Dambulla: The Cave Temple

Set on northern edge of Sri Lanka's central highlands, the five cave temples of Dambulla are an astonishing record and testimony to more than 2000 years of Buddhist art and culture.

The town of Dambulla itself is set in a strategic crossroads between the ancient cities and pilgrimage sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Kandy. It is a convenient but unremarkable base for exploring Sri Lanka's cultural heartland; but in Dambulla it is the caves people travel to see and it's easy to see why.

The caves' history dates back to 103 BC to the reign of King Vattagamini Abhaya. Only five months after inheriting the Sri Lankan throne the new king was expelled by the invasion of Southern Indian Tamils from the great Sri Lankan capital of Anuradhapura. On the run he was forced into hiding and found a spectacular refuge half way up a remarkable granite mountain overlooking the surrounding plains and forests. There were some huge overhanging sections; and it was from here that Vattagamini planned and retook Anuradhapura 14 years later. Having forced the Tamils from Sri Lanka, the King had a Buddhist temple created here as a sign of gratitude to the shelter the caves had offered him and his Buddhist faith.

Over a period of more than 2,000 years the five sacred temple caves were constructed, renovated and improved, a process that in many ways continues to this day. What remains is a series of Buddhist monuments, statues and colourful murals - masterpieces of Sri Lankan art and culture. Recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Dambulla gives the visitor a glimpse back into life, lifestyles and beliefs on this island's over two thousand years of history.

When visiting Dambulla you'll find the five caves numbered and named for reference. Cave 5 and 4, the Devana Alut Viharaya and Paccima Viharaya, are relatively small and recent but nonetheless atmospheric, with many interesting statues and paintings. The Maha Alut Viharaya, the Great New Temple (Cave 3) is vast in comparison. This temple was constructed by the Kandyan King Kirti Sri Rajasinha in the 18th Century. Entering the temples you will see a huge statue of the cave's sponsor. 50 statues of the Buddha line the cave in different positions, including 2 statues carved beautifully from the solid rock of the cave itself - true masterpieces of the time. There are some fascinating murals on the 10m high ceiling and walls depicting the Buddha preaching to disciples; and in one scene, to the gods themselves.

Cave 2, the Maharaja Vihara or 'the temple of the great kings', is the biggest of the caves, over 50 meters long and 7 meters high. It's also the oldest of the cave complexes, first carved into the walls of the mountain by Vattagamini Abhaya more than 2000 years ago. In many ways this cave could be considered the most impressive. Ancient statues of the Buddha, covered in original gold leaf are found together with statues of many Hindu deities. The cave is also famed for preserving many of Sri Lanka's finest ancient Buddhist murals. The images record remarkable scenes from the Buddha's life, how he obtained enlightenment and his many challenges - an inspiring collection of ancient art.

Cave 1, the Devaraja Viharaya, the 'Temple of the Lord of the Gods', is known mainly for its beautiful 14m long sleeping Buddha, carved directly from the cave walls. Some murals here are said to be amongst the oldest in Dambulla, but many that haven't been restored are badly eroded.

At the site's entrance, a huge, modern 'Golden Temple' with a 30m high golden Buddha offers an impressive but perhaps not so authentic introduction to the cave temples.

Dambulla is a wonderful place for us to take you for a day, suitable for anyone with an interest in Sri Lankan art, living Buddhist culture and ancient history, explained by our guide with the assistance of elegantly preserved visual stories and carvings. Well worth a visit.

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