Dambulla Golden Rock Cave Temple

Dambulla golden rock cave temple was home to thousands of meditating monks since its monastic beginnings in the first century BCE. Today the same cave temple hosts a massive collection of Buddhist murals and sculptures belonging to a pan-Asian artistic tradition. The cave temple was abandoned at regular intervals since its humble beginnings. Yet the royals and Buddhist elite kept renovating it to appease countless faithful pilgrims.

It is still a Buddhist pilgrimage site and has been so for centuries. Dambulla golden rock cave temple is the official name listed in the UNESCO list of world heritages. The cave complex’s original name is “Swarna Giri Guha”. Dambulla Rock Caves are, without doubt, one of the most colorful places in Sri Lanka. It is also a place rich in legends and histories. The caves are easily accessible unlike the spread out historical sites you often find in Sri Lanka. They hide under a single overhanging rock.

These caves stand 160 meters above ground, facing spectacular views of the surrounding plains. The five caves were dug out by royal artisans and compartmentalized with brick walls. None of the caves receive natural light. Most murals are hidden in darkness, creating a mystic balance of color. The floors of Dambulla caves are crammed with more than 140 Buddha statues. Some statues of local deities, aspirant Buddhas and patron kings peek out from here and there as well. The oldest murals and sculptures at Dambulla caves are dated back to the twelfth century. Today it is a beautiful monument to both Buddha and Sri Lankan arts.

Location

The Golden Rock Cave Temple, Kandy – Jaffna Hwy,

Dambulla, Central Province, Sri Lanka.

Open Time

7.00 a.m. – 7.00 p.m.

Weekdays & Weekends

Dambulla Rock Cave Temple Highlights

Deva Raja Lena Caves

In the legends, the first cave is called “Devaraja Lena”. The literal meaning of the name is the cave of the god-king. A Brahmi inscription above the cave describes how the first monastery was founded by “Gamani Tissa” around the first century BCE. Traditionally this name is believed to be of King Vatta Gamini Abhaya, aka Valagamba.

The cave feels a bit crammed up because of an exquisite 14-meter statue of the Buddha. The statue is hewn out of the existing rock. It probably received its last coat of paint in the early twentieth century. At the Buddha statue’s feet is a sculpture of monk Ananda. At the head is a statue of god Vishnu. God Vishnu is also a Hindu god but he is deeply associated with local Buddhist folklore.

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Maha Raja Lena Cave

“Maha Raja Lena” means the cave of the great king. Maha Raja Lena cave is architecturally distinct. It is certainly the most beautiful of the five caves. The ceiling and the walls are completely covered by fine murals. Most of them are drawn in strip panels, which follow the artistic tradition of pre-colonial Sri Lanka. Interesting murals are the first sermon of Buddha, dream of great Maya, defeat of Mara and daughters of Mara. Countless Buddha statues showing colorful traditional postures adorn the cave floor.

The highlight of the cave is the statue of Buddha, surrounded by aspirant Buddhas. The arch around the Buddha is called a traditional Makara Torana. Makara Torana translates to dragon arch. Right behind are statues and paintings of Hindu gods who later became associated with Buddhist folklore. Rare statues of kings Vatta Gamaini Abhaya and Nissankamalla are hidden away behind some Buddha statues as well.

Maha Aluth Viharaya Cave

This is an 18th-century addition by King Kirti Sri Raja Singha of Kandy. The name of Maha aluth viharaya simply means the grand new temple. The cave certainly retains a sense of grandeur. The murals in this cave show the aspirant Buddha Maithreya. There are more than 50 statues in this cave. The larger meditating Buddha and sleeping Buddha are carved out of the existing rock. Probably the only statue of King Kirti Sri Raja Singha is found at the entrance to the cave.

Other historical attractions in Sri Lanka :

Paccima Viharaya

Paccima viharaya means the western temple. It is a later addition and smaller than the other three caves. Among many statues of Buddha stands a beautiful dragon arch (Makara Torana). A small stupa monument stands in the middle of this cave. It is believed that the jewelries of queen Somawathi were deposited in this stupa. Early twentieth-century restorations make the murals in this cave very colorful.

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Devena Aluth Viharaya

The smallest cave of five is known as the second new temple or Devana Aluth Viharaya. It was the last addition to the Dambulla golden rock cave temple. A sleeping Buddha takes most of the cave space. Around the statue are murals of god Vishnu, god Kataragama, a peacock, popular local deity Bandara and a nobleman holding a lotus. This selection of characters best displays the contemporary belief system of Sri Lankan Buddhism.

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Front Corridor and Courtyard of the Dambulla Rock Cave Temple Complex

The pathway to all five caves is through a beautiful whitewashed corridor built in the early twentieth century. It distinctly highlights British colonial architecture. On the outer side of the corridor is an atmospheric space from which you can glimpse the huge rock above the caves. An ancient drip ledge runs along the whole length of the cave complex to prevent water seeping into the cave ceiling. A Brahmi inscription can be seen above this drip ledge. To the Eastern side are a Sacred Fig tree and right at the beginning of the cave complex is an eleventh-century inscription about King Nissankamalla of Polonnaruwa.

Things to do in Dambulla

Rural village visits around Dambulla

The best way to discover authentic Sri Lankan culture is by paying a visit to one of the rural villages. Villages around Sigiriya still hold on to the old ways of life. Arranged visits include lunch at villager’s home, traditional cooking class, slash and burn cultivation visit, canoe ride in a reservoir, bullock cart ride, trekking and bird watching experiences. It is a good way to relax and enjoy a different culture at your own pace.

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Hiking the Rose Quartz Mountain (Jathika Namal Uyana) from Dambulla

Twentyfive kilometers from Sigiriya is the famous rose quartz mountain range. It is the largest rose quartz deposit in all Asia. Here mining is prohibited by the Sri Lankan government as the quartz range lies inside a nature reserve. Around the tiny mountain range is the national ironwood forest (Jathika Namal Uyana). It is the largest man-made forest in South Asia. Ruins of a third-century Buddhist monastery are scattered inside this ironwood forest. In ancient times, dangerous convicts had sought refuge at the monastery and the resident monks had ordered them to plant ironwood trees as penitence for their crimes. As time went by the monastery was abandoned but the ironwood thrived.

Visiting Popham’s Arboretum from Dambulla

An arboretum is a place where trees are grown for study and display. Popham’s arboretum is the only dry zone arboretum in Sri Lanka. Mr. Sam Popham who was an enthusiast founded the arboretum in 1963. Today is is managed by the tree society of Sri Lanka. It is a relaxing place with many footpaths and a collection of semi-evergreen monsoon dry forest trees. The forest makes a superb bird watching site. The highlight of the arboretum is its night walk in which you can see the slender loris, one of the rarest creatures on earth.

Visiting Ibbankatuwa Megalithic Burial site

Ibbankatuwa megalithic burial site is one of 180 pre-historic sites excavated in Sri Lanka. The site comprises of 42 sets of tombs created by unshaped stone slabs. There are more than 400 burials excavated at the site. Both skeletons and cremated remains were found at the site. Grave goods including clay pots, iron, copper, gold, beads, necklaces and Indian gemstones were also found. A decent site creates many questions than answers.

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Watching a Cricket match at Dambulla International Cricket Grounds

Dambulla International Cricket ground is not the busiest cricket ground in Sri Lanka. This 30000 seat stadium has hosted more than 50 matches since its inauguration in 2001. Famous cricketer Tilakaratne Dilshan played his career final ODI here. If you are lucky you might actually get to watch an ODI here.

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Elephant riding at Dambulla & Bullock cart riding at Dambulla

Sri Lanka is home to many domesticated Asian elephants. It is very common to see them near roadsides, temples and houses. Home elephants are gentle creatures unlike wild elephants. However, there are many concerns regarding the future of elephant domestication. Some people view it as an evil act to tame a wild animal. Yet many Sri Lankans find it most natural to take care of an elephant as a family member.

Bull driven carts were once the preferred way to travel between Sri Lankan villages. Bullock cart racing is a rare sport nowadays but not unheard of in rural areas. If you fancy a ride, there are many bullock carts around Sigiriya area.

Dambulla Museum of Wall Paintings

Dambulla museum of wall paintings is one of the best museums in Sri Lanka. If you are interested in ancient Sri Lankan art, this is a must-visit place. The small number of mural copies manage to capture the history of Sri Lankan art from pre-historic cave paintings to modern classical art. It’s not a large museum but a visit is a good way to understand how Sri Lankan art evolved through the ages.

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