Dambulla Cave Temples – The ancient UNESCO caves of Sri Lanka

Dambulla temple is Sri Lanka’s best preserved cave temple complex, one of the country’s fantastic UNESCO world heritage sights.

It’s a decent climb to reach the caves, but the reward are five sanctuaries with outstanding wall fresco paintings, images of past kings and queens, and many golden statues of the Buddha.

There’s a sense of quiet, calm, and beauty in the cave temples, and there are very few visitors. For anyone who is visiting nearby Sigirya, Dambulla is a short car ride away, and shouldn’t be missed.

Sketch of toque macaques grooming
Toque macaques grooming each other at the cave’s entrance

Climbing the hill to Dambulla Caves

To reach Dambulla, you need to climb a 160-metre high hill via a winding rock staircase. It’s a humid, sweaty hike, and home to groups of toque macaques. These small brown monkeys (with absurd flat-topped bowl haircuts) generally pay the visitors never mind, focussed only on picking mites from each other.

At the summit of the hill, the tall trees thin out and disappear, and a wide stone plateau spreads out. The panoramic view is wonderful; a flat landscape of hazy green forests and mighty, standalone cone-shaped hills. The air whistles past, so high up from the forest below, and it feels like you’ve climbed something much higher.

Before entering the cave area, there’s a ticket collector (bought from down below at the bottom of the hill – sorry if you made the climb and have to turn back!). Shoes are removed and placed in a plastic bag. The texture of the ground was rough and earthy underfoot, with pretty swirling striations in the stone. Near the entrance, touts attempt to impress tourists with wooden slide puzzle boxes.

Drawing of monkeys grooming in sri lanka
Grooming macaques survey the landscape at Dambulla

Entering Dambulla Caves

The outside of Dambulla Caves are a flat, natural veranda was formed by a sheet of striated rock. The caves are formed by a sheer rock cliff face, which leans over the plateau to create a natural overhang. With a few metres clearance, it creates vast cave formations underneath.

White-painted doorways and galleries conceal the cave entrances. These buildings were completed in the 18th century, the last incarnation of a temple that has been changed and renovated since the third century BCE. In the beginning, the caves served as habitations for forest-dwelling Buddhist monks.

Today, coloured Buddhist flags flutter in the wind. A lot has happened to the caves since those early days. During the Polonnaruwa period almost a millennium ago, the caves were lavishly painted and transformed into Buddhist temples filled with statues, frescoes and iconography.

They still serve as monasteries even today.

Rock face and entrance to Dambulla caves in sri lanka
Outside view of Dambulla caves

Inside the Dambulla Caves

Entering the caves is an immediate respite from the humidity, as a static, refreshing chill hangs in the air. Dull yellow lamps light the rooms, casting weird shadows across the ceiling, and drawing one’s eye to massive frescoes of gold and red paint.

Cave 1 – the Devaraja Viharaya

The Temple of the Lord of the Gods, named for the god Vishnu, is given credit for creating the caves themselves.

Cave 1 is one of the smaller caves, and cramped due to the huge, 14-metre long Buddha laying down in a sleeping position. The Buddha is made from rock, and has some gold leaf.

The wall murals are faded, damaged, and even repainted by clumsy 20-th century artists who attempted to restore the colour and vibrance to the room.

Cave 2 – the Maharaja Vihara

The biggest, and most spectacular cave is surely cave 2, the Temple of the Great Kings. The ceiling reaches a stunning 7 metres high in some places, and the cavern is over 50 metre wide. The cave is named after two kings, Vattagamini Abaya (credited with creating this cave), and Nissankamalla, both of whom have statues.

The walls of the cave are decorated with rows of large Buddha statues. The ceiling, which has spotlights projecting up against it, is a riot of colour. The frescoes tell the story of some moments in the Buddha’s life in dramatic and intricate murals.

Sketch of dambulla cave wall art
Inside Dambulla Caves, showing the painted cave walls.

More Buddhas crept up the ceiling. The natural bulging shape of the rock overhead exaggerated the ominous feeling of the mass of stone above us. We studied the ceiling. Decorative motifs, figures and stories, and hundreds of images of the Buddha were all painted there, faded and worn, a beautiful reminder of a past culture.

Cave 3 – Maha Alut Viharaya

Named The Great New Temple, this cave has an angular ceiling that rises to a lofty 10 metres. There are 50 golden Buddhas standing around in Cave 3, and some very colourful murals that climb the steep ceiling.

Cave 4 – the Paccima Viharaya

The Western Temple is one of the smaller caves in Dambulla. There is a big stupa in the centre of the room with a huge crack in it, caused by thieves who were hoping to find a Queen’s treasures. There are more Buddhas, and lively floral murals across the walls and ceiling.

Cave 5 – the Devana Alut Viharya

Cave 5, the Second New Temple, is a claustrophobic cave, and the newest cave as well. The Buddhas in the cave, including the large 10-metre reclining Buddha, are made of brick instead of stone.

A mural of a man carrying lotus flowers is likely to be the man who endowed the temple.

Seeing Dambulla Caves by tuk tuk

A tuk tuk tour is one of the easiest ways to visit the Caves.

After descending the hike, we knocked the red dust from our shoes and climbed back in our tuk tuk, which had been patiently waiting for us.

The hotel in Sigirya had arranged him for us, and he clearly knew the route, as he had several other spots to show us on the ‘Dambulla trail’.

The Golden Buddha of Dambulla

Not far from the base of Dambulla, we were brought over to visit the nearby Golden Buddha, the largest Buddha in the world (that is, using the ‘Wheel of Law’ hand posture).

Its a laughably tacky sight, actually. The Buddha sits above a Buddhist museum (and that all sounds fine so far).

But the entrance is some kind of terrifying sculpture of a giant mouth, which you walk into. There are rows of giant pink lotus leaves fringing the museum, which gives a weird, ‘row of teeth’ effect. To top it off, there are twin blue turrets, which would look more at home in Disneyland than a religious museum.

But, it’s fun to check out!

Dambulla produce market

A tuk tuk tour might even take you through the Dambulla produce market, the largest fresh produce market in Sri Lanka! The market sets up under a giant open warehouse roof, where heavy piles of fresh produce are piled up, even on top of cars. This isn’t really a market with stalls and food and street food – rather, it’s mostly locals here, buying in bulk. It’s a lively, colourful place, and an unexpectedly fun stop.

Have you visited Dambulla caves? What stood out to you as the most impressive feature?

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