Architecture of ancient Sri Lanka

Architecture of ancient Sri Lanka

The architecture of ancient Sri Lanka displays a rich variety of architectural forms and styles. Even in their ruined condition, the buildings of ancient Sri Lanka provides a cultural heritage and architectural significance which is important to the modern Sri Lankan culture. Buddhism had a major influence on architecture, as in many aspects of Sri Lankan life.

There were more than 25 styles of "panchavasa" monasteries that have the five main ritual buildings: the chapter house, image house, "bodhighara" or sacred fig enclosure, "chaitya" and the "sangharamaya" or "sabha". There were several designs for the "vatadage" and bodhighara buildings. Architects and archaeologists found that the ancient buildings consisted of a timber frame made from massive pieces of wood, strongly bound with heavy iron nails and clamps, with plastered walls and tiled roofs. There were various types of roof and also many designs of door frame.

Buddhist architecture in Sri Lanka

Cave temples

Cave temples with rudimentary living facilities have been found all over the island. The earliest are at Mihintale. These caves had a drip ledge or "katarama" carved along the top edge of the rock ceiling to stop rain water running into the cave. This drip ledge is unique to Sri Lanka. Doors, windows and walls of brick or stone were added later. The roof and walls were plastered white and finished with decorative paintings. The chipped material of the rock was packed underneath the clay finished floor.

Dambulla and Situlpahuwa had more than 80 caves in each complex. Kaludiya Pokuna, Mihintale has a cave temple with brick walls, granite window openings, and ceilings. The Kiri oya region in Sigiriya has a cave with postholes that indicated a wooden platform. Another cave had lime plaster remains on its roof. Similar caves could be seen at Aukana and Arankele as well. Gal vihara, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla temple are cave temples that were later converted to image houses.

Dagobas or Stupas

The dagobas or stupas are distinctive for many reasons. They are probably the largest brick structures known to the pre-modern world. Demala Maha Seya, which was never completed, had a circumference of convert|2011|ft|m|0. Jetavanaramaya is the largest stupa constructed in any part of the world. It is over 120 metres in height and has a diameter of convert|367|ft|m|0. The foundations are convert|28|ft|m|0 deep. It needed bricks that could bear the load of 368 pounds. Jetavana was the third tallest building in the ancient world. Abhayagiri (370 ft) ranked fifth and Ruvanvelisaya (300 ft) came seventh (the first, fourth and sixth places were held by the Pyramids of Giza).

The structure

The construction of a dagoba was considered an act of great merit. Dagobas were built to enshrine relics. They were constructed according to strict specifications. Entrances to stupas were laid out so that their centre lines pointed to the relic chambers. There was only one relic chamber initially, but a number of additional relic chambers were introduced when the stupas were rebuilt.

The dagoba is admired today for its structural perfection and stability. Engineers who examined Jetavanaramaya in the 1980s said that its shape was ideal for the materials used. Stupas such as Jetavanarama, Abhayagiri, Ruvanveli and Mirisavati were initially in the shape of a paddy heap. Other shapes such as the bubble, pot and bell developed later. It is suggested that the stupa at Nadigamvila "digamvila" was in the shape of an onion.

An ornamented "vahalkada" was added to the stupa around the second century; the earliest is at Chaitya. The four vahalkadas face the cardinal points. They are ornamented with figures of animals, flowers, swans and dwarfs. The pillars on either side of the vahalkada carry figures of lions, elephants, horses or bulls, depending on the direction of the structure.


The bricks were bonded together using a clay slurry, called butter clay or "navanita mattika". This was composed of finely crushed dolomite limestone mixed with sieved sand and clay.

The stupa was thereafter covered with a coating of lime plaster. This was sometimes ten inches thick. There was a range of plasters, using different combinations of materials. The items used included lime, clay, sand, pebbles, crushed seashells, sugar syrup, white of egg, coconut water, plant resin, drying oil, glues and possibly even the saliva of white ants. Some of these items are mentioned in the Mahavamsa. The fine plaster at Kiri Vehera (2nd century) used small pebbles. Crushed seashells mixed with lime and sand were used in the stupas of the fifth to twelfth centuries. Expensive plasters were used sparingly, for specific purposes such as water proofing.

Stupas in other countries have been struck by lightning, but not in Sri Lanka. Mahavamsa speaks of lightning protection for the stupa. The conical metal cap and its "vajra" at the top of the dagoba were supposed to have earthing properties. The Mahavamsa also refers to laying a sheet of copper over the foundation and applying arsenic dissolved in sesamum oil on this sheet. This would have kept out white ants and helped prevent plant life growing inside the stupa.


The vatadage is considered to be Sri Lanka’s most perfect and exquisite creation. It is a circular shrine enclosing a small dagoba. Polonnaruwa, Medirigiriya and Tiriyaya vatadages still have their circles of slender, graceful pillars. The vatadage roof was of a sophisticated design unique to Sri Lanka. It was a three-tiered conical roof, spanning a height of 40–50 feet, without a centre post, and supported by pillars of diminishing height. The weight was taken by a ring beam supported on the inner row of stone columns. The radiating rafters met in a cartwheel-like design. A diagram of this vatadage roof can be seen at the National Museum, Colombo.

Bodhighara or Bodhigara

The bodhighara is a shrine enclosing a bodhi tree. This shrine consists of two platforms, with the tree on the upper platform. It had a roof that was neither circular nor square. The best examples of bodhighara are in Sri Lanka. The bodhighara at Nillakgama in Kurunegala district (8th century) was the first to be identified. Dr. Paranavitane considered it to be the only well preserved example of this type of shrine in Buddhist countries. It was "somewhat in the original form". Thereafter 38 more bodhigharas were found in Sri Lanka.

Vaulted roof shrine

The brick shrine with vaulted roof, as seen in Polonnaruwa at Thuparama, Lankatilaka and Tivanka Pilimage, is also considered unique to Sri Lanka. Dr. Paranavitana says that these buildings have no exact parallel elsewhere in the Buddhist world. Specially shaped bricks of a fine texture have been used for the vertical mouldings at the entrance at Lankatilaka. The joints between the bricks are so fine that not even the point of a penknife can be inserted into the joints. The Thuparama is almost intact today and gives an idea of the manner in which the vaulted roof was created. The principles of the true arch were known to the ancient Sri Lankans, but the horizontal arch was considered a safer method of construction.

Meditation houses

The meditation houses found in the forest monasteries such as Ritigala and Arankele are unique to Sri Lanka. Each house consists of two raised platforms, linked to each other by a monolithic stone bridge. An elevated terrace and a boundary wall, with four entrances, complete the unit. The outer platform is open to the sky. It was larger and higher than the inner platform. The inner platform was on a natural rock and enclosed by a moat. There was a building on it. The stone pillars which supported a roof can still be seen. There are couches on either side of a doorway. There is no ornamentation.

These meditation houses have achieved a very high degree of perfection in their architecture. Their design combined square and rectangular shapes and yet maintained symmetry, indicating the architects' sophisticated knowledge of geometry. The stone masonry was also a very high standard. The basements of these buildings were constructed of monumental blocks of stone, cut to different sizes, carefully dressed and very finely fitted together. The bridge connecting the two platforms was formed out of a single slab of stone. Some such slabs measured convert|15|ft|m|0 by convert|13|ft|m|0. The sides are cut with such precision that the joints between this slab and the stone moulding of the platforms are hardly perceptible.

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The nine-storied "Loha maha paya" (3rd century BCE) would have been an elegant building. It had an exposed wooden frame supported on stone pillars. It was plastered in white, with shining copper roof tiles and a pinnacle at its apex. It had lightning conductors or "chumbakam" made of amber and tourmaline. Its rafters were made of talipot palm. It rose to a height of convert|162|ft|m|0 and had approximately convert|179316|sqft|m2|0 of floor space. It could seat 9000 monks. Roland Silva remarked in 1984 that such an extensive floor space would stagger the designers in Sri Lanka "even today". The dominant element in these buildings, was the tiled roof supported by timber beams and rafters. The roofs were tiled, from as early as the third century BCE, with red, white, yellow, turquoise and brown tiles. There were also tiles made of bronze.

Temple Complexes

The temple complexes were well planned. In the "Alahana pirivena" complex at Polonnaruwa, the image house and stupa were built on high ground. The sloping area, which was terraced, held the other buildings such as the residential quarters of monks. A person entering through the gateway had a full view of Lankatilaka, which dominated the group.


The elements of Sri Lankan monasteries may appear to be randomly placed because they differ in layout. The "Manjusri vasthu vidya sastra" manuscript gives the basis on which this layout constructed. The text is in Sanskrit but written in Sinhala script. Words such as "navadada" for nine indicate that the text is in Sinhala as well. E. W. Marasinghe dates it to about fifth or sixth century AD at the latest. It is exclusively about Buddhist monasteries and is clearly from the "Mahayana" school. The text shows much originality and there is nothing similar in the existing Indian treatises, which deal only with Hindu temples.

The text gives 12 different "arama" layouts, with two alternatives for each, totalling 24 layouts in all. Each layout is contained within a grid. The layouts carry names like "hastiarama", and "padmarama". "Pabbata Vihara" monasteries followed the "hastiarama" model. There are different layouts for different settings depending on whether the monastery is in a town, village, royal park, near a river, by the sea, in the middle of a forest, by a highway and so on. There is provision for placing the entrances north, south, east, or west, but there were conditions for this. In each layout, not only the religious buildings, but also the assembly hall, flower pavilion, dancing hall, hospital, refectory and kitchen had specific positions which fitted into certain sequences. Monasteries therefore had a very "architectural layout". The various buildings were placed in relation to each other, though on different levels.


There were specifications for nearly everything. The "Manjusri" text advised on site selection, discussed soil properties and gave procedures for soil testing. It suggested suitable trees for each monastic layout. It gave advice on the preparation and application of glues, pigments and pastes, and on the carving of elephants and horses, indicating the correct proportions of these animals. It even gave instructions on how to obtain measurements using the plumb line. There were auspicious times, auspicious materials and auspicious lengths. There were rituals relating to certain important stages in the construction. The first brick was to be laid by the architect, suitably clothed, facing east. The doors should open inward for good results. If images were incorrectly placed, the patron’s life and health would be affected.


Five royal residences have been identified. They are Vijayabahu’s palace in the inner city at Anuradhapura, the palaces of Nissanka Malla and Parakramabahu in Polonnaruwa, the palace of Sugala in Galabadda in the Uva province, and Parakramabahu’s palace in Panduvasnuvara near Hettipola, when he was ruling over Malaya rata.

Ground plan

All the palaces had the same ground plan. Each was set in a rectangular area enclosed by galleries with an entrance from the east. A spacious courtyard in front acted as a reception room, where sitting was not allowed. A flight of steps led to a central building where there was an imposing pillared hall with a dais at the end. Around the royal complex were over fifty small cells, in two or three rows. The hall in Nissanka Malla’s palace was convert|133|ft|m|0 by convert|63|ft|m|0. The floors of the upper storey in Parakramabahu’s palace were of concrete. Panduwasnuwara palace had good provision for ventilation and there were soakage pits for drainage.


There was a palace on top of the Sigiriya rock as well. The outlines of the total layout and several detailed features are still visible. There was an upper palace that ran parallel to the lower one, but at a much higher elevation. It had a viewing gallery. The innermost royal abode, which was originally a storeyed structure, had a magnificent 360 degree view of the city gardens and countryside below. There was a series of successive courtyards, chambers, and terraces connected by stairs and paved pathways.

Audience halls

Polonnaruwa also has the remains of two magnificent audience halls. They are the public audience halls of Parakramabahu and council chamber of Nissanka Malla. Parakramabahu’s council chamber was a three-tiered oblong structure built on a broad terrace, facing north, and consisted of an entrance provided with two flights of steps, having a gangway in between at ground level. The pillars in the council halls at Polonnaruwa are square at the bottom, octagonal in the middle and square again at the top.

Royal Baths

Kumara Pokuna in Polonnaruwa provides one of the best examples of the construction of a royal bath. A flight of long narrow steps led to an oblong shaped pond that had graduated gangways. The water was conducted by underground pipelines from the canal nearby and led into the bath by two "makara gargoyles". A stone water lock acted as water locking valve and an exit for used water. There is also a now-ruined changing room.


Some idea of hospital architecture can be inferred from the monastic hospitals at Mihintale and Polonnaruwa. This hospital plan can be seen at the National Museum, Colombo. There was an inner and outer court and the rectangular inner court had a series of cells, toilets and bath, with an exit at one end. One cell had a medicinal bath. Alahena had long dormitories instead of cells. The outer court accommodated a refectory, a hot water bath, storerooms and dispensary. A wall cordoned off the hospitals. The provision of two open courts in addition to windows ensured maximum ventilation and free circulation of air within the building itself.


A house dated to 450 BCE, built of warichchi (wattle and daub) has been discovered near Kirindi oya. Another has been found at Adalla, Wirawila, and at Valagampattu evidence has been discovered of houses dating from 50 CE to 400 CE. The kitchen utensils are still there. In medieval times, the rich had large houses built of stone, mortar and lime, with tiled roofs and whitewashed walls. There were rooms and apartments with doors and windows. The windows had fanlights. The doors had keys, locks, and hinges. The houses had compounds or courtyards and balconies. There were separate rooms for pounding paddy, a storeroom or atuva for paddy, and sheds for keeping chariots. Latrines are also mentioned. All houses however had small kitchens.

Design and construction


There were architects to attend to the built environment. A cave inscription refers to a "city architect". Building was done scientifically, using superior instruments. For example, some stone slabs were so precisely cut that the joints are hardly visible and nothing could be inserted between the slabs. Ashley de Vos points out that this would require sophisticated instruments even today. Lifting and placing of slender stone slabs, twenty feet long, would have needed knowledge of structural mechanics. De Vos also suggests that Sri Lanka may have had the first pre-fabricated buildings in the world. Some sections of the monastic buildings were prepared separately and then fitted together.


There was artistry in addition to technical finesse. This is illustrated in the elegantly executed stone pillars dating from the eighth century. They are in various designs. The lotus-stalk pillars of the Nissanka Latha Mandapaya are unique in South Asian architecture. Lime mortar was used in brickwork only when there was a structural risk such as a vault or an arch.


There were island pavilions surrounded by water called Sitala Maligawa. There were ponds with Nelumbo nucifera{lotuses. The royal gardens in Polonnaruwa had dozens of individually-named ponds in different shapes and sizes. Sigiriya had an octagonal pond. Polonnaruwa had one resembling the coils of a serpent and another like an open lotus. Kuttam Pokuna in Anuradhapura had a graduated series of ponds going from shallow to deep. Essential facilities were not forgotten: the Nandana Gardens had a large gleaming bathroom.

Air cooling

There was an air cooling method in the ancient period. A dried buffalo skin was fixed above the roof of the building. Water dripped onto it from several pipes, creating the effect of rain and sending in a cooling breeze. Pictures on walls were changed according to the season; cooling pictures for the hot season and warming pictures for the cool season.


Building materials

Builders worked with a variety of materials, such as brick, stone and wood. Corbelled and circular brick arches, vaults and domes were constructed. Rock faces were used as supporting walls for buildings. The platform carrying the mirror wall at Sigiriya and the brick flight of steps stand on steep rock. Around the sixth century, the builders had moved from limestone to the harder gneiss. The vatadage in Polonnaruwa had walls that were constructed of stone to the height of the upper storey. The lowest step of an imposing granite stairway that led to the upper storey of Parakramabahu’s palace can still be seen. Meticulous detailing had been done in the leaf huts used by the forest monks of the 5th century CE.


It is important to note, however, that the ancient architecture was not stone architecture. The stone remains seen are misleading. It was primarily timber architecture, with mud or masonry walls. There were sophisticated wooden buildings from the 3rd century. Sigiriya had an elaborate gatehouse made of timber and brick masonry with multiple tiled roofs. The massive timber doorposts remaining today indicate this.

The timber carried the load. Frames were made out of whole trunks of trees. The gatehouse at the eastern entrance to Anuradhapura built in the 4th century BC used whole trees. The palaces at Polonnaruwa and Panduwasnuwara show vertical crevices in the brickwork where wooden columns, consisting of entire trunks of trees, carried the load of the upper floors and roof. These openings still retain the spur stones upon which the wooden column once stood.

The text of the "Manjusri silpa" describes methods for the cutting and seasoning of wood. Mature trees were selected and cut in the new moon when the sugar content in timber was lower, so that destructive woodboring insects were not attracted to the timber. The stone remains show that sound carpentry techniques were employed. The axe, adze and chisel were the common tools used in timber work. "Saddharmarat-navali" mentions two practices of carpentry. Oil was applied to timber to prevent decay, and wood was heated to straighten it.


* [ Architecture and landscape in ancient and medieval Lanka]

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