Many holy places have impressive locations, and the Buddhist Cave Temples of Dambulla, Sri Lanka are, without a doubt, uniquely located.
This sacred shrine is perched atop a sheer-sided mountain, which towers above the city and its surrounding plains.
Located in the heart of the island, Dambulla is part of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle. It’s popular with foreign tourists who struggle up the hundreds of steep stairs to see a truly exceptional sight.
But their numbers are far exceeded by the faithful Buddhists who make the pilgrimage with their extended families to worship at this centuries-old temple. For young and old alike, it’s a difficult climb that requires endurance and devotion.
Formally known as the Royal Rock Temples, a local king enlarged five naturally occurring caves and had stone workers carve the magnificent rock temples in the first century BC. The shrine and its courtyard sit on a narrow rock plateau. The juxtaposition of a dark, nearly vertical cliff atop the stark white, intricately carved temple beneath is astounding.
And as is frequently the case with Buddhist temples, it’s an assault on the senses. Outside the temple the smoke of incense clouds the air, votive candles burn under a sacred bodhi tree, and a noisy, bickering troop of monkeys scampers around looking for handouts from the children or snatchable snacks from picnickers.
Inside the carved chambers monks chant, worshipers pray while making offerings of fruit and flowers, and incense burns in every corner.
There are 150 Buddha images, and every surface of the cavern is covered with colorful geometric and floral images. The five caves vary in size, and the carvings are cleverly sculpted to fit the naturally undulating walls and ceilings. The most prominent sculpture is a fifty-foot, reclining Buddha, carved out of solid rock.
The Cave Temples of Dambulla are a marvelous combination of natural elements and the painstaking devotion and talent of stone carvers and painters. Given the setting and the shrine’s outstanding artistic appeal, it’s no surprise that Buddhists have been making the pilgrimage for over two thousand years. And if you travel to Sri Lanka, you should as well.