Polonnaruwa Vatadage

The Polonnaruwa Vatadage is an ancient structure dating back to the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa of Sri Lanka. It is believed to have been built during the reign of Parakramabahu I to hold the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha or during the reign of Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa to hold the alms bowl used by the Buddha. Both these venerated relics would have given the structure a great significance and importance at the time. Located within the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, it is the best preserved example of a vatadage in the country, and has been described as the “ultimate development” of this type of architecture. Abandoned for several centuries, excavation work at the Polonnaruwa Vatadage began in 1903.

Built for the protection of a small stupa, the structure has two stone platforms decorated with elaborate stone carvings. The lower platform is entered through a single entrance facing the north, while the second platform can be accessed through four doorways facing the four cardinal points. The upper platform, surrounded by a brick wall, contains the stupa. Four Buddha statues are seated around it, each facing one of the entrances. Three concentric rows of stone columns had also been positioned here, presumably to support a wooden roof. The entire structure is decorated with stone carvings. Some of the carvings at the Polonnaruwa Vatadage, such as its sandakada pahanas, are considered to be the best examples of such architectural features. Although some archaeologists have suggested that it also had a wooden roof, this theory is disputed by others.

Theories vary among archaeologists and historians regarding who built the Polonnaruwa Vatadage, and when. One such theory suggests that it was built by Parakramabahu I during his reign in the 12th century. The Culavamsa, an ancient chronicle, mentions that he built a circular stone shrine to hold the tooth relic of the Buddha. Archaeologist Harry Charles Purvis Bell believed that this shrine is the Polonnaruwa Vatadage. This is contradicted by several ancient sources of the island, including Rajavaliya and Poojavaliya, which mention that it was built by Nissanka Malla. However, according to the studies of Arthur Maurice Hocart, Nissanka Malla only renovated an already existing building and made some additions such as the entrance and outer porch. Wilhelm Geiger, who translated the ancient Mahavamsa, and historian H. W. Codrington both agree with this theory. A nearby stone inscription set by Nissanka Malla lists the Vatadage among his constructions. In this, he claims that it was built by one of his generals under his own direction.

A unique feature of architecture of ancient Sri Lanka, vatadages were built for the protection of small stupas that had an important relic enshrined in them or were built on hallowed ground. If the Polonnaruwa Vatadage is the shrine built by Parakramabahu I, the relic of the tooth of the Buddha would have been enshrined within it. Another possibility is that the alms bowl used by the Buddha may have been enshrined here. Both these relics were important objects in ancient Sri Lankan culture, and would have made the Polonnaruwa Vatadage one of the most significant and venerated buildings in the country.

The Kingdom of Polonnaruwa ended in 1215 with an invasion from South India. The Polonnaruwa Vatadage appears to have been abandoned with the fall of the kingdom, and there is no mention of it in the chronicles in later periods. It was not until 1903 that the Department of Archaeology began excavation work at the site under Bell, who noted that it was “only a mound of earth” at the time.

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