Sambodhi Chaithya – Colombo, Sri Lanka - Atlas Obscura

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Sambodhi Chaithya

This space rocket-like Buddhist stupa sits atop two giant arches and can be seen from out at sea. 

Sambodhi Chaithya is a huge bell-shaped Buddhist stupa in Colombo Harbour, Sri Lanka. Unlike most stupas, it has the distinction of standing on two massive diagonally interlocking arches, allowing the shrine to be seen from out at sea.

In 1953, the Most Venerable Henpitagedara Gnanaseeha Thero decided that Colombo should have a Buddhist landmark that could be seen by anyone approaching the Port of Colombo by sea. The renowned Sri Lankan engineer A. N. S. Kulasinghe was chosen to design and build the structure, and construction began in 1956.

Kulasinghe’s design was something truly unique. Imagine Cape Canaveral, but with a giant retro Buddhist space rocket about to launch to Alpha Centauri, and you won’t be far off. The white, bell-shaped stupa, or chaitya (a combination of a stupa and a preaching hall), stands on a large platform held aloft on two giant diagonally interlocking arches. The structure rises above the cranes and buildings in the nearby port, clearly visible to anyone out at sea.

The entire structure is 261 feet (80 meters) tall. The interlocking arches rise up to a height of 107 feet (33 meters), on which stands the main platform, which is itself a one-story building. On top of this stands the stupa, with a circumference of 158 feet (48 meters). Adding to the space-rocket launchpad effect is the access tower that runs alongside the main structure. Reaching 11 stories high and with 258 steps, the tower is connected to the platform below the stupa via a metal walkway.

Once inside, you’ll find yourself beneath the huge dome of the stupa. In the center of the circular floor sits a shrine with four recessed Buddha statues. Along the walls of the dome are a series of 31 murals created by the Venerable Mapalagama Wipulasara Maha Thera (1925-2000), a Theravada Buddhist monk and acclaimed Sri Lankan artist. These murals depict scenes from the life of the Buddha, and Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka.

Up on the walls above the murals are four statues at the cardinal points. These figures are the guardian gods of the island and protectors of Buddhism: Viruta, chief of the South; Virupashta, chief of the West; Vaishravana, chief of the North; and Dutharashta, chief of the East.

Know Before You Go

Sambodhi Chaithya is located at the end of Chaithya Road, past the Colombo Lighthouse. It's open from early in the morning until 6 p.m. Entrance is free. You'll have to take your shoes off when climbing the steps to the stupa and inside the stupa itself. The concrete steps of the access tower can get very hot during the heat of the day, so to avoid scorching your feet it's best to go in the early morning or late afternoon. Once you've finished visiting the stupa, it's worth spending some time exploring the grounds below it. Here you'll find a bo tree planted by former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka Sirimavo Bandaranaike (the world’s first elected female prime minister). Also scattered around the grounds are old cannons, anchors and a vintage steam crane. And just next to Sambodhi Chaithya is the Sri Lanka Ports Authority Maritime Museum.

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