Vessagiriya - the monastery of the Vaisya-Setthis
by Rohan L. Jayetilleke / CDN
Vessagiri or commonly known in Sinhala as Vesagiriya or Vaisyagiri, is the traditional name of the forest bound cluster or rocks in Anuradhapura, adjoining the highway to Kurunegala, about a mile to the south-west of Sri Maha Bodhi, Anuradhapura.
It is surrounded by structural ruins of the monastery (Vihara) which had cells in the 23 caves of the two of the three rocks. The three rocks according to archaeologists are marked Rocks A, B and C.
The Rock A has a breached stupa with pillars at the south of the point of entry to the rock. In Rock B are twelve caves. In Rock C are two caves with drip-ledge inscriptions. There are structural ruins all round the Rocks A. B and C and also in the adjoining paddy fields in the environs. The rock caves had been the abodes of meditative monks.
As regards the identification of this site as Vessagiri Vihara, Mahavamsa states it was built by King Devanampiya Tissa in third century B.C.
This is evidenced by the probable age of the Brahmi script inscriptions, the archaic style of ruined buildings, the relative location of the site in respect to the Isurumuniya Vihara built by the same king. According to the Sri Lanka chronicle Mahavamsa, Vessagiri had its name from the 500 Vaisyas (leaders of arts, crafts, banking, trade and commerce guild leaders) who came from Vedisa, the present Madhya Pradesh, to finance the Buddhist structures to be established by their kinsman Arhant Mahinda.
These leading entrepreneurs from Madhya Pradesh, who were the leaders of guilds of artisans belonging to various craft clans (kula) brought down members from the 18 kulas in order to execute building operations, paintings, music and dance and other arts and crafts to stabilize Buddhism in Lanka.
The 500 Vaisyas having been ordained, preferred to live together as one group as their food, thoughts and other activities were completely different to the indigenous people of Sri Lanka.
Even Isurumuniya too denotes, the abode of the silent personages. They too were the migrant Vaisya - Setthis.
They had their own language and script whereas Sinhala at the time was scriptless and Mahinda having brought the Tripitaka commentaries and had them translated into the colloquial Sinhala language and designed a written script to Sinhala in the model of the Brahami script.