Anuradhapura was made Sri Lanka’s first capital in 377 BC by King Pandukhabhaya (437-367 BC) who started the great irrigation works on which it depended, and named it after the constellation Anuradha. The first era of religious building followed the conversion of King Devanampiya Tissa (ruled 250-210 BC) and included the Thuparama Dagoba, Issurumuniyagala and the Maha Vihara (great monastery), which incorporated the Sri Maha Bodhi and the Brazen Palace. Anuradhapura remained a capital city until the ninth century AD, when it reached its peak of power and vigour. After the 13th century it almost entirely disappeared; the irrigation works on which it had depended fell into total disuse, and its political functions were taken over first by Polonnaruwa and then by capitals to the south. It was ‘rediscovered’ by Ralph Backhaus in 1872, and excavation and restoration have continued ever since. In 1988 it was designated a World Heritage Site.
Apart from the sacred Bodhi tree, highlights among Anuradhapura’s many monuments include the Ruvanwelisiya Dagoba, one of the country’s most impressive shrines, with a frieze of life-like elephants around its outer wall; the serene Samadhi Buddha statue, probably dating from the fourth century AD; the simply enormous Jetavananarama dagoba, the highest brick-built dagoba of its kind in the world, and Issurumuniyagala Monastery, a rock-carved temple that houses a large statue of the reclining Buddha, beautiful sculptures and a colony of bats.