Sri Lanka’s Dambulla Cave Temple – A Buddhist Treasure Trove

Last revised on December 4, 2022.

Table of Contents:

Next Post: Before Machu Picchu Was,  There Was Sigiriya

See here for other posts on Sri Lanka’s cultural attractions.

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Dambulla – Location and Importance

Almost at the very centre of the island of Sri Lanka – at the junction of the road between Colombo and Trincomalee and the one between Kandy and Anuradhapura – is the crossroads market town of Dambulla.

These days locals know it for its sprawling and thriving vegetable market – but rooted in the past is another claim to fame.  To the south of the market is the 170-meter granite outcrop whose recesses house some of the finest Buddhist statuary and murals to be found in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

This makes a stop at Dambulla all but mandatory for anyone exploring Sri Lanka’s so-called “Cultural Triangle,” the term given to those sites which preserve elements of the great Sinhalese kingdoms of the island’s past. Dambulla sits in the middle of the triangle formed by Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Kandy and its development was influenced in turn by each of these three points on the triangle.

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Approaching The Cave – The Golden Temple

Dambulla Golden Temple front shot

Dambulla Golden Temple front shot

A visit to the Dambulla cave takes you first to the Golden Temple, which sits at the bottom of the path leading up 150 meters to the western side of the outcrop. The structure dates back to the 1990s. Critics have not been kind and have used words like “ugly” and “kitschy” to describe the over-the-top architecture.

Dambulla's Golden Temple up closer

Dambulla’s Golden Temple up closer

To the temple’s right, one finds a row of monks approaching the gigantic seated Buddha, some with offerings in their hands.

part of the line of monks approaching the Buddha

part of the line of monks approaching the Buddha

monks filing to present offerings to the Buddha

monks filing to present offerings to the Buddha

There are steps which take you past these monks and up to a terrace where you can sit down in front of the Buddha for the view illustrated by the image below –

The Buddha statue up close

The Buddha statue up close

While there are larger Buddha statues elsewhere in Asia, the plaque nearby lets us know that this one is the largest statue of the Buddha in the Dhyana Chakra mudra or position. Kitsch or not, it does have a certain power.

Buddha Statue plaque

Buddha Statue plaque –

There is a museum in the building on top of which this Buddha sits, but I was keen to see the main attraction – the caves – so I gave it a pass.  It does not get positive reviews in the various guidebooks though I should have given it a few minutes to see for myself.

Later I would visit the Buddhist Museum a kilometre down the road to see some impressive recreations of the murals of Dambulla and many other Cultural Triangle sites.

side view of the Buddha statue on the way to the caves

side view of the Buddha statue on the way to the caves

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The Pathway Up To the Cave

The pathway up to the main attraction is on the left side of the temple. It is an uphill walk but ten minutes and a stop or two on the way to appreciate the view, and it gets done.  On the way, vendors will proffer different items they feel tourists are looking to buy – the stand with its collection of brass statues below was but one of many.  I really should have taken a pic of the Bob Marley/Rasta items that one dreadlocked entrepreneur had available. Clearly, there is room at the Buddha’s table for all!

tourist souvenirs on the path to the caves

tourist souvenirs on the path to the cave

approaching the entranceway to the Dambulla Caves

approaching the entrance gate to the Dambulla Cave

Just before you go through the entrance gate in the image above, you take off your shoes and hand them to a shoe guardian. (He will expect a few rupees later on!)  Some westerners do leave on their socks. Depending on the time of day, the rock surface can be quite hot and make stepping uncomfortable.

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The Layout of the Dambulla Cave Site

the crowds gather by Dambulla's Cave 1

the morning crowds gather by Dambulla’s Cave 1

Now you are through the gateway and almost at the “cave”.  Having visited the site twice – once at about 9:30 a.m. and once at 3:30 p.m. – I can tell you that it is much busier in the morning than it is in the afternoon thanks to the many school groups and busloads of tourists.  The shot above was taken in the morning; the one below in the aft!

Dambullah verandah over Cave 1

Dambullah verandah over Cave 1

You will also note that the entrances to the cave are protected by a covered verandah which was built in the 1930s.  The map below will give you an idea of how the cave area is set up.

Dambulla Site Map

Dambulla’s five separate cave temples – see here for the online source of the map.

Apparently, the site was originally one large cave formed by the rock overhang.  Over time partitions were put in to create the five “caves” illustrated in the map above. The site began its history as a temple when a ruler of Anuradhapura sought refuge here for several years, after having lost his kingdom to invading Tamils.

When he regained his territory years later, in thanks he had the first temple built here about two thousand years ago.  Over time rulers from Polonnaruwa (in the 1100’s C.E.) and Kandy (in the 1700s) would allocate artists and money to the site to show their devotion to the Buddha and to make more visible their own power and success.

covered verandah in front of the Dambulla caves

Covered verandah in front of the Dambulla caves – late afternoon, no one is here!

Since Caves 2 and 3 are the most stunning of the five and Cave 1 is the least crammed with statues and murals, a good way to go about seeing them is in reverse order. The following picture journey will follow this sequence.

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Cave 5: Davana Alut Viharaya (Second New Temple)

Once a store room, the newest and smallest of the five “caves” contains statues constructed of brick, plaster, and murals. The main figure is a ten-meter-long reclining Buddha. This position, known as the parinirvana pose, shows the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, on his deathbed at the moment of his death.  It is an oft-repeated pose in Sri Lankan Buddhist sculpture and painting.

Dambulla Cave 5 buddhas

Dambulla Cave 5 buddhas

Dambulla Cave 5 seated and standing buddhas

Dambulla Cave 5 seated and standing buddhas

Dambulla Cave 5 painted detail

Dambulla Cave 5 painted detail

a black Vishnu flanked by Kataragama and Bandara at the Buddha's feet

a black Vishnu flanked by Kataragama and Bandara at the Buddha’s feet

the head of the reclining Buddha figure

the head of the reclining Buddha figure

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Cave 4: Paccima Viharaya (Western Temple)

seated Buddha under makara torana arch

seated Buddha under makara torana arch

Dambulla Cave 4 dagoba with crack

Dambulla Cave 4 dagoba with crack

seated Buddha and disciples surround by repeating Buddha figures

seated Buddha and disciples surround by repeating Buddha figures

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Cave 3: Maha Alut Viharaya (Great New Temple)

ceremonial archway entrance to Dambulla Cave 3

ceremonial archway entrance to Dambulla Cave 3

Dambulla Cave 3 entrance

Dambulla Cave 3 entrance

meditating Buddha under arch

meditating Buddha under arch

Dambulla Cave 3 seated and standing Buddhas

Dambulla Cave 3 seated and standing Buddhas

Dambulla Cave 3 mural of idealized garden

Dambulla Cave 3 mural of an idealized garden

two seated Buddhas in front of garden mural

two seated Buddhas in front of the garden mural

Dambulla Cave 3 Kirti Sri Rajasinha and four attendants painted on wall behind him

Cave 3 – cave patron Kirti Sri Rajasinha and 4 attendants painted on the wall behind him

Dambulla Cave 3 mural

Dambulla Cave 3 mural

Dambulla Cave 3 mural - Kandyan style panels

Dambulla Cave 3 mural – Kandyan-style panels

Dambulla Cave 3 mural detail

Dambulla Cave 3 mural detail

Dambulla Cave 3 mural figures

Dambulla Cave 3 mural figures detail

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Cave 2: Maharaja Vihara (Temple of the Great King)

Dambulla Cave 2 reclining buddha, ceiling mural and drip enclosure

Dambulla Cave 2 reclining buddha, ceiling mural and drip enclosure

Dambulla Cave 2 enclosure with the drip jar

Dambulla Cave 2 enclosure with the drip jar

Dambulla Cave 2 seated Buddha

Dambulla Cave 2 seated Buddha

Dambulla Cave 2 dagoba and buddhas

Dambulla Cave 2 dagoba and buddhas

Dambulla Cave 2 Buddha in meditation mudra with cobra head above

Dambulla Cave 2 Buddha in meditation mudra with cobra head above

Dambulla Cave 2 head of reclining Buddha

Dambulla Cave 2 head of reclining Buddha

Dambulla Cave 2 row of seated buddhas

Dambulla Cave 2 row of seated buddhas

Dambulla Cave 2 seated Buddha in meditation mudra

Dambulla Cave 2 seated Buddha in meditation mudra

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Cave 1: Devaraja Viharaya (Temple of the Lord of the Gods)

entrance to Cave 1 with its reclining Buddha figure

entrance to Cave 1 with its reclining Buddha figure

Dambulla Cave 1 cabinet door

Dambulla Cave 1 cabinet door

Dambulla Cave 1 - the head of the reclining Buddha

Dambulla Cave 1 – the head of the reclining Buddha

Dambulla Cave 1 the feet of the reclining Buddha

Dambulla Cave 1 the feet of the reclining Buddha

Dambulla Cave 1 20th C addition Italian-style cherub

Dambulla Cave 1 20th C addition Italian-style cherub

Dambulla Cave 1 flower offering in Buddha hand

Dambulla Cave 1 flower offering in the Buddha’s hand

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Outside the caves:

schoolgirls leaving the cave temple

morning visitors – schoolgirls leaving the cave temple

Dambualla Cave Temple - a view of the covered verandah

Dambulla Cave Temple – a view of the covered verandah

Dambulla Cave monkeys on the walls - bhikkus in disguise

Dambulla Cave monkeys on the walls – bhikkus in disguise?

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Useful Sources of Information

If you are going to visit Dambulla – and pay. to enter the site – it would make sense to get as much out of it as possible!  The following sources provide some historical context and site details to enrich your visit.

The Wikipedia entry –Dambulla cave temple – is an informative introduction to the site and its history.

The Rough Guide To Sri Lanka is a useful hard-copy guidebook for a Dambulla visit. The edition pictured is from 2018, but a new one may be available in 2022.  The basic text will be the same.

The Cultural Triangle- Sri Lanka

Another excellent source of information on Dambulla and on the other sites in the Cultural Triangle is this digital book available at Amazon.

The authors are David and Jennifer Raezer, and you can find it on Amazon here. If you are an iPad user, having the book and its excellent architectural diagrams and floor plans available as you toured the site would definitely enrich your experience.  At $5.99, it is an investment that will repay itself quickly!

Trip Advisor…

has the cave temples listed as Things To Do #1 (and #3 under a different name!) with hundreds of comments and evaluations. (Click here.) The overall score is in the 4.5 out of 5 range – definitely a thumbs up!

Note that the comment for #1 is actually about the Cave Temple and not the Buddha statue erected in the 1990s!

 

Next Post: Before Machu Picchu Was,  There Was Sigiriya

 

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