Sunday, December 1, 2013

The 'Alms Hall', Mahavihara, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

The 'ruins of the 'Alms Hall'.

The representation of foot-prints on stone which was the focal point of the assembly of monks in the hall. 

The stylized 'foot-print' with an umbrella over it, chiseled in stone formed the center of worship in the alms hall.
Since Lord Buddha attained 'Nibbana' - nothingness, followers of Lord Buddha's teaching did not have a statue of him in early Buddhism. He was represented by a figure of a 'Bo tree', foot-prints, an umbrella, an empty chair or a 'chamara'. The statue or 'Pratima' came into use after the second century AD. Thus you see this symbol being used in the Mahavihara 'Alms Hall'.

The city of Anuradha was founded in the 5th century BCE and remained the capital of Sri Lanka for 1400 years. The city is surrounded by four large reservoirs the largest of which is the Nuvaravava. The Tissavava now provides the modern city of Anuradhapura with its drinking water. All the reservoirs are fed by a channel constructed in the 4th century CE which leads water from the Kalavapi River about 50 miles from the city. Like Lhasa, Kyoto, Xian and several other ancient Buddhist capitals, Anuradhapura was a city surrounded by and to some degree dwarfed by a number of huge monasteries and several other smaller ones. The history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka up to the 13th century is to a very large extent the history of Anuradhapura's three great monasteries: the Mahavihara, the Abhayagiri and the Jetavana. The Mahavihara or Great Monastery was founded by Venerable Mahinda himself and Theravadins in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia even today subscribe to the Mahavihara's interpretation of the Pali Tipitaka.
The ruins of the Mahavihara consist of a collection of 13 complexes covering a wide area. Unfortunately in the 19th century the town of Anuradhapura was built mainly over these ruins and many of them were damaged. In about the year 249 a new teaching from India called the Vetullavada was being enthusiastically advocated at the Abhayagiri. Some 300 of its monks disagreed so strongly with certain of the principles of this new teaching that they broke away and formed themselves into a new sect called the Sagalikas after their leader Sagala, a renowned scholar. King Mahasena appropriated some land owned by the Mahavihara and built these monks a monastery which was named Jetavana after the famous monastery in Savatthi where the Buddha used to live. The Jetavana stupa was the biggest ever built anywhere and their image house was the most impressive ever built in Sri Lanka. It seems that the Sagalikas were more liberal that the Mahaviharans but not as radical as the Abhayagiri. 

The Refectory
Leaving the Brazen Palace and proceeding north along the path the pilgrim will see the foundations of a building off to the right. This is the remains of one of the Mahavihara's several refectories. With so many monks around Anuradhapura it was simply impossible for them all to be sustained by begging for alms so each monastery usually had huge dining rooms like this one below. Monks who were entitled to eat in such places were issued with wooden ration tickets.

A rice boat in the refectory

The main entrance leads to a large paved rectangular courtyard which was originally surrounded by a pillared verandah under which monks used to sit, probably on mats on the floor or on wooden benches. Note the drains where there would have been facilities for the monks to wash their bowls and their hands after their meals. Against the east wall of the refectory is a huge stone trough made of several pieces of stone so finally finished that they fit together perfectly. In the Mahavamsa such troughs are called rice boats. Steaming rice was tipped into these troughs and then doled out to monks as they lined up and walked passed with their bowls. It has been calculated that this particular trough would have held enough rice to fill 3,800 bowls.