As you may already know, more than 70% of the Sri Lankan population follows Buddhism. This makes Sri Lanka a great place to study Buddhist philosophy and wonderful culture. Owing to this fact, there are many iconic Buddhist religious places all over the country. Dambulla cave temple is one such famous Buddhist temple, and it is in Dambulla, Sri Lanka.
Especially, when you are visiting Sri Lanka, you should spare some time to visit the historical places as they will add more valuable memories to your awesome time on this paradise island. However, this well-preserved cave complex is a must-visit attraction in Sri Lanka due to many reasons. Apart from its interesting historical features, the scenic surroundings of this area will come as a bonus for your visit. So, if you are planning to visit the Dambulla cave temple, here’s all you need to know about this magnificent temple.
History of the Dambulla Cave Temple
This temple complex dates back to the first century BCE. There are mentions of the Dambulla cave temple in the Mahavamsa, the principal Pali Chronicle of Sri Lanka as well. The Mahavamsa refers to the rock temple of Dambulla as the Jumbukola Vihara.
To be specific, the history of the cave complex runs back to the pre-Christian era. In the early days, the Buddhist hermits used these caves. There are several Brahmi inscriptions at the site which prove this fact.
King Abhaya of Anuradhapura was a patron of this cave complex in Dambulla. There is evidence that some of the Buddha images inside the caves belong to the reign of King Abhaya. After King Abhaya, King Nissankamalla of Anuradhapura became the next main patron of the Dambulla cave temple. There are several inscriptions which state the contributions of King Nissankamalla to the Dambulla Cave temple.
Accordingly, King Nissankamalla is popular for his lavish treatment of the Dambulla cave temple. Dambulla cave temple became famous as the Rangiri Dambulla after he performed a great puja which made the Buddha statues in the cave of Dambulla glow. However, the temple didn’t receive that much attention from the Sinhalese kings after the downfall of the Polonnaruwa kingdom. Still, the Dambulla Cave temple remained a prominent Buddhist centre in the country even afterwards.
After the 18th century, King Senaratna of the Kandyan Kingdom identified the importance of the Dambulla temple and refurbished the temple. Besides, King Kirti Sri Rajasinha of the Kandyan Kingdom is the last royal benefactor of the temple. There is also a statue of this king at the entrance to the temple.
It is clear that the Dambulla cave temple used to be one of the most popular Buddhist religious sites which gained the attention of the country’s royalty.
Significance of the Dambulla Cave Temple
Among the prominent Buddhist religious centres in Sri Lanka, the Dambulla cave temple emerges as one of the most iconic locations. Its significance in various aspects makes it a highlight. Hence, there are several significant features that you shouldn’t miss during your visit to this magnificent temple. Here is a list of them with more details.
The Caves and Paintings
According to the records, the Dambulla cave temple happens to be the largest and best-preserved cave complex in Sri Lanka. There are five main caves in the complex that gains the most attention.
These five caves contain many statues and paintings that are related to Lord Buddha and his life. Some of these early paintings belong to the 8th century BCE. Besides, the design and the patterns of the Dambulla cave paintings resemble much of the paintings of Sigiriya. Apart from that, the paintings in the caves represent the new school of Sinhalese paintings. However, history reveals that these paintings were renovated and over-painted during the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinha.
Needless to say, the Dambulla cave temple is one of the best locations to study Sri Lankan-style ancient paintings. Hence, this well-acclaimed cave complex will be one of the most interesting things that you will witness during your visit to this religious site.
The Five Caves at Dambulla Cave Temple
By now, you already know that the Dambulla cave temple complex consists of five caves. They are as follows.
- Deva Raja Viharaya
- MahaRaja Viharaya
- Maha Aluth Viharaya
- Paschima Viharaya
- Devana Aluth Viharaya
Continue reading to know more about these caves and their significance.
1. Deva Raja Viharaya
Cave 1 or the Devaraja Viharaya (temple of the king of gods) is the first cave that you will see on your visit to the Dambulla Cave temple. According to the beliefs, the King of gods – God Sakka, himself gave the finishing touches to cave no 1. The well-preserved parinibbana (last moment) image of Lord Buddha is the most prominent feature of the Devaraja viharaya. In comparison with the other Parinibbana images of Lord Buddha, this one takes a unique shape. Furthermore, there are five more standing images of Lord Buddha in this cave. Also, there is an image of God Vishnu in this Deva Raja Viharaya cave. However, this cave is not open to the public.
2. Maharaja Viharaya
This is the largest in size and the most attractive cave among the five caves at the Dambulla cave temple. This cave is one hundred and seventy-two feet in length, seventy-five in breadth and twenty-one feet in height. Maha Raja Viharaya cave got its name, with the meaning ‘Cave of the Great King’, as there was a belief that King Watta Gamini Abhaya is the founder of the cave. However, there are several Buddha statues of varying sizes inside this cave.
At the entrance of this cave, there is a Makara Torana which is carved into the rock itself. There are two statues of deities (Natha and Maitreya) also in the cave. As such, this is one of the most detailed caves of all which also consists of a brightly coloured interior.
3. Maha Aluth Viharaya
Maha Aluth Viaharya or the ‘Great New Temple cave’ is adjacent to cave no 2. Before the eighteenth century, this cave was used as the store room of the temple complex. Afterwards, King Kirthi Sri Rajasinha renovated this cave into a shrine room. So, inside the cave, you will be able to see a statue of this king as well. Also, there is a Buddha statue in this cave which is in the recumbent posture. However, this cave is ninety feet long, eighty-one feet wide and thirty-six feet tall.
4. Paschima Viharaya
Paschima Viharaya is the cave which is also known by the name, the Western temple. This cave is about fifty-four feet long, twenty-seven feet wide and twenty-seven feet tall. There are ten statues of Lord Buddha in the Paschima Viharaya. These Buddha statues are exceptionally well-detailed. Furthermore, most of the Buddha statues in this cave are larger in size. They are also a great representation of the art of the Kandyan period. In the middle of this cave, there is a small replica of a Buddhist stupa. The interior of this cave is also painted with images in bright colours.
5. Devana Aluth Viharaya
This is the latest addition to the five caves of the Dambulla Cave temple. The prominent feature of this cave is the large reclining Buddha statue. This statue is about 32 feet in length. Moreover, there are also eleven other standing and seated Buddha statues in this cave. Two of these Buddha images are in the well-known Muchalinda cobra covering posture. In other caves, statues are made out of granite rock. Yet, in the Devana Aluth Viharaya, all the statues are made out of brick and plaster.
Generally, there are a few Buddha statues in every Buddhist temple. Still, the speciality of the Dambulla Cave temple is that there are 153 Buddha statues inside the cave complex. These Buddha statues are of varying sizes. In Particular, the golden Buddha statues are absolutely stunning. The sight of these Buddha statues can calm one’s mind. Apart from these Buddha statues, there are three statues of Sri Lankan kings and four statues of gods and goddesses as well. These statues are of God Vishnu and God Ganesha.
These are also proof of the artistic talent of the ancient Sri Lankan artists. It is impressive how those artists have brought these statues into life with minimum resources. It will be an exciting experience to walk through the statues that are well-preserved inside the caves. After all, this is an ideal location to see various kinds of Buddha statues at the same place.
Dambulla Cave temple as a whole is one of the unique architectural locations in Sri Lanka. As mentioned earlier, the five main caves are the main attraction of the temple site. These five caves are located under a huge overhanging rock. In order to keep the interior of the cave complex dry, a drip line is carved in the rock.
This temple stands 1118 feet above sea level. The impressive architecture of the temple site has made the temple a UNESCO world heritage site. This architectural marvel is partly natural and partly artificial. The later additions to the temple site are impressive as well. If you love exploring places with an architectural and archaeological value, then the Dambulla cave temple should be on your bucket list.
Conservation of the Dambulla Cave Temple
By now, you already know that this UNESCO world heritage site is the best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. Yet, there are many factors that can have a negative impact on the well-being of the temple site such as certain religious activities, tourism, pests, climatic changes, and water conditions. Owing to these reasons, the state authorities have implemented various measures to ensure the safety of the Dambulla Cave temple. Hence, the visitors have to follow several rules and regulations upon their visit to the temple.
After all, everyone has a responsibility in protecting this heritage for future generations as well. As visitors, make sure you do your part by not harming this site.
The Bottom Line
Sri Lanka is popular around the world as a tourist paradise with scenic surroundings and a gorgeous beach line. But you should absolutely spare some time to visit the historical places in Sri Lanka as well. It will be an enriching experience to learn about the country’s culture, religion and history. If you also love to explore the country’s historical places, there’s a huge list for you to choose from. So to your bucket, you should add Dambulla Cave temple right away. It will be one of the most memorable visits during your vacation in Sri Lanka. Happy and safe travelling!