King Valagamba fled Anuradhapura after a Tamil invasion and settled in the Dambulla area. Here he sheltered with monks, until the Tamils were driven out of Anuradhapura. In return, the king gave the monks a beautiful temple complex built in the caves.
Anyone looking for art and culture in Sri Lanka should definitely visit the Golden Temple in Dambulla. It is one of the most important holy places in Sri Lanka and has been a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists for 22 centuries. In addition, it has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1991. Enough reasons to visit this historic place. Read all about the history of the temple, information about your visit, accommodation in Dambulla and how to get there.
Fact: The full name of the cave complex is Raja Maha Viharaya, which in Sinhalese is දඹුල්ල රජමහා විහාරය.
A brief history – King Valagamba is expelled
People probably already lived in the caves in the mountain of Dambulla in the third century BC. But it only gained significant status after the arrival of Sinhalese King Valagamba, also known as Wattagamani Abhaya. He lived sometime at the beginning of the first century BC and is believed to have been driven out of Anaradhapura in 103 BC by a group of rebels from South India. That was then the capital of his empire. He fled to the caves in Dambulla and stayed with the monks for 14 years.
In the meantime, he tried to mobilise an army to regain the capital of his kingdom. But he was helped by the Tamils themselves, who fought among themselves. Around 89 BC, Valagamba and his army attacked Tamil leader Datikha and drove him out of Anuradphura. As thanks for his stay with the monks in Dambulla, he left behind a beautiful temple, which is now one of the most important shrines of Sri Lanka. The king remained the leader of the Sinhala Kingdom until his death in 77 BC.
In the centuries that followed Valagamba’s death, other kings further ‘decorated’ and developed the caves in Dambulla, including adding new Buddhas. During the Kingdom of Kandy, which existed between the 15th and 18th centuries, some beautiful frescoes were added. These can still be admired.
A visit to the Golden temple and the caves
A Golden temple, a climb of 160 metres, 5 caves and a beautiful view of the green island that is called Sri Lanka. These are the ingredients for a visit to this beautiful complex. It is possible to visit the 5 caves with a guide. These are located at the entrance of the complex upstairs and can give you much more information than the brief description below. Without a guide it might be disappointing, as you do not know exactly what you see.
Below is a brief explanation, but Cave 2 is by far the most impressive one.
Cave 1: The main attraction is the reclining and mainly ‘dead’ Buddha carved out of the rock. He has reached Nirvana. That is the highest that can be achieved within Buddhism. The statue was once painted with a layer of gold, but this is partly intact.
Cave 2: This is the most impressive of the 5 caves you will encounter. Here too, you will find a 10-metre Buddha reclining. There are also more than 50 Buddha statues here, most of which date from the first century. On the walls and ceiling, you will see beautiful murals with scenes from the life of Buddha. Finally, there is also a wooden statue of the fugitive King Valagamba and another king.
Cave 3: The third cave was created in the 18th century AD by King Kirti Sri Rajasinha of the Kandy Kingdom. Here you will find a statue of him. There are also 42 sitting Buddhas and 15 standing Buddhas, as well as some beautiful wall paintings.
Caves 4 and 5: The last two caves are the least interesting. They are fairly new compared to the others, but the frescoes on the wall, which date back to the 18th century, are in pretty bad shape. Maybe a consideration where to start at the back and then move to the front?
Finally, if you are really looking for a detailed explanation of the caves, take a look at the website Srilankaview. And when you are down there, it is also possible to visit the Golden Temple for more Buddha statues. This is included in the ticket to the cave temple.
Practical information about visiting Dambulla and the Golden Temple
The Golden Temple of Dambulla is about a 20-minute walk south of the city centre. The temple can be visited from 7am to 7pm and admission to the beautiful complex costs around $10 USD. It is a 160 metre climb to the top and takes about half an hour. Depending on your interest, viewing the caves takes about an hour.
Wear appropriate clothing, i.e. long trousers and bring socks in case the ground gets too hot under your feet because of the sun. Shoes are not allowed in the temple and must be handed in at the entrance.
Accommodation: Dambulla or Sigiriya?
Would you like to visit the Golden Temple of Dambulla? If you have little time, a stay of 1 night in this city is more than enough. Dambulla is on a busy road, as it lies at the junction of further routes across the country. But are you planning to visit Sigiriya as well? Then go for a nice accommodation there. Sigiriya is much quieter and you are close to one of the main attractions of the country, Lions rock. And from Sigiriya you are within 45 minutes at the Golden Temple.
Click here for accommodation in Dambulla. Prefer to stay in Sigiriya? Click here for nice accommodations in Sigiriya. Want to read more about Sigiriya? Then read the article Sigiriya Rock | Climb the Lion Rock of King Kassapa I
Transport and continuation of your journey through Sri Lanka
Dambulla is centrally located in Sri Lanka and is an excellent hub to plan the rest of your journey through the country. So you are within 30 minutes by bus in Sigiriya. But you can also continue your trip to the north for Anuradhapura, the east for Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Trincomalae, the south for the city of Kandy and west for Negombo and Colombo.
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