This magnificent white dagoba is guarded by a wall with a frieze of 344 elephants standing shoulder to shoulder. Apart from a few beside the western entrance, most are modern replacements of the originals from 140 BC. Today, after incurring much damage from invading Indian forces, it rises 55m, considerably less than its original height; nor is its form the same as the earlier ‘bubble’ shape.
During the dagoba's consecration, a portion of Buddha's ashes were allegedly enshrined here, in a grand ceremony attended by monks from Rajagriha, Vaishali, Patna, Kashmir and Afghanistan. At the time, it was the biggest stupa in the world, with a 7m-deep foundation made of limestone broken with hammers and then crushed by elephants.
Ruvanvelisaya was commissioned by King Dutugemunu, but he didn’t live to see its completion. However, as he lay on his deathbed, a false bamboo-and-cloth finish was placed around the dagoba so that Dutugemunu’s final sight could be of his ‘completed’ masterpiece. A limestone statue in a small pavilion south of the great dagoba is popularly thought to be of Dutugemunu.
The land around the dagoba is dotted with the remains of ponds and pools, and collections of columns and pillars, all picturesquely leaning in different directions. Slightly southeast of the dagoba, en route to the Sri Maha Bodhi Temple, you can see one of Anuradhapura’s many monks’ refectories.