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Dambulla Cave Temple, Sri Lanka

Historical Magnificence of Buddhist Cave


Dambulla Cave Temple (also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla) is located in the central part of in Sri Lanka. Dambulla a town situated in the border of the Central and North Central Provinces of Sri Lanka has been in the limelight from ancient times. The site is located 148 kilometres east of Colombo and 72 kilometres north of Kandy. It is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex built on a 600 feet high rock at an elevation of 1118 feet from the sea level.

The Dambulla cave temple represents one of the oldest sites for Buddhist monasticism, with a history as a pilgrimage site for twenty-two centuries.

It is home to the world's most acclaimed Cave complex of magnificent Buddha Images and Rock Paintings of vivid colours and shapes constructed and painted from around 2nd Century BC (Anuradhapura era ) and continued up to the Kandyan era of the 18th Century. Sinhalese people call it as 'Dambulu Gala' (Dambulla Rock) and the Temple is called as the ' Rangiri Dambulu Viharaya' (Golden Rock Dambulla Temple).

Significant Masterpieces

The ensemble of Dambulla is an outstanding example of the religious art and expression of Sri Lanka and South and South-East Asia. The excavated shrine-caves, their painted surfaces and statuary are unique in scale and degree of preservation. The monastery includes significant masterpieces of 18th century art, in the Sri Lankan school of Kandy. The cave-temple complex is established on an inselberg or erosional remnant of importance in the study of the island's geological history. The site also includes evidence of human occupation going back to the prehistoric period, including the megalithic cemetery at Ibbankatuwa.

The site has been in continuous use for over 22 centuries, when it was occupied by a Buddhist monastic establishment, following the arrival of Buddhism on the island. Remains of 80 rockshelter residences established at that time on the site have been identified.

Sri Lanka has a long history of the presence and practice of Buddhism. The Dambulla cave temple represents one of the oldest sites for Buddhist monasticism, with a history as a pilgrimage site for twenty-two centuries. The massive cave temple complex is unique in Southeast Asia because monks carved the caves out from rock. The cave temples in India, such as Ajanta, Elephanta, Ellore and Karla, have been created in natural caves. The cave monastery has been a sacred pilgrimage site since its founding. It has five sanctuaries,

 including the The Devaraja Lena, The Maharaja Lena, The Maha Alut Viharaya, The Paccima Viharaya and The Devana Alut Viharaya.

The caves, in continuous use for more than two millenniums, have been developed in stages. The centuries' long effort to maintain the cave temples demonstrates constant and continual adherence to Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

King Valagambahu has been traditionally believed to have converted the caves into a temple in the first century B.C.E. The caves in the city provided refuge to King Valagamba (also called Vattagamini Abhaya) in his fourteen year long exile from the Anuradapura kingdom. Buddhist monks meditating in the caves of Dambulla at that time provided the exiled king protection from his enemies.

When King Valagamba returned to the throne at Anuradapura kingdom in the first century B.C.E., he had a magnificent rock temple built at Dambulla as a gratitude to the monks in Dambulla. The site has been in continuous use for over 22 centuries, when it was occupied by a Buddhist monastic establishment, following the arrival of Buddhism on the island. Remains of 80 rock-shelter residences established at that time on the site have been identified. Most probably in the 1st century BC, the uppermost group of shelters on Dambulla's south face was transformed into shrines. These transformations continued and were intensified between the 5th and 13th centuries: cave-temples were extended into the sheltering rock, and brick walls constructed to screen the caves. By the end of the 12th  century, with the introduction by King Nissanka Malla of sculpture to the caves on the upper terrace, echoing the rock carving that had preceded it, the caves assumed their present general forms and layout.

The next major phase of development took place in the 18th century when, following a long-standing tradition, the upper terrace was restored and refurbished. All the painted surfaces within the caves were painted or overpainted in a style characteristic of the Kandy school of the late 18th century. At that time, the modest Buddhist figures in the caves was repainted, maintaining original details and iconography; the fronting screen walls were rebuilt and roofed to form an outer veranda. Throughout the 19th century, following the loss of royal patronage in 1815, periodic repainting of sculptures and deteriorating surfaces continued. In 1915, a local donor repainted cave, The Devana Alut Viharaya. In the 1930s, the veranda was rebuilt incorporating a mixture of European and Asian detailing, and the complex's entrance porch was reconstructed in a conjectural 18th century style.

This cultural landscape is an extraordinary and unique complex: the cave-temple, rock paintings in five caves and 157 statues of various sizes. Dambulla bears witness in its richly layered composite nature to the use of the entire site for close to four millennia. The larger site incorporates a set of individual units reflecting all phases of site development from the megalithic period to the present day, including a monastic chapter house, bo-tree temple, dagoba and the earliest known village revealed by archaeological research in Sri Lanka. Those are located within a site of considerable natural beauty and power.

Particular care has been taken in developing approaches to conservation which are in tune with the site's qualities, and the capacities of available conservators. One of the site's distinguishing characteristics is the regular renewal of decorated surfaces over time; conservation measures devoted to stripping back layers of later painting on wall surfaces or sculpture to reveal earlier images, would be ignoring the worth of the ongoing tradition which has regularly ensured complete repainting of surfaces.

The Five Caves

Five caves converted into shrine rooms make up the temple. The caves, built at the base of a 150 meter high rock during the Anuradhapura (first century B.C.E. to 993 C.E.) and Polonnaruwa periods (1073 to 1250), represent by far the most impressive of the many cave temples found in Sri Lanka. Devotees and visitors access the caves along the gentle slope of the Dambulla Rock, offering a panoramic view of the surrounding flat lands, which includes the rock fortress Sigiriya, nineteen kilometers away. Dusk brings hundreds of swooping swallows to the cave entrance. The largest cave measures about fifty two meters from east to west, twenty three meters from the entrance to the back, and seven meters tall at its highest point. Hindu deities also have representation, as well as the kings Valgamba and Nissankamalla, and Ananda, Buddha's most devoted disciple.

The first cave, called Devaraja lena (lena in sinhalese means "cave"), or "Cave of the Divine King," has an account of the founding of the monastery recorded in a first century Brahmi inscription over the entrance of the cave.

The Devaraja Lena - The Cave of ' Lord of the Gods'

The first cave, called Devaraja lena (lena in sinhalese means "cave"), or "Cave of the Divine King," has an account of the founding of the monastery recorded in a first century Brahmi inscription over the entrance of the cave. The cave, dominated by a 14m statue of the Buddha, has been hewn out of the rock. It has been repainted countless times in the course of its history, and probably received its last coat of paint in the twentieth century. At his feet sits Buddha's favorite pupil, Ananda. At his head stands Vishnu, said to have used his divine powers to create the caves.

The God Vishnu image which is believed to be constructed during the King Vatta Gamini Abhaya 's rein (89-77 BC ) must have given the name Devaraja Lena. The present names of the Cave temples are said to be belongs to a period later than the initial temple construction times as those names have first being mentioned around 1700 AD in temple history.

The Maharaja Lena - The Cave of ' Great Kings '

In the second and largest cave, in addition to sixteen standing and forty seated statues of Buddha, stand the gods Saman and Vishnu which pilgrims often decorate with garlands. The statues of King Vattagamani and King Nissanka Malla also stand in the cave. King Vattagamani, for honoring the monastery in the first century B.C.E., and King Nissanka Malla, for gilding of fifty statues in the twelfth century as indicated by a stone inscription near the monastery entrance. The cave fittingly has been named Maharaja lena, "Cave of the Great Kings."

Wooden figures of the Bodhisattvas Maitreya and Avalokiteshvara or Natha escort the Buddha statue hewn out of the rock on the left side of the room. A spring is said to have healing powers that drips out of a crack in the ceiling. Valuable tempera paintings on the cave ceiling dating from the 18th century depict scenes from Buddha's life, from the dream of Mahamaya to temptation by the demon Mara. Further pictures relate important events from the country's history.

A main feature of this cave is the fascinating life size granite standing Buddha statue. A Makara Torana or the Dragon Arch is constructed above this statue. This is said to be one of the gilded statues done by King Nissankamalla as parts of gold can still be seen today. This dimly lit cave has its own characteristic charm and the serenity not found in a Buddhist Temple anywhere else. The Rock paintings appearing here portray the early Buddhist historical events.

The Maha Alut Viharaya - The Cave of ' Great New Temple'

The third cave, the Maha Alut Vihara, the "Great New Monastery," received ceiling and wall paintings in the typical Kandy style during the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1782), the famous Buddhist revivalist. In addition to the fifty Buddha statues, a statue of the king stands in the cave. There are two doorways with Dragon Arch designs to enter this cave temple. This cave measures about 90 feet in length, 80 feet in width and is about 36 feet high near the entrance wall. There is a reclining Buddha statue of 30 feet in length carved out of the living rock here. There are about fifty Buddha statues surrounding the prominent seated Buddha Statue with a Dragon Arch design constructed in the centre of the cave sculptured out of granite. There are about forty two standing Buddha images and about fifteen seated Buddha statues inside this cave.

The Paccima Viharaya - The Cave of ' Western Temple'

This Cave temple was the westernmost at the earlier times but later an additional cave was added to the west side of this cave temple. This cave measures about 50 feet in length and 27 feet in width. The main attraction is the beautiful seated Buddha image with a Makara Torana in ' dhyana mudra' posture.

Almost identical images of the main seated Buddha image are placed around this cave. A small dageba which was regarded to contain the jewellery of Somawathi , the queen of King Valagamba is situated in this cave. This chetiya is called as 'Soma chetiya' due to that reason. There are murals painted on this small chetiya which are now in a faded status. Statues of God Vishnu and Saman are also found in this cave.

The Devana Alut Viharaya - The Cave of ' Second New Temple'

This is the newest of the all cave temples at Dambulla and the exact construction time of this temple is not in records. The large reclined Buddha image is about 32 feet in length and there are many standing and seated Buddha images constructed in this temple totaling to eleven. Two of the seated Buddha figures have the Hooded Muchalinda Cobra covering above the images. All these statues are constructed out of Brick and plaster where most of the images at the other caves are made of granite rock.


Within the shrine rooms reside a collection of one hundred and fifty statues of the Buddhist Order and the country's history. The statues and paintings represent many epochs of Sinhala sculpture and Sinhala art. The Buddha statues vary in size and attitude, with the largest fifteen meters long. One cave has over 1,500 paintings of Buddha covering the ceiling.

Time line of the Caves

  • 7th to 3rd century B.C.E.: Early inhabitants.
  • 1st century B.C.E.: Paintings and statues.
  • 5th century C.E.: The stupa built.
  • 12th century C.E.: Addition statues of Hindu gods completed.
  • 18th century C.E.: Near completion of cave and shrine building.
  • 19th century C.E.: An additional cave and some paintings added.
  • 20th century C.E.: UNESCO restoration and lighting.


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