The sacred bodhi tree is central to Anuradhapura in both a spiritual and physical sense. It was grown from a cutting brought from Bodhgaya in India and is said to be the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world, tended by an uninterrupted succession of guardians for over 2000 years. Today thousands of devotees come to make offerings, particularly on poya (full moon) days and weekends. Sunset is a magical time to visit.

The faithful believe it was Princess Sangamitta, daughter of the Indian Emperor Ashoka and sister of Mahinda (who introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka), who brought the cutting from India. These days there is not one but many bodhi trees here; the oldest and holiest stands on the top platform. Railing and other structures around the trees are festooned with prayer flags.

In 1985, during the civil war, Tamil Tigers opened fire in the enclosure, killing several worshippers as part of a larger offensive that took the lives of almost 150 civilians.

April and December are particularly busy months as pilgrims converge on the site for snana puja (offerings or prayers).