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:
CAVE 1 - DEVARAJA VHIHARAYA
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.
CAVE 2 - MAHARAJA VIHARA
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.
CAVE 3 - 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 - which is close enough to be enjoyed during the same visit to Dambulla.