Nothing was visible of this Stupa until the commencement of excavations here in 1934. This Stupa was buried for centuries under the debris of a partly collapsed monument and huge trees had grown on the mound which appeared as a part of the hill on the summit.
This was the condition of the Stupa before the excavation work was undertaken by the distinguished archaeologist and historian S. Paranavitana in December 1934. This mound was then popularly known as Kiribadapavu Dagaba, Kiribat Vehera, or Giribhanda.
But an inscription belonging to the 1st century A.D. that was discovered near the stupa recorded a grant made to the stupa. The record named it Kataka Ceta in the old Sinhala language meaning Kantaka Cetiya.
It was Mahadathika Mahanaga who according to the inscription provided two ways of income for the maintenance of this stupa. In this manner it has been possible to identify the original name of the Cetiya.
This identification was further strengthened by a statement found in the Mahavamsa which says that Devanampiyatissa (250-210 B.C.) “made a beginning with the work of building sixty eight rock-cells about the place where the Kantaka Cetiya afterwards stood.” However, we unfortunately do not have the information as to when and by whom this Cetiya was built.
The earliest information that we have about this stupa is found in the Mahavamsa which says that Lanjatissa (119-109B.C.) “had a mantling made of stone” for it. “It is thus clear that the original stupa was earlier in date than the first century B.C. and was therefore one of the earliest religious monuments in the island.”
The lower portion of the dome has three circular terraces built one above the other; its base has a circumference of 425 1/2 feet and it stands at present in its ruined state, about 40 ft. high.
It was clear during the excavation that the original Stupa had been enlarged at a later date by the addition of an outer envelop of brick. “The stone facing the platform and of the base of the dome apparently belong to the same period as this later enlargement of the dome.
Therefore, the statement found in the Mahavamsa that an envelop of stone was added to the Stupa is further confirmed by this evidence. The only difference is that the lower portion of this envelop was of stone while the upper portion was of brick.
On the four sides of the stupa are found four projective frontispieces which is a unique architectural feature called Vahalkadas. Two of the four Vahalkadas are preserved in good condition. They are constructed with brick, but the lower portion of the front sides are faced with limestone.
The stone work of the eastern and the southern Vahalkadas was found almost in a perfect state of preservation, while that of the northern one, though damaged, could easily be restored. The western Vahalkada however, has been damaged beyond restoration. The Vahalkadas are profusely ornamented with sculptures. On the cornice below the topmost one is a frieze of ganas or dwarfs and on the one further below is a frieze of hamsa or geese.
Many of the ganas are portrayed in various attitudes some playing musical instruments, one playing with a Cobra, another standing on his head, and so on. Some are animal headed.
The Vahalkadas are flanked by stelae, the front and side faces of which are sculptured with floral designs. The stelae were surmounted by figures of beasts, elephants at the eastern Vahalkada, and lions, horses and bulls at the northern, the western and the southern ones respectively. It is thought that these animals symbolize the four quarters. On the whole these Vahalkadas represent the earliest examples of Sinhala sculpture and its excellence.
For new constructional work, at the Kantaka Cetiya, land had been given from the village Damgamuwa and the men were instructed to carry on with the work. This is recorded in the slab inscription of Mahinda IV at Mihintale belonging to the 10th century.
The Stupa had been dug into by treasure hunters some centuries ago. A large number of stone caskets etc. were discovered. The stupa and the rest were conserved by the Archaeological Department in 1936.
From the site of the Kantaka Cetiya when one looks to the west one sees the three great Stupas of Anuradhapura rising to the sky through the silver waters of the great Anuradhapura tanks.
The caves near the Stupa are the earliest dwellings of the Bhikkhus who resided at Mihintale.