Architecture / Beliefs / Sri Lanka

Dambulla’s Amazing Cave Temples

Buddha

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Inside the carved chambers monks chant, worshipers pray while making offerings of fruit and flowers, and incense burns in every corner.

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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.

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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.

Happy Trails,
James & TerriBuddhas in corner

15 thoughts on “Dambulla’s Amazing Cave Temples

    • Peta, Dambulla was one of our favorite stops in Sri Lanka. Not only was it beautiful but seeing all the pilgrims and their family traditions was wonderful. We’d love to get together but this very minute we’re in Bruges, Belgium enjoying a postcard-perfect Medieval town. Maybe next visit to Sri Lanka. ~ James

    • Jeff, we spent a couple of weeks there and visited Colombo, Ella, Dambulla and Kandy. Of these, Kandy was our least favorite but it was a nice, relaxing stop. Ella is a quiet mountain village surrounded by tea plantations with great hiking, and the train ride up is very cool. Our blogging buddy Peta over at greenglobaltrek.com lives in Sri Lanka so you could get lots of info at her blog. ~James

    • GP, I’ve seen lots of Buddhist temples but nothing like this one. The setting was awe-inspiring and it was marvelous to be able to see the pilgrim families practicing their faith. ~ James

    • Susan, is that not a gorgeous child? As always, I asked permission to take this photo and the grandpa was not only more more than happy, I could tell he was proud as well. I was one of a few tourists around that day and I had wonderful experiences with the locals. It was a special visit for me. ~ James

    • Kelly, we didn’t really have any long-term plans to visit Sri Lanka, but we were flying from Cyprus to Bangkok and decided to break the long flight in SL because it was right on the way. Like you, we loved it and are so glad we stopped. Frankly, I’m surprised it doesn’t get more attention. There’s so much to see and do there. ~ James

  1. Reading your post I felt as though i could smell the incense and was holding tightly onto my coffee mug should a monkey want to dash away with it. The white temple on black rock makes a stunning scene. only outdone by the interior which even in photos leaves one’s jaw resting on the keyboard. Between this and Peta’s blog Sri Lank is steadily notching up on our wanderlust list.

    • Sue, visiting the Dambulla Caves is a life memory for us. It wasn’t only an amazing location and fabulous temple, but being able to witness the pilgrims and their religious rites added so much. I’m sure if you visit Sri Lanka you won’t be disappointed. We really just dropped by on our way to Bangkok and ended up staying 2 weeks. And the people we dealt with there were delightful. ~ James

    • Sorry Darlene, this one slipped through the cracks. We were on our way to Bangkok and decided to break the flight in the middle so we stopped in Sri Lanka. We ended up staying two weeks. Sri Lanka has so much to offer that I’m surprised that it doesn’t get more attention. It has some similarities to India, but isn’t NEARLY so crowded and the people are lovely. Visit if you can. ~James

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