Anuradhapura attests in a unique and specific way to the Sinhalese civilization. On numerous occasions the city was submitted to the assaults of invaders from southern India - Tamils, Pandyas, Cholas, etc. It stands as a permanent manifesto of the culture of Sri Lanka, impervious to outside influences. The sacred city exerted a considerable influence on the development of architecture during several centuries. It includes remarkable monuments, particularly the Dagabas of colossal size, placed on circular foundations and surrounded by a ring of monolithic columns, characteristic of the Sinhalese stupas.
The city is one of the principal shrines of Buddhism. The cutting from the fig tree of Buddha, brought there in the 3rd century BC, has flourished and, today, the Bodhi tree spreads out over the centre of the site from a sanctuary near the Brazen Palace. The relics of Siddharta have, moreover, shaped the religious topography of Anuradhapura, where the Dagaba Thuparama was built by King Tissa in the 3rd century BC to house the clavicle of Buddha, an important religious relic presented by Ashoka.
Founded during the 4th century BC, Anuradhapura quickly became both the capital of Ceylon and the sacred city of Buddhism on the island. The Chronicles of Mahanam, a narrative written 1,000 years later, affirms that it was founded in 380 BC by Prince Pandukabhaya.
Towards 250 BC, King Ashoka sent his son Mahinda to convert Tissa, the grandson of Pandukabhaya, and the latter became the first Buddhist sovereign (devanampiya) of Ceylon. A second mission, led by Sanghamitta, Buddhist nun and daughter of Ashoka, brought Tissa a cutting from the Ashvattha, the sacred fig tree of Bodhgaya, under which Siddharta attained spiritual enlightenment and supreme wisdom.
With the exception of the period of the invasion of the Tamil princes, at the beginning of the 2nd century BC, Anuradhapura remained the political and religious capital of Ceylon during 10 centuries. Its apogee was reached under the reign of Dutthagamani who, in 161 BC, expelled the Tamil invaders, re-established Buddhism in the place of Brahminism and endowed the site with extraordinary monuments: Dagaba Minisaweti, Dagaba Rubanwelisaya, the Brazen Palace, etc.
Anuradhapura was sacked and taken by the Pandyan kings during the 9th century and then returned against payment of a ransom.
The majority of the monuments were restored but the city never recovered after its destruction in AD 993 by King Chola Rajaraja I. Having lost its position as capital, it was deserted in favour of Polonnaruwa.