Unique Buddhist statues and frescoes in Sri Lanka’s Dambulla Cave Temple

I had heard that the Dambulla Cave Temple in central Sri Lanka had the best preserved wall paintings. Apart from this, this site has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These reasons were enough for me to plan a climb to reach these rock caves. But, after hiking in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa on a scorching afternoon in June, my energy was at its lowest.

The experience gained in Mihintale was warning me that climbing this hilly place should be done only in the morning or evening. So, after analyzing the situation, I decided that I would start climbing the rock after noon, around 4 pm.

You can climb this rock from two starting points located on opposite sides. One, where we buy tickets, the other where a huge Golden Temple is located. I bought a ticket from the ticket window and headed in the direction of the Golden Temple, as I was told that the climb was relatively easy from this point. I moved ahead after seeing a huge golden statue and a golden pagoda located at the entrance.

The stairs were wide and easy. At some places the stairs were not carved in a systematic manner. Had to climb the rocky surface there. At one point our path divided into two parts. One route is a flat path with a steep slope but a relatively short path. There are easy stairs on the other path. I used the path with stairs to climb and the flat sloping path to descend. I suggest that you also use both routes in this way because these two routes go from two sides of the rock and the landscapes on both sides are very different. From the stepped path you will see the impressive Sigiriya Rock standing proudly with its twin rock before you. From the sloping route, you will see greenery scattered in many colors in the background of beautiful hills.

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History of Dambulla Cave Temple

Dambulla is a combination of two words, Damba and Ula, which mean rock and waterfall. Waterfalls? Yes, water keeps dripping continuously from inside one of the largest caves located here. The fact that all these caves are natural amazed me. As soon as you go inside the cave, your eyes will fall on the natural shapes of the rocks. The painters have skillfully painted these rocks according to these shapes. These caves do not correspond to Ajanta, Ellora or Barabar caves because those caves were excavated by humans.

According to inscriptions, in ancient times, around 1st BCE, King Vattagamini Abhaya took refuge in these caves. Later, they converted these caves into temples.

King Nishankamalla, about whom we had obtained information in Poloneruwa, covered them with gold leaves. For this reason his name was Rangiri. Gold is called Run in the Sinhalese language of Sri Lanka.

There are more than 150 statues of Buddha in these caves. Apart from these, there are also images of Hindu gods and goddesses and members of the royal family.

According to the modern history of Sri Lanka, these are the caves from where Buddhist monks started the national movement against British occupation in 1848.

Dambulla Cave Temple

5 major caves

There are a total of 80 caves in this area. There are 5 main caves among them which are generally visited by tourists. Being natural, these caves have different sizes and shapes.

When you first meet the caves, you will see many bright white doors arranged in rows under a huge rock. Its architectural style appears to be colonial, especially the first gate which is situated closest to you. I was told that these gates were installed later, around the 20th century. For this reason, they bear the imprint of the architectural style prevalent at that time.

There is a narrow corridor in front of the caves. The entrances are designed like temple gates with figures of gatekeepers, guards and angels engraved on them.

Red and yellow colors predominate inside the caves. On the ceiling above the statues, there are depictions similar to printed textiles. There are square blocks of white, black and red colors prominently on them. It appears as if a cloth tent has been placed over the statues.

1. Devraj Lena or Cave of the Divine King

This cave is relatively small. The prominent place in this cave is the statue of Buddha in Mahaparinirvana state. It is said to be prominent because this statue has taken up almost the entire space inside the cave. Since this was the first time I saw this statue, I was stunned to see its vastness. The bright colors of the frescoes and idols are extremely attractive.

The most interesting and attractive composition here is the depiction of Buddha’s soul, which has been beautifully depicted with the combination of the figures of Dharmachakra and Padma flower.

On the right side is the image of a seated Buddha with a unique aura behind him. Anand is sitting at his feet. On the walls, there are images of the king and ministers standing with folded hands. The ceiling has a unique painting in two parts, one part of which has geometric shapes and the other part has floral motifs.

Near the first cave, there is a small temple inside which there are idols of Vishnu and Kartikeya.

2. Maharaja Lena – Major Cave Temple of Dambulla

This is the largest cave here. Standing inside it, one gets a strong sense of its subtlety. The seated and standing statues of Buddha located all around leave one overwhelmed. The clothes of most of the statues are colored golden yellow. The cave has two entrances, one of which has a stupa near it. The detailed surface of the ceiling of the cave is completely painted. Even the smallest spot on the ceiling surface is not devoid of painting. There are pictures of Maras around the Buddha trying to distract him.

There is a picture on the ceiling of the cave in which Sahasra Buddha is sitting engrossed in meditation. The same image is also on the walls of Ajanta caves.

There are also pictures of King Vattagamini Abhay and King Nishankamalla in this cave.

3. cave 3

This cave is a miniature replica of the main cave. As soon as you enter, you are faced with a huge statue. There are statues of meditating Buddha all around.

4. Cave 4

By the time you reach here, you start getting an idea of ​​what you are going to see inside the cave. This is also a small cave inside which there is a statue of a sleeping Buddha.

5. Cave 5

This cave also has a small stupa around which there are statues of Buddha and stories are painted on the walls.

After visiting all these five caves, stand below the free sky and enjoy the amazing surrounding landscapes. You will enjoy seeing the devotees coming here and experiencing their devotion. You will immediately notice the difference between tourists and devotees. Many tourists come here and observe this place with curiosity and praise it, but they do not seem to have any connection with this place. On the contrary, the devotees are not concerned with the art and heritage here, they come here only with the desire to experience the Supreme Lord and become one with Him.

I saw many school students here who had come to pray and play.

There is a huge golden statue of Buddha on top of the Dambulla Cave Temple and a museum at the foot of the rock. A beautiful view of the plains and Sigiriya rock is visible from here.

travel tips

  • To visit Dambulla Cave Temple, climb it only in the morning or evening. The hot afternoon sun is painful.
  • Keep drinking water with you.
  • Actually, guides are available at the darshan site. But it is not a huge or complex place. Therefore, by studying or getting prior information about them, you can easily observe them yourself.
  • Climb from one side of the rock and descend from the other side. This allows you to enjoy the landscapes on both sides of the rock.
  • There is no entry fee for Sri Lankan citizens. The entry fee for foreign tourists was 1500 Sri Lankan rupees at that time.
  • The caves are extremely humid and hot. The atmosphere outside the caves is pleasant. While visiting the caves, I had to come out several times and breathe clean air.
  • It may take one and a half to two hours to visit these caves.

The nearest resting place to visit these caves is Kandy which is not far from here. Otherwise you can stay at Cinnamon Lodge in Habbarna like me. From there you can drive 30 minutes to reach the caves.