Sacred Caves, A Regicidal Palace Fortress & A Mystery
A day trip to the world heritage sites of Dambulla and Sigiriya. A short and rarely taken detour will also take you to the Ibbankatuwa Megalithic Tombs, whose tombs offer up an unsolved mystery.
Approx Distance: Round trip = 135 miles.
Car costs (1-3 people) $110.
Van costs (1-6 people) $160.
Additional Costs: Sigiriya Ticket. Dambulla Museum. Ibbankatuwa Ticket.
For some it is Saint Peter’s Basilica, others, Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Mecca, or the Golden Temple at Amritsar. But for the religiously particular cognoscenti, the sacred caves of Dambulla are the spot where God and peace, awe and calm come best together.
Forty-five miles north of Kandy and close to Sigiriya, Dambulla’s eighty caves were first inhabited in the seventh century BC. Five of them can be visited today, offering a total of one hundred and fifty three Buddha statues, and over two thousand square meters of breath-taking murals.
Humbling, exhilarating, and astonishingly beautiful, it is the sort of place that, once seen, stays with you forever, a touchstone of infinite stillness. However, like a government department on a Saturday, most of the caves are closed – with only five being accessible. Luckily, these include the best:
The Cave of the Divine King, noted especially for its fourteen metre high statue of Buddha carved out of the encompassing rock, with his favourite pupil, Ananda, suiting at his feet.
The Cave of the Great Kings which houses fifty six statues of Buddha together with statues of the gods Saman and Vishnu, King Vattagamani Abhaya, and King Nissanka Malla. It walls are decorated with (largely) eighteenth century frescos depicting the life of Buddha and the history of Sri Lanka.
MAHA ALUT VIHARAYA
The Great New Monastery, whose ceiling and wall paintings were commissioned by King Kirti Sri Rajasinham of Kandy in the eighteenth century. The king’s statue stands within the cave – along with fifty further statues of Buddha.
CAVES 4 AND 5
DEVANA ALUT VIHARA AND PACCIMA VIHARAYA
Both are later and more modest affairs.
A museum close to the caves, the Dambulla Museum is dedicated to the history, and preservation of the paintings and has exhibits on other ancient frescos such as those in Sigiriya.
Rest & Recover
There are many places to rest and recover with snacks, lunch, drinks. A favorite is the stylish Jetwing Vil Uyana Hotel, conveniently next to Sigiriya itself.
The ruins of a place built atop a vast rock, Sigiriya is not best suited for Father-Son bonding excursions. Built by King Kashyapa, who walled his father up alive before usurping the throne, it offers stunning views across countryside, murals, and a 200 metre ascent / decent on man-made routes that might trouble an enterprising squirrel.
Given such flawed beginnings, it is surprising that Kashyapa’s reign lasted the long eighteen years that it did. The patricide left him reviled by subjects and priests alike, and it is telling that he was the king who constructed the great, almost-unimpregnable rock fortress of Sigiriya.
Fear must have cemented in every stone in his citadel, with its unhindered 360-degree view across the countryside, the perfect eyrie from which to spot an attack from his avenging brother Moggallana.
Like Tiberius who abandoned Rome for Capri, so too did Kashyapa move his government. His rocky bastion of moats and ramparts boasted all the essentials of deluxe royal living: gardens, fountains, pools, palaces, an extraordinary underground irrigation system that is still working, and frescos – amongst the finest of any medieval monarch.
But quite what he did there – apart from surviving - remains a mystery and it was in the shadow of his mountain palace that he met his maker, having no doubt earlier seen the gathering dust on the horizon as the Pandian army organised by his bother Moggallana arrived onto the plains of Sigiriya. Battle commenced. The Machiavellian general Migara defected to Moggallana taking much of the army with him. Kashyapa’s remaining army was defeated, and the king drove a sword through his own body rather than be captured alive.
His great fortress palace was left abandoned and today its principal features are:
COBRA HOOD CAVE
Only a few flakes of paint remain of the plaster and frescos that once adorned the cave.
DIRAANIYAGALA CAVE TEMPLE
A small ancient complex close to the site.
Quite how these frescos have survived this long is a miracle, but half way up the rock on the rock face are the remains of paintings of some especially well endowered women - aspects of Tara, celestial nymphs, or concubines: it remains a bit of a guess over which academics like to argue.
Only the paws remain of a once gigantic lion statue that marked the final ascent to the top commenced with a stairway between a lion’s paws and its mouth.
A wall once coated with glaze upon which much ancient graffiti was found including the ageless comment (on the frescos presumably): “The ladies who wear golden chains on their breasts beckon me”.
A nearby rocky outcrop from which to view Sigiriya itself.
Although at the base of the Sigiriya rock these wonderfully landscaped gardens of terraces and water, pools and islands, steps, and boulders, are best kept for the end as you will need all your energy to climb up: dissipating it before that challenge may have life-shortening consequences.
ROYAL PLACE & SUMMIT
Almost two hectares large, little remains of King Kasyapa fortified palace but some low foundations, a smooth slab of stone claimed to be part of a throne or meditation spot, the remains of an Audience Hall, and a large tank, cut from the rock. But, if on the lookout for trouble, there is no better place to be. Any approaching enemy army can be spotted with ease.
SIGIRIYA MUSEUM - A well-presented permanent exhibition that is a good place to start.
Ibbankatuwa Megalithic Tombs
If mere necklaces should speak, what might they say of the extraordinary levels of contact between ancient peoples, from Africa to Indonesia, Tibet to Sri Lanka at a time that almost predates history itself?
Covering an area barely one square kilometre, these most ancient of ancient tombs have been dated back by radio carbon to 700 – 400 B.C.
With over 40 tomb clusters containing some 10 tombs each, these structures were made of stone – with portions of them still in existence to see today.
The tombs held cremated, grave goods and tools, terra-cotta urns, clay pots, iron, copper and gold artifacts, beads, and necklaces.
Most extraordinary, the gemstones found in some necklaces are not naturally found in Sri Lanka which indicates that they may have been imported.
If so, this points to flourishing trade routes of such antiquity that no traces of them remains, and a mystery of highly sophisticated interconnections across the Indian Ocean that remains unsolved to today.
The sheer antiquity of the site places it alongside the timeline of the very earliest and most important creation myths and histories of the Singhalese people, including that of Prince Vijaya, the nation’s founding father who arrived in Sri Lanka in 543 BC and whose heirs gave rise to the great kingdoms of the island, not least that of Anuradhapura itself.