Image by Tuul and Bruno Morandi Getty Images
Dating back to the 1st century BC, this colossal dagoba was the ceremonial focus of the 5000-strong Abhayagiri Monastery. Originally over 100m high, it was one of the greatest structures in the ancient world, its scale only matched by the pyramids of Giza (and nearby Jetavanarama). Today, after several reconstructions, Abhayagiri Dagoba soars 75m above the forest floor. Visually, it's stunning, and your first glimpse of this brick monument through a gap in the surrounding forest is breathtaking.
The name means ‘Hill of Protection’ or ‘Fearless Hill’. The Saddarma Rathnawaliya scripture records that a statue of a golden bull containing relics of the Buddha was buried in the core of the stupa.
Abhayagiri Dagoba has some interesting bas-reliefs, including one near the western stairway of an elephant pulling up a tree. A large slab with a Buddha footprint can be seen on the northern side, and the eastern and western steps have unusual moonstones made from concentric stone slabs (the word 'moonstone' relates to the shape of the stone, not the type of stone itself).
As you walk around the northern side of the stupa, look for the octagonal yupa (spire) and shaft that originally topped the dagoba before the current square top was added.