Part of the ‘Cultural Triangle’ declared by UNESCO, Dambulla is approximately 19km from Sigiriya and is thought to have been inhabited by natives from as early as the 7th to 3rd century BCE. Located in the central province of Sri Lanka, the city boasts the largest rose quartz mountain range in South Asia – the Jathika Namal Uyana.
However, the main attraction in the city is the Dambulla Cave Temple, which has been a sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries. Being the largest and best preserved cave complex in the country, it towers 160m over the surrounding plains and has more than 80 documented caves in the vicinity. Most of the ancient statues and paintings are found in 5 specific caves, which have been converted into shrine rooms. The largest of these caves houses 48 statues of the Buddha alone. Statues of Hindu Gods are also found, and these statues date back to the 2nd or 1st century – the time when Hinduism took root in Sri Lanka and began influencing art.
A total of 157 statues of various sizes can be found in the caves, of which the tallest is 15 metres tall. The Buddhist mural paintings on the walls of the cave cover an area of 2,100m2 and depict the Buddha’s temptation by the demon Mara, and the Buddha’s first sermon. The statues and paintings are a good example of Sinhalese sculpture and art, and are unique in scale and its degree of preservation.
The history of the caves is thought to date back to the 1st century, when King Valagamba was driven out of Anuradhapura and was forced to take refuge there. When the king regained his throne, he decided to carve the interior of the caves into magnificent rock temples. Further improvements have been made by other kings later on, including King Nissanka Malla, who had the caves’ interior gilded, thus giving rise to the name Ran Giri, or ‘Golden Rock.’
The temple is regarded as the perfect place to get an insight into the evolution of the ancient Sri Lankan arts. The amalgamation of material from many eras has made Dambulla a unique and historical site, and it is of little wonder that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.