While Sigiriya, the Lion Fortress, may be at the heart of Sri Lanka, it is the many temples that dot the country where you’ll find the soul. None epitomise this more than at the Golden Temple of Dambulla – the spiritual centre for Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
I made the trip to Dambulla twice. Once, as a pass by on the way to Sigiriya when the skies were near perfect, but we only had a few minutes to see just beyond the golden stupa at the front gate; the second, a week or so later, when the weather had turned and the caves were a pleasant escape from the drizzle.
From the roadside, it’s quite easy to spot Dambulla. With a towering golden Buddha, golden stupa and museum, a recent addition in the past decade, just past the front gate. While they may look important, it isn’t until you climb the stairs, to the cave temples, that you realise that they are little more than adornments. The true importance of why Dambulla is such a significant Buddhist site can only be found at the top.
Fooled by my own confidence, I didn’t realise just how many stairs it would take to climb to the painted caves. It took around fifteen minutes to climb to the top. This journey was punctured by pauses for photos, water, and to watch a group of cheeky monkeys run amuck.
Along the staircases stand people, usually women, selling offerings of lotus flowers. Don’t buy one. No sooner had a family with young children paid for their purchase, two monkeys came clambering down from trees, ripping the flowers from their hands and eating what remained.
The monkeys are a good marker though. As soon as you see them, you’ll know you are almost at the top.
From the entrance, it looks like a modest row of houses built under a jutting outcrop of granite rock that rises 150 metres. You need to step inside the cave complex – considered the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka – to fully understand why Dambulla is so treasured.
Within the surrounding area, 80 cave temples have been found, dating back to 1st Century B.C.E., but only 5 currently are open to the public.
I viewed the caves in order, however, I wish I’d seen the caves in reverse, as many guidebooks will tell you. From humble Cave 5 and 4 to the most impressive, Cave 2, known as Majaraja Vihara (Temple of the Great Kings) which houses a 14-metre statue of the Buddha, hewn out of the rock, said to have been created in the 1st-century.
Almost every surface of the caves are painted with striking patterns and Buddhist murals in shades of red, yellow and white, many related to Gautama Buddha and his life. Some mention Vishu and Ganesha, too. Within the Cave of the Great Kings, over 1,500 paintings of Buddha cover the ceiling. There are also 157 statues standing, sitting or lying throughout the caves.
For thousands of years, these paintings and statues have been protected and preserved by monks, starting with the monks who first arrived in Sri Lanka in the 3rd century B.C.E., then those who created the statues, much later, in the 12th century B.C.E.
Dambulla’s cave monastery is still functional and it’s likely you will see Buddhists visiting, often laying offerings and praying, especially in the Cave of the Great Kings. You might also see some animals – dogs or cats – running around the monastery grounds.
Quietly, Buddhists who are making the pilgrimage will pray and lay offerings while the tourists – often in groups – will snap their photos and leave loudly.
It’s quite a humbling experience to stand amongst the dark caves, with only a few of the statues illuminated by dim lighting, in a place that feels so alive. If you can, wait til there’s a moment of stillness where you can appreciate the magnitude and sanctity that Dambulla holds; a sanctity that has stretched across thousands of years and hopefully thousands more.
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The Golden Temple of Dambulla
To visit many of Sri Lanka’s most famous attractions, an entrance fee is charged. Proportional to the cost of many other services in Sri Lanka, visiting these sites is on the pricier side.
A single ticket to the Golden Temples of Dambulla costs USD$10 or LKR1500.
Shoes cannot be worn in Dambulla, so be aware you will need to remove them. Storage is available on site.
Flash photography is not permitted, in order to protect the relics and paintings.
Where to stay
I stayed at Jetwing Vil Uyana, a luxury eco-resort at the base of Sigiriya. Located centrally in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, the incredible resort is a short drive away from many of the Central provinces major attractions.
If you choose not to travel with a tour group, Jetwing Hotels can arrange for a private driver for you during your visit to Sri Lanka through their sister company, Jetwing Travels. They also provide tour options.