The Dambulla Cave Temple is the largest group of cave temples in Sri Lanka. There are 5 caves in total which were built as shrine rooms between 85-77 BC. They were built by King Walagamba. The caves are built at the top of a steep hill (of course), but don’t let that discourage you. The Dambulla Cave Temple was definitely worth the trek up, and proved to be one of the best things we saw in Sri Lanka.
We asked our tuk-tuk driver to stop at the bottom so we could buy tickets (this is imperative, you can not buy them at the top) and then drive us as far up as he could. It is not that we are too lazy to walk all the way up but when it is close to 95 degrees outside and we had been climbing and trekking a lot we decided to take the easier way in order to be able to enjoy the rest of the visit a little more.
The trek up from this point is mostly shaded and is a stone walkway. There are gorgeous views and very entertaining monkeys along the way. Of course J. had to stop, feed them and make friends with them before we could trek further. For some people this could be a ploy to rest and I would normally think that is what J. was doing but his incredible desire to play with every monkey in a 5 mile proximity was definitely the motivation this time. We found the monkeys to be very friendly and playful, just make sure if you go to be respectful of their space or they will bare their teeth at you.
At the top of the hill, the lush green landscape of Sri Lanka spreads majestically in every direction. Unfortunately it was impossible to capture this on film but take my word for it when I tell you there are few places on this planet that can offer up the views from Dambulla Cave Temple. The trees, the hills, the mountains and the flowers are a sight to behold. After we took our shoes off we entered through the small gated area and found the white caves nestled into the side of the hill. I stood quietly taking it all in as I have never seen anything like it before.
The cave temples hold 151 Buddha statues in various positions (or mudras), there are three statues of Gods, two images of bodhisathwa, and three images of kings. Each cave offers a different experience and contains a different number of these statues and images. There are three caves which are so small they can barely fit 10 people and two caves which are quite large. Each one no matter its size holds inside an immense feeling of spirituality, peace and history. I found myself wanting to just sit all day and admire the workmanship, and the history.
In some of the caves the walls and ceilings are covered in painted design which is so impressive the way it flows over every natural bump and crevice without ever losing its integrity. I could only stand in awe at the time and workmanship it took to create this amazing place. In total there are 22,000 feet of painted surface all which depict different pictures of Buddha and Bodhisathwa characters and some important historical events.
The statues were amazing. Mostly gold they managed to shimmer even in the low light of each cave. In one of the caves the Buddhas were fit so well into each space that there was no more than a hair of space between the top of the statue and the roof of the cave. When we stood admiring all of this we had to remind ourselves how old it was and that it was all made by hand. It is truly an incredible example of what passion and faith can build.
Monks lived in meditation in the natural caves in the hill, before the King built these five shrines. They have found around 75 caves so far which were inhabited. There are inscriptions which offer help in dating the caves and the lives of the monks.
I can not explain in words the incredible feeling I had here. I wanted desperately just to stay all day in the peace and tranquility (despite the tourists you could still feel it). There is something very special at the Dambulla Cave Temple which I attribute to the history of peace of the monks who have worshipped here for years.
In cave two it is worth noting there is a pot on the floor which catches a drip from the ceiling of the cave. The water which drips down is considered holy water as it never stops it slow drip from above. The Sri Lankan people consider this to be a very special phenomenon.
When you are done in the caves you can walk down to see the Golden Buddha, which is HUGE! There are also more monkeys here, but they are a little more aggressive so use caution.
It is easy to catch a tuk-tuk back from the Cave Temple and they are inexpensive to most places you want to go.
As with all Holy places in Sri Lanka make sure your knees and shoulders are covered, and you will be required to remove your shoes before you enter (which you must pay an attendant to take and keep organized).
Take some water, be prepared for the people trying to sell you stuff at the mid point on your way down, and definitely take your time. It is worth it!