Dambulla Cave temple is one of the most impressive and well-preserved cave temples in Asia is situated in the central part of the country. And the famous fortress of Sigiriya with its beautiful frescoes rises aloft like a gigantic cylinder at a distance of about twelve miles to the north-east of Dambulla. Due to the history, archaeological and artistic implications, this has been also declared as a World Heritage Site in 1991. The temple has been in use for over 22 centuries and still holds a sense of benevolence and spirituality.
Dambulla is thought to have been a place of worship since the 1st century BC, when King Valagamba (also known as Vattagamani Abhaya), driven out of Anuradhapura, took refuge here. When he regained his throne, he had the interior of the caves carved into magnificent rock temples. Further paintings were made by later kings, including King Nissanka Malla, who had the caves’ interiors gilded, earning the place the name Ran Giri (Golden Rock).
This complex contains five caves. Except cave no. 5 (the last in order) which has no historical value as it was done in the second decade of this century, rest of the other caves contain statues and delicate paintings that cover the ceiling and walls representing various epochs of Sinhalese sculpture and painting. These five separate caves contain about 150 absolutely stunning Buddha statues and paintings, some of Sri Lanka's most important and evocative religious art. This emphasizes the artistic talents of the people lived in this small island. Buddha images were first created here over 2000 years ago, and over the centuries subsequent kings added to and embellished the cave art. From the caves there are superb views over the surrounding countryside; Sigiriya is clearly visible some 20km distant.
It is also believed to be home to prehistoric Sri Lankans as burial sites have been found with skeletons that are about 2700 years old.
The statues and art found within the cave truly highlight the artistic abilities of those living in the past. It is well persevered and a walk through the caves will prove to be both insightful and a very memorable experience. This process of retouching original and creating new artwork continued into the 20th century. Remarkably, the overall impact is breathtakingly coherent.
Cave No. 1 (Lord of the Gods Temple)
The first Cave temple where you encounter once you entered the premises is called as Devaraja lena Vihara or the Lord of the Gods Temple. This cave enshrined a large 45 feet sleeping postured Buddha statue (final passing away of the Lord Buddha) which belongs to the 2nd century BC; a statue of Venerable Ananda - who was Lord Buddha's devoted disciple and the God Vishnu image which is believed to be constructed during the King Vatta Gamini Abhaya 's reign (89-77 BC). Paintings of this cave are of a faded status due to the lighting of oil lamps and incenses by the worshippers of earlier times.
Cave No. 2 (Cave Temple of the Great Kings)
The Maha Raja Vihara Lena or the Cave Temple of the Great Kings is the largest and the most impressive one amongst the caves in this place. According to the common belief, the founder was king Vattagamani Abhaya, who personally assisted in the formation of this cave. You will witness large number of Buddha statues of seated, lying and standing postures that depicts Samadi Mudra, Abhaya mudra, Varada mudra and Vitarka mudra. The main feature of this cave is the fascinating life size granite standing Buddha statue. A Makara Torana or the Dragon Arch is constructed above this statue. This is said to be one of the gilded statues done by King Nissankamalla as parts of gold can still be seen today. At the same time, a statue of King Valagamba made out of wood; a statue of King Nissankamalla; statues of gods Saman, Upulvan, Maithree and Natha can be found in this cave.
There are around sixty images in this cave. The Rock paintings appearing here portrays the early Buddhist historical events. There are thousands of murals painted on the rock ceiling and the walls with impressive designs and colours.
Another fascinating feature is the dripping water droplet collecting bowl placed at the right side of the cave. Even in a severe drought, this water source doesn't get dried up and said to be there since the earlier times.
Cave No. 3 (The Great New Temple)
The great new temple or the Maha Alut Viharaya has been constructed by the King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1782 AD) who ruled in Kandy. There are two doorways with Dragon Arch designs to enter this cave temple. A reclining Buddha statue of 30 feet in length carved out of the living rock can be found here. There are about fifty Buddha statues surrounding the prominent seated Buddha statue with a Dragon Arch design constructed in the centre of the cave sculptured out of granite. A statue of King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe is also found here by the right side of the entrance. The magnificent mural paintings done on the rock has the characteristic Kandyan style artwork and a fascinating thousand seated Buddha image paintings on the rock ceiling. To a student of Kandyan art and sculpture this cave is, no doubt, a mine of raw material.
Cave No. 4 (Western Temple)
The 4th cave is called the Paschima Viharaya or the Western Temple. This cave contains ten figures of the Buddha. The seated Buddha image with a Makara Torana in ' Dhyana mudra' posture is the principal image here hewn of the natural rock that forms the cave itself. A small dagaba named ‘Soma Chethiya’’ which was regarded to contain the jewellery of Somawathi, the queen of King Valagamba is situated in this cave.
Cave No. 5 (The Cave of ' Second New Temple')
Cave no: 5 is the newest of the all cave temples at Dambulla and the exact construction time of this temple is not in records. The large reclined Buddha image is about 32 feet in length and there are many standing and seated Buddha images constructed in this temple totalling to eleven. All these statues are constructed out of Brick and plaster where most of the images at the other caves are made of granite rock.