Sri Lanka hasn’t always been as fervently Buddhist as it is today. The religion has a somewhat patchy history on the island. It was first introduced to the Sinhalese in 246BC when the Indian Emperor, Ashoka, sent his son to Sri Lanka in order to convert the population. The scheme was a resounding success. Over the years that followed, a succession of Sinhalese kings built ornate temples and monasteries were established in which Bhikkhus dedicated their time to translating Buddhist texts.
Over the centuries a series of European invaders and colonisers gradually whittled away at the islands religion, introducing various forms of Christianity and leaving the Buddhist faith largely forgotten. The monasteries were abandoned and the shrines left to be consumed by the surrounding jungle. It wasn’t until 1880 that the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka began, not at the hands of the Sinhalese, but due to two Americans; Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Blavatsky. Olcott, an American Civil War veteran and founder of the Theosophist Society was the first well known American of European ancestry to make a formal conversion to Buddhism. With its empty temples and small, suppressed Buddhist population, he considered Ceylon the perfect place for a revival.
Through all this religious upheaval, the Cave temples of Dambulla have remained. Cut into an overhang 150 metres above the town of of the same name, these 5 caliginous grottoes are filled to the brim with Buddhist paraphernalia and painted with intricate Sinhalese murals. They date back to the reign of Vattagamini Abhaya (89-77BC) who was driven from his capital, Anuradhapura, by Tamil invaders and forced into hiding for 14 years. He took refuge in these caves and when he finally reclaimed his throne, commemorated his hiding place by converting them in to temples. Over the centuries that followed, various kings added embellishments such as statues and paintings to create the temples as we see them today.
The temples have now become one of Sri Lanka’s most visited tourist attractions. Hoards of pilgrims, monks and foreign tourists pull into the vast car park by the bus load each day. I managed to find a relatively quiet day to visit. There seemed to be only one or two tour groups braving the searing midday sun with me.
I had an image of Dambulla in my mind from the photographs I had seen – peaceful, serene, painted caverns and empty, flag strewn courtyards. I didn’t expect it to be quite so kitsch. At the foot of the site was a huge, gilded Buddha statue sat atop the appropriately named Golden Temple, its signage spelled out in 10 foot high neon lettering. On the rocks all around are ceramic statues of orange-robed monks stood silently, their lifeless eyes locked intently on the golden Buddha. Even more bizarrely, the entrance to the Buddhist museum housed within sits inside the mouth of an enormous cat-like creature. I couldn’t help but notice a nearby sign making the bold claim that this is largest Buddha statue in the world. I’m not sure it is even the largest in this part of Sri Lanka. In fact, I think I had seen a larger one just the day before.
It is 364 steps up to the caves and in the Sinhalese heat, I felt every single one. Each set of stairs was punctuated by a scattering of stalls selling all manner of things; Ice cream, mango, shawls, wooden Buddhas, Barcelona football shirts. the proprietors sat huddled under trees to escape the sun, only occasionally getting up to chase the monkeys that were trying to steal their merchandise.
At the top I removed my footwear and left them with the self appointed keeper of the shoes for a handful of change hopping the rest of the way on the scorching ground. Passing through a whitewashed arch I found a serene courtyard where I could step into the shadow of a tree to rest my burning soles. It was surprisingly quiet. I was probably the only person stupid enough to make the climb at midday.
The entrances to the caves themselves, numbered 1 – 5, are all accessible from this courtyard. I have read that it is best to visit them in descending order, starting at cave 5 and working your way backwards to cave 1 in order to see them in increasing degrees of splendour. I didn’t chose to hire a guide for my trip so wandered each cave as little aimlessly, just taking in the spectacle and using my lonely planet to explain what I was seeing in lieu of an official tour. It didn’t matter.
The first two caves were relatively small, with a reclining, 10m brick long Buddha filling cave 5 with paintings of Vishnu and Kataragama flanking it on both sides. Cave 3 was much more interesting – over 50 carvings of Buddha line the walls and the murals on the 10m high sloping ceiling give the impression of a vast, fabric canopy. The pièce de résistance has to be Cave 2, the Maharaja Vihara, or ‘Temple of the Great Kings’. Restored in the 18th century by Kandayan kings, it is an enormous chamber 50m long and 7m high. Opulant frescoes fill the ceiling depicting scenes from Buddha’s life such as the Defeat of Mara and the Isipatana. The floor space is filled with carvings of Buddha, both wooden and stone. fragrant incense fills the air alongside the smell of fresh lotus flowers that have been laid at the feet of the sculptures.
The ease and cost of reaching Dambulla make it well worth the detour from Sigiriya or a short stop on the road from Kandy. Not only is it a significant part of Sri Lanka’s history, it is a chance to see some of the the most unique and beautiful temples that the island has to offer.
Price and opening times
The Site is open daily from 7.30am until 7pm. Entry costs Rs. 1500 and tickets can be purchased from the booth at the back of the Rangiri Dambulla Development centre. It’s worth noting that the ticket office is closed for a short lunch break around midday.
Make sure you buy a ticket before heading up the steps to the temples – Nobody wants to head back down only to have to make that trek up to the top again.
The temple complex is approximately 2km south of Dambulla. Buses leave regularly from Colombo, Kandy, and Sigiriya for Dambulla, stopping at the bus station 1km from the southern end of town. From there it will cost you Rs. 100 – 150 for a tuk tuk to the temples.
- I would recommend staying in nearby Sigiriya rather than Dambulla. The town itself is just one long, dusty road that doesn’t have a great deal going for it. Busses from Sigiriya are frequent and cheap.
- Keep an eye out for the monkeys. They have a tendency to steal food from passing tourists but may be taken by that shiny camera hanging around your neck too. Although seeing a monkey eating an ice cream is pretty hilarious, you have to feel for the kid that he stole it from.
- Take plenty of water. The climb up to the caves can be tough at the best of times but with the Sri Lankan sun, it is exhausting work.
- Dress conservatively even if this just means taken a shawl or two to cover your shoulders and knees. The temples are, after all, a religious site.
- If you are interested in the history of the caves, it may be worth getting a guide as there is not much information in each of the shrines. Tours last around an hour.
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