A stupa is a hemispherical pre-Buddhist Indian burial mound or a commemorative monument housing relics associated with the Buddha. It is said that two seafaring merchants called Trapusa and Bahalika from ancient India brought a few strands of the Buddha’s hair to Sri Lanka and enshrined them on top of a small hillock in the village of Thiriyaya near Trincomalee in 528 BC. The shrine is thought to be the first Buddhist stupa not only in Sri Lanka, but the entire world.
Thiriyaya is only 47 kms. from Trincomalee on a good road. From the car park, s dirt track leads you through a shady wooded area past a large pond and an ancient stone bridge that seems to go nowhere, to an elaborate, wide and well preserved stone stairway up the hill.
On the left of the stairway are caves, two of which contain Brahmi inscriptions, one in the pre-Christian form and the other dating from about the first century AD. At the top of the hill is another inscription engraved on the rock surface, which contain eleven line of writings naming the two merchants Trapusa and Bahalika.
The summit is occupied by a Vatadage (circular stone or brick structure built around small stupas for their protection and adorned with elaborate stone carvings) containing the original small stupa in the center and enlarged in the 8th century A.D. The Vatadage covers the Stupa with concentric circles of stone pillars. The stone made circular platform of the Vatadageya is opened to the four directions and accessed by flight of steps with guardstones and balustrades. On the terraces below are vestiges of monastic structures including ruined buildings, stone pillars, flight of steps, ponds, and remains of a stone bridge.
Nowadays it is easy to get to Girihandu Seya. Even though it is an archaeological site, it is managed by Buddhist monks. If you are a tourist, you will have to pay to enter and will be urged to make a cash donation towards the cost of a new temple and monk’s accommodation at the site. Stay away from the toilet area and walk quickly past the ugly, modern structures to the peace and sanity of the first ever Buddhist shrine on top of the hill, inaugurated when the Buddha was still alive.