Dambulla caves in central Sri Lanka have the best-preserved wall murals. This was a good enough reason for me to plan a hike to these rock caves. Top it with the fact that this is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. After walking in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in June heat, I was really low on energy. My experience at Mihintale told me clearly that either climb this rock in the morning or evening. I chose to do it late afternoon around 4 PM or so.
Dambulla cave can be climbed from its two opposite faces. One where you buy the tickets and second where there is a giant golden temple. I picked up my tickets and everyone said the golden temple way is easier to climb, so entered from that side. A giant golden statue and a golden pagoda at the entrance cannot be missed.
I started climbing the broad but easy steps. At places, the steps were not carved so you have to climb the rock surface. At a point, there are two paths that lead to the top. One is a steep ramp and another is that of reasonable steps. The former is shorter but the other one is easier. I climbed from the steps side and came back from the ramp side. I would strongly suggest taking both the paths as the scenery you see on them is of two different sides of Dambulla rock. From the steps side, you see the mighty Sigiriya Rock standing with another twin. From the ramp side, you see a million shades of green with the backdrop of lovely hills.
History of Dambulla Caves
Dambulla is made of Damba + Ulla meaning rock and fountain. Yes, there is a constant drip that one of its biggest caves gets. What I found most interesting about Dambulla is that these caves are natural caves. When you are inside the caves, you see the natural contours of the rock & artisans have skilfully painted them accordingly. This is unlike the caves we see at Ajanta, Ellora or Barabar – which are manually excavated caves.
As per records, King Vattagamini Abhaya took refuge on this rock way back in 1st BCE. He later converted these caves into cave temples.
King Nissankamalla whom we met at Polonnaruwa later got the caves covered in gold thus giving it a name Ranagiri caves. Ran in Sinhalese is gold.
In all, there are more than 150 Buddha images, some royal images and some images of Hindu Gods & Goddesses.
In the modern history of Sri Lanka, Dambulla caves are where the monks started their nationalist movement against the British in 1848 CE.
5 Main Caves at Dambulla
Overall, there are 80 caves here, but there are 5 main caves that are visited by the tourists. Being natural caves all caves are of different size and shape.
The first sight of Dambulla caves gives you a series of sparkling white doorways at the bottom of a giant rock. The architecture looks very colonial, at least of the first doorway that is closest to you. I would later learn that these are 20th CE additions and no wonder carry the prevalent architectural markers of those times.
A small corridor runs in front of the caves. The cave entrances are made to look like a temple entrance with guards and angels carved.
Red and Yellow are the dominating colors at Dambulla Caves. The space above Buddha is created like a patterned textile usually in checks of white, black and red. It is like a textile parasol to indicate the divine nature of the image below it.
Cave 1 – Devraja Lena or Cave of Divine King
This small Cave has a dominating image of Buddha in Mahaparinirvana State. The image occupies most of the cave. Since this was the first Cave I saw, I was dumbstruck. The bright colors of the murals and the statues are stunning.
Most interesting part of this cave is the painted soles of Buddha in a pattern that combines the wheel of dharma and lotus flower.
On the right, there is an image of Buddha in sitting posture with a lovely Prabhavali or the halo. Ananda stands at his feet and kings and noblemen are painted on the walls with their folded hands. The scenes on the ceiling are separated with geometric and floral patterns.
Next to first cave at Dambulla is a small temple with the images of Vishnu & Karthikeyan.
Cave 2 – The Biggest Cave aka Maharaja Lena
This is the biggest cave of Dambulla Caves. It is overwhelming to stand in this cave and see the Buddhas sitting and standing all around. Most Buddha statues wear yellow color.
A stupa stands close to one of the two doors to this cave. The ceiling has a large surface area and every inch of it is painted. There is the story of Maras trying to interrupt the meditation of Buddha.
Images of thousand Buddhas – sitting in meditation is an image that can be seen on the ceiling rock face. This is usually seen on walls at Ajanta.
This cave also contains the images of the two kings mentioned above.
Cave 3 – Dambulla
This is a smaller version of the cave 2. A big statue welcomes you as you enter and then there meditating Buddhas all around.
By the time you reach Cave 4, you know what to expect. This is a relatively small cave with a sleeping Buddha image.
This cave has a small stupa surrounded by Buddha images and Buddha stories.
After you have seen the caves, stands in the open space outside the caves and admire the beautiful surroundings. Watch the devotees and the devotion they bring to this place. You can clearly see the difference between the body language of tourists who admire the place but miss the connection. Devotees, on the other hand, do not care about the art or heritage, they come there to revive their connection with the higher self.
Incidentally, a lot of school children come here to play and to pray. It is sitting here that I realized that play & pray are such similar words, why do our interpretations take them apart so much.
A large image of Buddha in gold sits on top of the temple and museum at the base of the Dambulla rock. It overlooks the plains and Sigiriya Rock.
Travel Tips for Dambulla
- Climb either in the morning or evening. It is too hot during the day time.
- Carry your bottle of water.
- Guides are available at the site, but you can read and go. It is not a large site.
- Climb from one side and get down from another so that you can admire views from both sides of the rock.
- The ticket for foreigners is SLR 1500. It is free for Sri Lankans.
- The caves are hot and humid but outside the caves is windy. I stepped out every few minutes to breathe fresh air.
- You need 1.5 – 2 hours to see Dambulla cave comfortably.
The best place to stay for Dambulla is Kandy which is not too far or like me, you can stay at Cinnamon Lodge at Habarana which is about 30 minutes from Dambulla.
25 Things to do in Sri Lanka – Video on my YouTube channel
Recommend you watch the video in HD mode and plan your trip to Sri Lanka.
Recommend you read following travel blogs on places to visit in Sri Lanka