Introduction of Buddhism

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According to traditional Sri Lankan chronicles (such as the Dipavamsa), Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC by VenerableMahinda, the son of the Emperor Ashoka, during the reign of Sri Lanka's KingDevanampiya Tissa. During this time, a sapling of the Bodhi Tree was brought to Sri Lanka and the first monasteries and Buddhist monuments were established. Among these, the Isurumuni-vihāra and the Vessagiri-vihāra remain important centers of worship. He is also credited with the construction of the Pathamaka-cetiya, the Jambukola-vihāra and the Hatthālhaka-vihāra, and the refectory. The Pali Canon, having previously been preserved as an oral tradition, was first committed to writing in Sri Lanka around 30 BC.

The Mahavamsa (Chap. XXIX[3]) records that during the rule (165 BC - 135 BC) of the Greco-Bactrian King Menander I, also known as Milinda, "a Greek ("Yona") Buddhist head monk" named Mahadharmaraksita (literally translated as 'Great Teacher/Preserver of the Dharma') led 30,000 Buddhist monks from "the Greek city of Alasandra" (Alexandria of the Caucasus, around 150 km north of today's Kabul in Afghanistan), to Sri Lanka for the dedication of theGreat Stupa in Anuradhapura, indicating that Greco-Buddhism contributed to early Sri Lankan Buddhism.

When the British won control at the beginning of the 19th century Buddhism was well into decline, a situation that encouraged the English missionaries that then began to flood the island. But against all expectations the monastic and lay community brought about a major revival from about 1860 onwards, a movement that went hand in hand with growing nationalism.

Since then Buddhism has flourished and Sri Lankan monks and expatriate lay people have been prominent in spreading Theravada Buddhism in Asia, the West and even in Africa.

Some of the most marvellous monuments in the Buddhist world belong to Sri Lanka, and her sculpture is closely associated with the early art of the Krishna valley and the later Pallava and Chola kings, owing to the close relationship that existed between south India and Sri Lanka. (above: Seven-metre-tall standing image of the Buddha in a rare cross-armed pose at Gal Vihara).

According to the Sri Lankan chronicles, the Mahavamsa, one of Ashoka's sons, the monk Mahinda, supervised construction of monastic buildings nearAnuradhapura. Simultaneously, he sent to India for relics. These, say the histories, included the Buddha's alms bowl andhis right collarbone. Later a hair relic, and in the 4th century AD, the Buddha's tooth would be taken to Sri Lanka. The tooth is still preserved in Kandy where daily rituals venerate the Buddha's tooth relic in Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy 16th Century.

To house the relics, stupas were built. Standing at 300 feet, Ruwanweliseya, or the "Great Stupa" is regarded as one of the most important stupas at Anuradhapura in north-central Sri Lanka: Much restored, the great dome, circled with old columns, is still to be seen in Anuradhapura, now a great park. During major festivals it is crowded with hundreds of thousands of devotees in family groups, who picnic happily among the ruins and offer puja at the Bodhi tree. There are other important monuments nearby at Mihintale, the site of Mahinda's first sermon to King Devanampiya-Tissa. The ruins of the later capital at Polonnaruwa (9th century AD onwards), showing Hindu and Mahayana cultic influence, are yet more elaborate.

The stupa in Sri Lanka is a circular drum on a square base with a long succession of compressed umbrellas forming a conical top over a box-shaped harmika, of which the Ruwanweliseya stupa, (above right) at Anuradhapura (3rd century BC) is a fine example.