Abhayagiriya: The conservation of an archaeological edifice


* Civil works initiated by the Central Cultural Fund spanning 30 years concludes end 2012
* First ever organised rehabilitation of the stupa, since original structure was built by King Walagamba in 89 BC
* Total of 53 million bricks used for Dome, only second highest after Jethavanaramaya’s 92 million


The first ever major conservation in its fullest of the Abhayagiriya Stupa, since it was built by King Walagamba in 89 BC, which commenced in 1982, will be completed after 30 years at the end of the year.

A further highlight of the conservation work was that no conservation was done, barring a few expansions of the Stupa Dome in the Polonnaruwa era in the 12th Century, minor conservation work done by then Ceylon’s first Commissioner of Archaeology H.C.P. Bell, where repairs were effected to the Square (Hathareskotuwa) in 1892 and subsequently minor repairs done to the Spire (Kothkerella) by iconic Archaeological Commissioner Dr. Senarath Paranavithana in 1957. There were also small repairs effected to the Basal Terrace by the Maha Nayaka of the Polonnaruwa Raja Maha Vihara in 1979.

However, if not for the minor conservation work undertaken in the interim, the entire structure may have collapsed by now. One of the drawbacks to a sustained conservation program until now, was the non availability of finance, technology and manpower along with state patronage.

However, some of the highlights of the monumental conservation work undertaken since 1982 period was the conservation works to the surrounding areas till around 1994. This include the conservation of the twin ponds, some of the temples, Repository (Dana Salas), monuments and the parallel infrastructure of the Abhayagiriya sacred area. The real conservation of the stupa started post 1994/ 1995 where it was a dense jungle which even included 17 varieties of trees as undergrowth. The systematic uprooting took over eight years from 1994 to 2002.

Some of the trees that had grown from the base of the stupa right to the Square included Veera, Kohomba, Sandalwood Kudu Miris (a shrub) and Ebony and other vegetation unique to dry zone. The North East and the South Western monsoonal rains and winds have really had a damaging impact on the dome and the former in particular in terms of rain and winds which have affected the North East and South West flanks of the Abhayagiriya dome

Initial setbacks

The project was not without any temporary setbacks. The initial tests failed where the mixture was sprayed into the structure of the dome on a selected one metre wide strip from the square downwards but the error was rectified when the plaster was administered like a cement application on a one metre strip from below the square right across the dome which worked, Dorakumbura also explained in an interview with ‘The Island’ Sat Mag at the site last Saturday.

"A further highlight was that the trees and the roots were gradually removed section by section and the plaster was administered to fill in the cavities on a selected basis or else it all the trees were removed and the plastering done afterwards, then the entire dome would have been prone to soil erosion," he remarked.

The Abhayagiriya dome has consumed 53 million bricks, vis a vis the two other monuments in the Atamasthana- Jethavanaramaya’s 92 million ( which is also the largest / tallest brick monument in the world) and the Mirisawetiya (13 million) as published in the writer’s Sunday Island Roundabout cover story in 1995.

"The civil works of the dome is almost complete but the rearrangements of the stones of the Stone Paved Terrace, is only around 30% already completed . However, the gargantuan task now to be completed is the rearrangement of all the stones in the Stone Paved Terrace (Salapathala Maluwa) which have now been dismantled," Central Cultural Fund’s Director General Prof. Gamini Adhikari said.

Some of the additional work left in the dome, which is almost completed are the small areas in which the old plaster has been found and they have to be filled with the new plaster in the above mentioned recipe in the same ratios.

There were four masons who were associated with the project- B.A. Ariyaratne, Asoka Silva, P. Abeysinghe and Ratnatilleke who have been present at the site from the inception itself. No cement had been used in the conservation of the stupa and the plaster used has been a mixture of burnt ash, paddy husk ash, ant hill clay and grounded roof tile powder in the ratio of 1: 1:2:2 which conformed to best practices in archaeological conservation. Central Cultural Fund’s Ranjith Dorakumbura said that the strength of the plaster had been confirmed by the Engineering Departments of both the Universities of Peradeniya and Moratuwa.

"One of the cornerstones of archaeological conservation is the repair of the damaged structure without changing or destroying the original, an integral part of international charters of conservation. These are all the more evident as not only Abhagiriya, but the entire Anuradhapura city is an ICOMOS site," Central Cultural Fund’s Officer in Charge of the Abhayagiriya Stupa conservation project- Mettananda Hettipathirana said.

Dorakumbura also said that concepts of Bernard .M. Fieldon’s book on Historic Building Conservation have also been included in undertaking the Abhayagiriya project. " Some may criticize these international charters and that as Sri Lankans, we do not need to adhere to them, but historical, archaeological, religious and cultural values have all been embedded into the stupa in the civil works which spanned the last three decades," he said.

There were various divided opinions on how the stupa should look like. Some said that the stupa should be colour washed in lime akin to some of the other stupas such as Ruwanveliseya and Thuparamaya while the others believed that the original structure and image should be retained to preserve the archaeological and cultural aspects or otherwise, the former would have been a distortion of history, Central Cultural Fund’s Director General Prof. Gamini Adhikari said.

He also went on to say that originally Professor Nandadeva Wijesekera, and then Anuradhapura Atamasthanadhipathi -Ven Pallegema Gnanarathana Thera belived that Buddhist devotees do not like to worship broken and damaged statues and that religious fervor could not be developed that way and that the colour washing was mandatory to build that fervour. However, Dr Roland de Silva (later Founder Director General of the Central Cultural Triangle), Dr. Siran Deraniyagala ( later Archaeology Department’s Project Director of the Anuradhapura Citadel Excavation Project and subsequently, Director General of Archaeology) along with two Budhhist monks –Ven. Sirimalwatte Ananda Thera and Ven. Kamburupitiye Thera shot that theory down as they believed that the ancient archaeological values should be embedded into any stupa conservation.


One of the unique features of the Abhayagiriya Stupa which stands out is the presence of a Bahirawa Kotuwa adjoining the Devatha Kotuwa. (The Devatha Kotuwa is a structure which is between the Spire ( Koth Kerella) and the Square ( Hathareskotuwa). While almost all the stupas have the Devatha Kotuwa, there is also a Bahirawa Kotuwa at the Abhayagiriya Stupa which has eight images of Gods in its Devatha Kotuwa. This is believed to be in accordance with the belief in rituals and Hindu practices which prevailed at that time.


The project which was started in 1982, had only 13 labourers and masons. There was no funding at that time and they worked on the donations of the World Food Programme. Each of the employees were given a cash payment of Rs. 35 per day and dry rations of dhal, sugar, wheat flour, milk powder and dry fish. However, with the passage of time, World Food Programme funds stopped and it was the Central Cultural Fund which started paying the employees. There has been a value addition to the employment generation in the area and the number of labourers who are present at the site and the immediate environs, have grown to 202. However, they will continue to have employment at the site as maintenance work has to be done which will prevent the growth of trees and other shrubs inside the dome, once again. Although, the bulk of the undergrowth has been removed there would be the possibilities of remaining roots and seeds remaining in the dome which could germinate later. They have not been uprooted for the fear of erosion and fragmentation of the dome. The vectors are the birds who lie on the scaffolding and the winds which could germinate seeds.


Another highlight of this project is that the Central Cultural Fund has used its own internally generated funds for the financing of such projects through the sale of tickets at the entrances to these monuments and especially to the tourists. These funds are remitted to the Treasury and parts of it are disbursed for the expenses in the conservation works at periodic intervals when the needs arise. However, there were instances where the funding had to be done by the Treasury at times with the Northern hostilities were at its height and there were no tourists at all.


The project site was a hive of activity last Saturday. Over 200 masons and labourers working on the stone paved terrace and the inner wall. The scaffolding remained with over 20,000 steel pipes still on the structure which will be removed shortly. There was the open air lift crane which the writer and three officials climbed to a height of over 150 feet above the ground level to photograph the Square and the pinnacle. Strong winds gushed and the lift crane in mid air at over 100 feet, started shaking vigourously! The four inmates were getting blown away! The writer’s legs caved in and he almost fainted. All he did, was to offer a brief prayer!

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