Dambulla Cave Temple in central Sri Lanka has 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 the 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.
You can climb the rock from its two opposite faces. One where you buy the tickets and the 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. In 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 side of the steps and came back from the ramp side. I would strongly suggest taking both paths, as the scenery you see on them is of two different sides of the rock. From the side of the steps, 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 Cave Temple
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 is that these are natural caves. When you are inside, you see the natural contours of the rock & artisans have skilfully painted them accordingly. This is unlike the ones we see at Ajanta, Ellora, or Barabar – which are manually excavated.
As per records, King Vattagamini Abhaya took refuge on this rock way back in the 1st BCE. He later converted these caves into Cave Temples.
King Nissankamalla whom we met at Polonnaruwa later got them covered in gold thus giving it the 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, these caves are where the monks started their nationalist movement against the British in 1848 CE.
Dambulla Cave Temple You Must Visit
5 Main Caves
Overall, there are 80 caves here, but there are 5 main ones that are visited by tourists. Being natural all are of different sizes and shapes.
The first sight of the 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 them. The entrances are made to look like a temple entrance with guards and angels carved.
Red and Yellow are the dominating colors. Space above statues 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.
1 Devraja Lena or Cave of Divine King
This is small in size and has a dominating image of Buddha in Mahaparinirvana State. The image occupies most of the space. Since this was the first one I saw, I was dumbstruck. The bright colors of the murals and the statues are stunning.
The most interesting part here is the painted soles of Buddha in a pattern that combines the wheel of dharma and the lotus flower.
On the right, there is an image of Buddha in a 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 into geometric and floral patterns.
Next to the first cave is a small temple with images of Vishnu & Karthikeyan.
Prime of the Dambulla Cave Temple – Maharaja Lena
This is the biggest cave. It is overwhelming to stand in this and see the Buddhas sitting and standing all around. Most statues wear yellow color.
A stupa stands close to one of the two doors. 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 thousands of 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 also contains the images of the two kings mentioned above.
This is a smaller version of the primary one. A big statue welcomes you as you enter and then there meditating Buddhas all around.
By the time you reach this, you know what to expect. This is a relatively small one with a sleeping Buddha image.
This one has a small stupa surrounded by Buddha images and stories.
After you have seen all the caves, stand in the open space outside 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 schoolchildren come here to play and to pray. It is sitting here that I realized that play & prayer 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 Dambulla Cave Temple and museum at the base of the rock. It overlooks the plains and Sigiriya Rock.
- Climb either in the morning or evening. It is too hot during the daytime.
- 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.
- They are hot and humid but outside is windy. I stepped out every few minutes to breathe fresh air.
- You need 1.5 – 2 hours to see the caves comfortably.
The best place to stay nearby is Kandy which is not too far or like me, you can stay at Cinnamon Lodge at Habarana which is about 30 minutes drive away.
25 Things to do in Sri Lanka – Video on my YouTube channel
Recommend you watch the video in HD mode and plan your trip.
Recommend you read the following travel blogs on places to visit in Sri Lanka.
Polonnaruwa – the Most Beautiful ruined city
Anuradhapura – Things to see in the ancient capital
Ramayana Places to see in Sri Lanka
Top 15 Sri Lanka Souvenirs to pick
Interesting caves and fascinating photos. Loved the different styles of Buddha Idols, some standing, some sitting , some in different mode..Looks good.
Jhilmil, a lot of them are Bodhisattvas – those on the path to becoming a Buddha. Every inch of these caves is painted and painted elaborately.
What a nice peek into your trip. I like how each cave was extremely different then the previous. It’s also nice that the locals don’t have to pay.
Rose, right – after all, heritage places like Dambulla caves belong to all the citizens so they should not be charged. And visitors who travel all the way to see them can pay a little for their maintenance.
I had the privilege of visiting these caves too. The view from the top of the steps was incredible. It was sad to hear that some tourists weren’t respectful a few years ago and sat in the Buddha’s lap! I think out tour guide said the place had to close to be cleaned and re-blessed.
Jen, cultural differences sometimes lead to such tourist behaviors. In general, it is always good to be extra careful and respectful at religious places, because for you it may be just an idol but for others, it is their faith. I did not hear of this incidence though. Coming from India, I knew what Buddha means to Buddhist.
WOW! The outside of those caves are just as beautiful as the inside. I love the patterns in all of the spaces. Gorgeous!
Kassy, yes outside and inside are very different – they belong to two different styles.
To call these murals is a major understatement. I’ve long said that the architecture in India is unlike any other I’ve ever seen. Thank you for sharing these outstanding photos.
Ola, This is Sri Lanka, but I agree the architecture of South Asia is quite unique.
Wow what an amazing experience. I love the various Buddha statues and the attention to details in all of the architecture. I can’t imagine the energy that it took to complete 150 statues. I bet there was a peaceful vibe in there also…or at least it appears that way.
Erin, it is a beautiful place. It is a mystery how so many statues were built and how every inch of these caves was painted.
The outside of those caves are just as beautiful as the inside. I love the patterns in all of the spaces. Thanks for sharing!
Sonali – yes the whole Dambulla rock sits in such a lovely environment and then it dazzles you with colorful wall murals.
I like the view of Green Fields next to hills of Dambulla; it reminds of my hometown where we use to race down the hill that is next to our village. Thank you for sharing
AAndi, Dambulla is like an outcrop in green fields. I loved the sight of Sigiriya Rock from here.
Wow how gorgeous are these statues. So different from the American or European culture. I love learning about other cultures and seeing photo from different places in the world. This is a must-see when visiting Sri Lanka. What an experience.
Kimberly, yes Asian culture and especially South Asian culture is quite unique. Buddhist cultures though have a lot of similarities across Asia. Yes, you must see both Dambulla Caves and Sigiriya Rock as and when you visit Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is on my bucket list. These caves and murals are fascinating!
Sri Lanka is on my bucket list. These caves and murals are fascinating! You took great photos!
Sri Lanka is on my bucket list! These caves and murals are fascinating and your photos are excellent!
Thank you, Flo – may you get to tick off Sri Lanka soon on your bucket list.
That’s so cool with all of these caves in Sri Lanka. I love all of these amazing murals. I am sure they would be a sight to behold in person.
David, they are a sight to behold if you can manage to stay inside long enough in the hot humidity. I wonder how the monks stayed inside to meditate.
Oh gosh the murals are breathtaking! I imagine walking into a cave with such murals was nothing short of amazing.
Toya, absolutely. You climb a steep hill, you see the European entrance, you step in and you see this riot of colors.
Beautifully captured. Those murals look amazing, must have been so exciting visiting the caves and experiencing them for real. I love such rich details every place has for us, travel takes us back in time and brings us closer to the rich cultural history.
Thank you, Shreya. Travel makes you aware of the heritage you have received, that you must build upon and leave a legacy of your own to leave behind.
Oh wow! Have heard so much about Sigiriya and Dambulla, it’s on my list of places to visit.