Dambulla: an Illustrated Guide to Sri Lanka’s Cave Temples

Dambulla temple is Sri Lanka’s best preserved cave temple complex, one of the country’s fantastic UNESCO world heritage sights. At the top of a tall hill, the caves are filled with incredible 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 temples. For anyone who is visiting nearby Sigirya, Dambulla shouldn’t be missed.

Buying your tickets

Tickets are available from the ticket office at the bottom of the hill, before the climb, and cost USD$10. The caves are easily reached by a knowledgeable tuk tuk driver, or public bus from Sigirya.

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

Making your way to the top

To reach Dambulla, you need to climb a 160-metre high hill, a staircase climb (which is quite a sweaty hike).

The staircase is home to groups of toque macaques, small brown monkeys with absurd flat-topped bowl haircuts. They 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. With such flat surroundings, the panoramic view of hazy green forests and mighty cone-shaped hills makes it feel like you’ve climbed something much higher.

We removed our shoes, and placed them in a plastic bag. The texture of the ground was rough and earthy underfoot, with pretty swirling striations in the stone. A nearby tout was impressing tourists with wooden slide puzzle boxes.

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

Entering the caves

Flash your ticket at the entrance gate, leave your shoes behind, and you’ll find yourself in front of a sheer rock cliff face, falling down to a create a natural overhang, stopping a few metres off the ground. This creates a series of large natural cave formations big enough to walk around in.

Outside, a natural veranda was formed by a sheet of flat, striated rock. White-painted doorways and galleries concealed the cave entrances, whilst coloured flags fluttered in the wind. During the Polonnaruwa period almost a millennium ago, these caves had been painted and transformed into Buddhist temples. Today, they still serve as monasteries.

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

Frescoes

Entering the caves gave respite from the humidity. A static, refreshing chill hung in the air. Dull yellow lamps lit the room, casting weird shadows across the ceiling, revealing massive frescoes of gold and red paint.

A gold stupa dominated the centre of the room, surrounded by statues of gesturing Buddhas, sitting cross-legged.

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.

The artwork in the caves dates back as far as the first century BCE. The rest of the caves were smaller, yet no less opulent. An enormous reclining Buddha lounged in one cave, and all featured lavishly painted images of stupas, geometric patterns and Buddhas.

The Golden Buddha

Back at the bottom, we knocked the red dust from our shoes and climbed back in our tuk tuk, which had been patiently waiting for us.

At the base of Dambulla, we made some time to visit the nearby Golden Buddha, the largest Buddha in the world using the ‘Wheel of Law’ hand posture. It sits above a Buddhist museum which is decorated with a terrifying sculpture of a giant mouth, which you walk into.

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

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