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Cave Temple of Dambulla, UNESCO. Source: JoseMaria/Adobe Stock

From a King’s Refuge to Buddhist Grandeur: Dambulla Cave Temple

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One of Sri Lanka’s most well-preserved gems is the Dambulla Cave Temple, a renowned Buddhist temple complex from the 1st century BC. Sometimes referred to as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, the complex holds significant historical, cultural, and religious value. 

Pre-Buddhist Origins as a Royal Hideout

The history of the Dambulla Cave Temple originates well before the Buddhist Era in Sri Lanka. According to many historical records, the caves were first used in the 1st century BC by King Valagamba, the ruler of Anuradhapura. Anuradhapura was the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, and was frequently attacked by South Indian forces. As a result, King Valagamba used to hide in the caves of Dambulla to avoid his enemies. 

According to the legend, the king did this for over 15 years to remain safe from opposing forces. During these many stays, it is said that he slowly converted the caves into a place of worship while he had to hide away. Once he regained his kingdom after all these years, he then transformed the caves fully into a Buddhist temple to show his gratitude for his life being spared. 

However, the massive reconstruction aspects of the caves that occurred are attributed to King Nissanka Malla, who became king in the 12th century. King Nissanka Malla was known for his dedication to Buddhism and his many contributions to many religious areas throughout ancient Sri Lanka. During his reign, he took the caves a step further and significantly expanded and developed them. 

Some of the ways King Nissanka Malla improved the Dambulla Cave Temple was by commissioning several murals and statues to decorate the space. Over the next several generations of rulers, more and more artwork was added, contributing significantly to the caves’ popularity for both pilgrims and Buddhists looking to worship there. 

Unveiling the Intricate Wonders of the Enchanting Cave Temple 

The fascinating Dambulla Cave Temple is made of 5 main caves carved into a giant granite rock formation. Each of the 5 caves has a different religious significance, with its own unique features to represent it. 

The Cave Temple of the Divine King. (PIERRE ANDRE LECLERCQ/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Cave Temple of the Divine King. (PIERRE ANDRE LECLERCQ/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The first cave, the Cave of the Divine King, is the largest and most elaborate cave in the complex. It has a 14-meter-long (46ft) reclining Buddha statue, which is the largest in the entire temple. The walls of this cave are adorned with gorgeous frescoes, all of which depict various scenes from the life of Buddha and several Jataka tales. 

The second cave, the Cave of the Great King, is one of the most visually striking of the 5. In this cave is a large standing Buddha that is approximately 7 meters (22.9 ft) tall. There are several painted patterns and carvings on the walls of this cave, and the ceiling also contains many vibrant paintings of lotus flowers and other decor.

Buddha statues inside the second cave.  (Vidu Gunaratna/AdobeStock)

Buddha statues inside the second cave.  (Vidu Gunaratna/AdobeStock)

The third cave is called the Great New Temple and is filled with several smaller Buddha statues. This cave also has many paintings and carvings, though much simpler than the other caves. 

The Second New Temple is the fourth cave, and has a seated Buddha statue and a few smaller statues of other deities. The fifth cave, the Great Western Monastery, is the smallest, and is believed to be the dwelling place for meditating monks. However, it is large enough to have one reclining Buddha statue and a few other tinier statues. 

Amongst these 5 caves is a large courtyard filled with many shrines and beautiful landscaping. A Bodhi tree grows near the entrance, which is an important Buddhist symbol. This combination of lush greenery with the serenity of the caves creates a calming ambiance appreciated by all who visit. 

Sitting Buddha, statue in the Second Dambulla cave temple in Sri Lanka. (petrsalinger/AdobeStock)

Sitting Buddha, statue in the Second Dambulla cave temple in Sri Lanka. (petrsalinger/AdobeStock)

The Resilience of Dambulla Cave Temple Through Attacks and Decay

While the Dambulla Cave Temple underwent many improvements throughout the years, it also endured many hardships. The temple was attacked and invaded many times, leading to significant damage in many of the caves. 

In addition to attacks from outside forces, the caves also endured natural decay, which led to the weakening of many areas in the caves. Each time the caves were damaged, they were quickly restored by the current ruler, each one believing in the crucial importance of such a sacred Buddhist place of worship. 

It wasn’t until the colonial era that the cave experienced major decay without restoration. Sri Lanka was under European rule at this time, and the complex was left neglected, leading to significant deterioration. Government leadership at the time ignored these issues, and the temple was not physically preserved. 

This treatment continued into the 19th century, when the British colonial government restricted many Buddhist practices and institutions. Many monks still residing in the temple left, and religious life in the temple faced significant decline. 

Even through all of this, the temple was never fully abandoned. At least a few monks always remained in the caves, doing their best to preserve what was left in the midst of all the decay. In the 20th century, their cries for restoration were answered, resulting in the Dambulla Cave Temple becoming popular with pilgrims and Buddhists once again. 

Golden Temple building, Dambulla, Sri Lanka (Bernard Gagnon/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Golden Temple building, Dambulla, Sri Lanka (Bernard Gagnon/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Discovering Spiritual Devotion at Dambulla Cave Temple

The Dambulla Cave Temple is a testament to the rich history, cultural significance, and religious devotion of the Sri Lankan people. From its origins as a place of refuge for ancient royalty to its transformation into a grand Buddhist temple, these famous caves have witnessed centuries of devotion and adoration. Its vast caves, filled with intricate decor, represent the artistic excellence of ancient Sri Lanka and their many architectural achievements over the years. 

Today, the temple remains as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is enjoyed by both Buddhists and visitors alike all year long.

Top image: Cave Temple of Dambulla, UNESCO. Source: JoseMaria/Adobe Stock

By Lex Leigh

References

Agnew, N. 1997. Conservation of ancient sites on the Silk Road: Proceedings of an international conference on the conservation of grotto sites. Getty Conservation Institute.

Centre, U. W. H. (n.d.). Rangiri Dambulla cave temple. Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/561/

Coleman, E., & Coleman, J. 2023. Dambulla Cave Temples - ten things you need to know before visiting. Available at: https://www.colemanconcierge.com/dambulla-cave-temples/

Dambulla Cave Temple. Lakpura LLC. (n.d.). https://us.lakpura.com/pages/dambulla-cave-temple

TLC. (n.d.). Dambulla Golden rock temple - tips to visit cave temple. Available at: https://www.travellankaconnection.com/destinations/dambulla-golden-rock-temple/#:~:text=History%20Behind%20Dambulla%20Cave%20Temple&text=The%20region%20is%20believed%20to,renovation%20works%20inside%20the%20caves.

 
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Lex

Lex Leigh is a former educator with several years of writing experience under her belt. She earned her BS in Microbiology with a minor in Psychology. Soon after this, she earned her MS in Education and worked as a secondary... Read More

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