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Sri Lanka: Dambulla Cave Temple

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Dambulla Cave Temple > Sri Lanka > Asia

[Visited: March 2019]

When I walk south from Dambulla bus station, my destination is easy to see: the flattened Dambulla Rock in the distance. Once I am closer (and after having bought some more drinks to cope with the scorching sun), I decide not to follow the main road, but walk through a field where cows are grazing. I am instantly rewarded by a better view of Dambulla Rock, reflected in a small lake. I walk around it, find several dead trees standing in the lake, with the granite monolith as a background. I walk the path around the lake, to arrive at the Golden Temple - not much to do with the historic cave temples I am about to visit, but a modern addition to the east side of the rock. An enormous golden Buddha, entrance through its wide open mouth. When I walk the stairs, I find a row of monk statues, and on the backside, a forest full of monkeys. I then walk the stairs to the caves, remove my shoes, ti discover that I need to buy the ticket ... at the bottom of the rock, but on the other side. Walking down and up the hot stairs on my bare shoes only adds to my training, and once I am through the gate, valid ticket in hand, I take some time to rest under the big tree offering shade.

Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): Inside the Maha Raja Viharaya cave with stupa, Buddha statues, and frescoes covering the ceiling

First, it is time to read a little more about this World Heritage site. Skeletons found in caves in the rock suggest that people lived here some 2700 years ago. The cave complex was started in the 1st century BCE, under King Valagamba of Anuradhapura who escaped an invasion of South Indians and found refuge here at Dambulla with Buddhist monks. The top of the natural caves was equipped with a drip line, protecting the richly decorated interior of the caves. I wait until a group of visitors moves to the second cave, and enter the first one: the Deva Raja Viharaya. It is a small cave, much of it occupied by a reclining Buddha. You enter just under its head, and then walk cautiously towards the back of the cave as there is hardly any space between rock wall and Buddha. Here, you find decorated feet, with flower patterns, with a statue of Anand, his disciple, and frescoes of Buddhas on the rock wall.

Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): Reclining Buddha seen from his decorated feet in the Deva Raja Viharaya cave

Next door is the largest cave of all five Dambulla rock temples: the Maha Raja Viharaya, or the Cave of the Great King. It is thought that king Vattagamani Abhaya, a synonym of the aforementioned Valagamba of Anuradhapura, founded this cave. It is 52 metres long and 23 wide, and has a maximum height of 7 metres. As soon as I enter, I am overwhelmed by its rich interior: scores of golden larger-than-life Buddhas, frescoes covering the rocky ceiling, a stupa, all delicately lit by lights placed in circular pots. I sit on the ground to take it all in, then, when there is no one left inside, walk the wall, to have a closer look at the statues and frescoes. But I am never alone for a long time, as more groups enter almost constantly. The next cave is Maha Alut Viharaya, and contains another reclining Buddha on a pillow, with several Buddha statues on either side of the cave. One of the Buddhas is topped by a cobra statue. The next cave is even smaller, and as long as I am alone, I somehow feel at home here in this serene spot with a seated Buddha. It is the last historic cave: cave number five was long used as a storage and only in the 19th century converted to a rock temple. I walk outside the complex, admiring the white gallery built under the enormous rock above, and step into all caves once more on my way back.

Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): Modern building protecting the Dambulla rock temples
Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): Reclining Buddha lying in Cave 3, or Maha Alut Viharaya
Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): Buddhas sitting and standing in Maha Raja Viharaya cave
Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): Frescoes and Buddha statues can be seen at the entrance of the Maha Raja Viharaya cave
Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): South side of the Maha Alut Viharaya cave with Buddha statues
Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): The interior of the enormous Maha Raja Viharaya cave
Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): Fresco depicting Buddha in the Maha Raja Viharaya cave
Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): One of the colourful Buddha statues in the Maha Raja Viharaya cave
Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): Buddha statues in the north corner of the First Cave, or Maha Raja Viharaya
Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): The golden statue of Ananda, at the north side of Deva Raja Viharaya, or the First Cave
Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): Prominent statue of Abhaya Mudra in the Maha Raja Viharaya cave
Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): Buddha head in Maha Alut Viharaya cave, or Cave III
Picture of Dambulla Cave Temple (Sri Lanka): Buddha statue in the Cave of the Great King

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