One of my most beautiful memories of Sri Lanka had been the painted cave temple of Dambulla and for once, I had liked the little Sinhalese town as much as the site itself. Though not my originally planned pit stop, Dambulla had charmed me more than any other place I had visited that day and I had gladly stayed over there for the night. My travel base had been Kandy at that time and I had spent the whole day tripping to Sigiriya and Poḷonnaruwa. Dambulla had been planned as a quick stop before returning back to Kandy, when wandering herds of elephants at the Minneriya National Park had got me delayed. Traveling on that hot summer day had also slowed me down considerably and the two more famous archaeological sites had sapped up my energy. I had found the climb to the top of lion pawed Sigiriya incredibly intimidating and the exquisite ancient city of Poḷonnaruwa had been too large to be enjoyed in a few hours. Combining all of them in one day had not been a very smart idea and this had required me to leave Kandy before dawn.
Early start, long road trip, overwhelming archaeological treasures and intense noon heat had left me dead exhausted, when a large orange sun had set gloriously at Dambulla. Kandy had still been around 80 kilometers away when dusk had fallen fast and my tuk tuk driver had refused to drive anymore that night. The stretch of road onward from Dambulla had been notorious for being frequented by wild animals after sunset and it had been a long day of work for him too. Thus to keep peace (and enjoy Dambulla’s famous painted caves), I had made an unplanned night halt at Dambulla and the stay had been at a small family run B&B. The cozy family home had been located on the opposite side of the famous Cave Temple and for its location, the price had been unbelievably cheap. My room had been a pleasant one with working air conditioning and clean bathroom and a beautiful garden had opened up right in front of the door. The owners had been a friendly family who had taken in the tuk tuk driver also within their quarters and it had been one of my most pleasant evenings in Sri Lanka.
Unknown to me at that time, Dambulla had the reputation of having super expensive hotels and thus, our find of the little B&B had been like a stroke of good luck. Better luck had followed the next morning, when I had found the ticket counter of Dambulla’s cave temple to be absolutely empty and only a lone local pilgrim clutching a bunch of blue lotuses had accompanied me up the silent steps. The cave temples had sat 160 meters atop an enormous granite outcrop and they had been cut out of the rock face in a most painstaking way. Even the access had been carved in a series of steps and ramps on the vast, sloping rock and dry semi arid vegetation had grown fuzzily around them. The early start had made the hike very pleasant and silent silvery langurs had watched us underneath a soft blue sky. The views had become more and more beautiful as I had neared the top and soon sweeping panorama of the dry golden plains had stretched until Sigiriya, which had been about 20 kilometers away.
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An important Buddhist pilgrimage spot, Dambulla Cave Temple or the Golden Temple had been an UNESCO World Heritage Site and the complex had dated back to the 1st century BC. According to history, the caves had been used as a place of worship since King Valagamba had been driven out of Anuradhapura by South Indian invaders. The fleeing ruler had taken refuge at Dambulla caves, where he had remained under the protection of the Buddhist monks for 14 long years until regaining of his throne. After getting back to power, the grateful monarch had the interior of the caves carved into magnificent rock temples and over the years later kings like King Nissanka Malla and Kandyan dynasty rulers had further added to their embellishments. Thus the murals, for which the temples had gained popularity, had been repainted and retouched numerous times throughout ages and today most of its paintings had dated from the 19th century. Renowned as one of the most beautiful and oldest cave frescoes in the world, Dambulla had made me very excited and I had looked forward to a very rewarding morning.
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It had been this excitement, which had made me rush up the last steep stretch in a hurry and I had been a bit out of breath by the time the summit had arrived. Upon reaching the top, however, I had been shocked by the complex’s rather unimpressive exteriors and the dull rock face had been decorated gaudily with recent additions of arched colonnades and fancy gables. The result had been Disney like artificial garishness and its only highlight from the outside had been a rock cut blue lotus pool around which praying monks had stepped silently. The series of its famous five caves had curved underneath a vast overhanging rock and a carved drip line had sheltered the interiors from destructive natural elements.
Although, the exteriors had been far from being even remotely nice, the insides of the caves had taken my breath away and the cavernous interiors, which had been partitioned off into 5 compartments had been covered with exquisite 2,000 years old murals. As many as 157 statues of Buddha in various sizes and poses had also been crammed inside and the combined effect had been jaw dropping. The vivid frescoes on the walls and ceiling had made the Dambulla Golden Temple the largest antique painted surface in the world and in the dim light, the colourful murals had bloomed like beautiful surprises. Some of the caves had doubled up as shrines too and one had held a gorgeous 15 meter long reclining Buddha. The themes of the murals had been heavily Buddhist in nature with some glimpses of the life during the rule of the patron king thrown in. Thus stories from the life of Lord Buddha, bodhisattvas, various gods and goddesses, Jataka tales had crowded inside the caves and the intricate painted patterns had cleverly followed the contours of the rock.
The astonishing array of exquisite frescoes had represented themes and floral, geometric designs, paisley, checkered mosaic and figures had been heavily used. The painting style, which had differed through various epochs, had been basically Sinhalese Buddhist in nature and brilliant reds and yellows had predominated the surfaces. The caves which had been marked with Roman numeric had been like an incredible ancient art gallery and the sheer scale had made them look larger than reality. Clever use of natural and artificial light too had added to their mysticism and the long rows of bodhisattvas in various poses had sometimes felt overwhelming.
The statues had sprung up from every nook and cranny and more than once I had experienced the uneasy feeling of being watched upon by a thousand eyes. The effect had been because of the scale of the murals and the gilded interiors had earned the complex the title of Ran Giri or the Golden Cave Temple. Many interesting legends like a queen’s treasure being hidden inside the small dagoba in Cave IV had been associated with the caves and l had ended up spending nearly half a day there. Time had slipped away fast inside the painted caves of Dambulla and it had indeed been one of the highlights of my Sri Lanka trip.
TRAVEL TIP – Dambulla is easily accessible by bus from Kandy (around 80 km away) and Colombo (148 km away). The Dambulla bus station is around 1 km outside town on Kandy road and buses to Sigiriya are available there. Most travelers start with Dambulla and combine it with Sigiriya. It is also possible to combine it with Anuradhapura and/or Polonnaruwa. Tuk tuks are a popular mode of transportation between Sigiriya and Dambulla. There are plenty of resorts, boutique hotels and B&B’s in Dambulla and unfortunately they are not cheap. I had stayed at the family run Relax Guesthouse opposite Dambulla Cave Temple. It had been cheap, comfortable and clean. The Dambulla Caves are the main attraction of the town and the complex is reached after about 10 minutes of climbing up the stone steps. The entrance fee for foreigners is 1500 LKR and the Cultural Triangle ticket does not Dambulla Caves. The counter is at the entrance of the garish Golden Temple complex on the left side of the lion building of the Golden Temple and the tickets are checked at the top. Because of the heat, it makes sense to cover Dambulla Caves in the morning or evening. Best photography conditions exist in the morning when there’s no crowd and the filtering light inside the cave is fresh. Although photography is permitted inside the caves, refrain from using flash. Other point of interest in Dambulla includes an ironwood forest (Nauyana Aranya) and the area has the largest rose quartz mountain range in South Asia. (Credits – Wikitravel)
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