Decorating Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, affectionately called the pearl of the Indian Ocean is predominantly a Buddhist country.  Around 70% of its population follows the Theravada branch of Buddhism.  Among the numerous Buddhist sites spread across Lanka, 5 of them, namely Temple of Tooth at Kandy, Dambulla Cave temples, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, and Anuradhapura are enlisted as UNESCO world heritage sites. The last 3 were actually huge cities of ancient times.  Exploring the sites in Anuradhapura was a bit difficult for me at first. My hotel room was a bit far away from the sites. I couldn’t find any public transport towards the sites. Helmet is compulsory for pillion riders in Lanka, so locals didn’t entertain my request for hitchhike. Finally I had to walk around 3-4 kms to reach the sites.  Jethawanaramaya Dagoba was the first site I had visited and then I walked towards the milky white Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba. These 2 Dagobas were among the tallest buildings of ancient times.  If you all are wondering what a Dagoba is, it’s actually the Sinhalese name for Buddhist stupa.  Relics of Buddhist monks and nuns are kept here and the place is used for meditation.  All these Dagobas are really HUGE!!!

Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba was built by King Dutugemunu in 140 BC but he didn’t live long enough to see its completion. The Dagoba was super white. I guess it was freshly painted at the time of my visit.  I walked past the Buddhist devotees wearing white cloths. At the dagoba, they were offering flowers; some were lighting lamps and incense sticks. During the pradakśina (circumambulation), I saw a group listening attentively to a monk who was reciting the story of Ramayana.  Buddhist monks and devotees can be easily distinguished, as the former wear saffron robes and the latter pure white cloths.  Some, mostly elders and women, were sitting under the shade, which was hard to find, and praying. And among them, I saw meditating souls. Meditating among countless distractions must really be appreciated. I find it hard to close my eyes and sit still for 5 minutes even in a quite environment; forget mediating under hot sun at a crowded Dagoba. I stood beside a group who were praying and intermittently prostrating. They were led by an elderly man wearing white cloths. So he is definitely not a monk, but maybe head of the family. The common Buddhist chant in Lanka was “Buddhaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi. Dharmaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi. Saṃghaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi” meaning “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha”. I remember learning it in my primary school.

I stood there looking for photographic opportunities, and sometimes praying but most of the time I was trying to bring back my mind which was constantly drifting away into thoughts. Just when I was about to leave, I saw a group holding saffron cloth of almost infinite length approaching the monument. It was handed over to the monks and their assistants who were standing on the platform of Dagoba. The cloth is going to be carefully wound around the Dagoba. The monk and his assistants were handling the cloth delicately so that there are no loose sections.  The length was in fact finite, probably same as the circumference of the Dagoba.  This ritual was getting repeated with each group entering from one of the many entrances of the pagoda. Devotees were handling the saffron cloth with much reverence. They considered it holy. The milky white Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba is getting decorated with saffron cloth.  The atmosphere became livelier and people were trying to take part in this ritual by offering a helping hand at least symbolically) in carrying the cloth.  The enthusiasm displayed by the tiny tots inspired me to join the ritual of decorating the pagoda by offering a helping hand. I still don’t know the name of this ritual or its significance but the high level of interest among people to carry the cloth was exciting.

Read more about my Sri Lankan travels