, according to the Central Cultural Fund (CCF).

“The excavations are done and the conservation is nearly over. Now what remains is the presentation of Jetavana to the people,” says CCF Director-General Prof. Sudarshan Seneviratne.

This is the culmination of nearly 30 years of toil, he concedes, begun in 1980 when the CCF was founded and given the mandate to conserve the Jetavana stupa, one of its first projects. Although excavation and conservation were done during the British period, institutionalized investigations commenced with the CCF, The Sunday Times understands.

“Thousands of labourers were deployed just for excavation and conservation,” he says, adding with a smile, “Imagine the actual construction of this edifice more than 15 centuries earlier.” (See box for history of Jetavanaramaya)

Its history

The Jetavanaramaya was originally built by King Mahasena – with a reputation as the great tank builder -- in the 4th–5th century AD when he veered towards Mahayana teachings.

Angered on being ostracized by the Maha Vihara Theravadis, he partitioned the Maha Vihara and ceded it to one of his favourite monks, says Prof. Seneviratne. Within the boundaries of the Maha Vihara, in its garden called Joti, the King built the Jetavana Vihara.

In the modern context, according to Prof. Seneviratne, Jetavana consists of the monastery and the stupa.

The monastery, he says, was a major centre of learning that evolved with its architectural features and the stupa. The latter was expanded with the addition of a new Salapatala Maluwa (upper platform) with hundreds of 8th-12th Century inscriptions of donations inscribed on the stone slabs.

The “treasure trove” in the monastery, mainly excavated from the four ayaka of the stupa represents one of the richest collections of artifacts found in Sri Lanka so far, The Sunday Times learns, comprising millions of beads; raw material to make the beads imported from foreign sources; local and imported de luxe ware from India and China as well as the Mediterranean some which the DG dubs as “unique”; coins including those of Indo-Graeco origin; metal both iron and brass; a huge collection of ivory, intaglios, seals and cameos; and sculptured artifacts including Hindu statues.

Attempting a difficult task, he picks out the beautiful Maya Devi sculptures depicting her entry to Lumbini (in Nepal) worked on site at Jetavana but made out of raw material, cuddaph stones, brought from south India. “They were done in line with the Amarawati School of Art which flourished in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. This also tells us a story of the shared culture of South Asia,” explains Prof. Seneviratne adding that some of the ivories of Jetavana are similar to those found along the old Silk Road in Afghanistan.

The “fantastic” collection of intaglios, seals and cameos done on semi-precious stones (some imitations) bear the heads of Mediterranean emperors, while the “best Jetavana finds” are 10 golden plates with the then sacred Mahayana sutra Prajnaparamita in the Sanskrit text. Some of these plates are in the National Museum in Colombo, it is learnt.

Intaglios, seals and glass fragments excavated at Jetavana

When he took over as CCF Director in 2000, they had sent several deep probes down to bedrock and for the first time got wind of the pre-historic tools going back to 5,000 BC. “The best remains of horse teeth, bone were found here,” he says.

The DG points out that to build the stupa which is of brick, which rises to a height of 400 feet from ground level, the sky-scraper-building mechanism would have had to be used.

These were not built purely out of piety, emphasizes Prof. Seneviratne, adding that the political infrastructure would have been right to mobilize resources, raw materials, conveyance and labour. The economic infrastructure too would have been right, with the hydraulic technology which spawned such wonders like the Kala wewa and Jaya ganga leading to multiple yields and massive agricultural expansion.

The “yield” of Jetavana is testimony that Sri Lanka would have placed itself as the primary entrepot for trade activity connecting all the Indian rim countries as well as the Mediterranean and the Far East. This political-economy combined with engineering and mathematical skills of unimaginable levels would have allowed the release of a large population to build colossal stupas like Jetavana, it is learnt.
“Jetavanaramaya has not tilted even a few inches because they knew how to balance volume and weight,” stresses Prof. Seneviratne, marvelling at the engineering and technological skills of the ancients.

Terracotta vessel

Paying tribute to all those who have been responsible for restoring Jetavana to its old spectacular self, he mentions the first CCF Founder Director-General Dr. Roland Silva, first Archaeology Director, Dr. Hema Ratnayake, first Conservation Director Ashley de Vos, current Archaeology Director Dr. Piyatissa Senanayake, current Conservation Director P.B. Mandawala, Prof. Ranaweera of the Engineering Faculty of the Peradeniya University, not forgetting the master craftsmen, officials, young archaeologists and conservators and the large labour force.

“Cultural Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena and Jetavana chief incumbent Ven. Ratnapala also gave their constant support,” he says.

Sites such as Jetavana which depict grandeur, technology, the aesthetic component and also beautiful expression should be conserved not only for cultural heritage tourism but also for what they represent, is his view.

Citing the case of the Mahayana Buddhist statues offered by the South Indian Mercantile Guilds with 10th Century Tamil writings and the Hindu statues unearthed at this site, Prof. Seneviratne points out that Jetavana represents a convergence of diverse cultural and religious aspects.

Gigantic Jetavana is extra-special because it symbolizes this island-nation’s inclusiveness and cosmopolitan character, he adds.

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