Sri Lanka’s painted caves

For hundreds of years the statues and the cave paintings of Dambulla have survived, carefully looked after by the devoted. So who created who?

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka

Who created who?

Did man make the statues or did the statues make man?

These are the things you ponder amongst the mist and the prayer flags, up a mountain rock that’s had a soul put in its heart.

Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka

For more than 2000 years, this elevated site called Dambulla has been a spiritual centre for Buddhists in Sri Lanka.

When the religion arrived on this small island nation in the 3rd century BC, caves at the top provided shelter for monks and a form of monastery was formed in the spaces nature had created for them.

Over more than two millennia, this has grown and been improved.

Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka

In the first instance, I guess man created the statues that now fill the five main caves that became the temple. A rudimentary monastery founded two thousand years ago transformed into a shrine within two hundred years.

The statues came in the 12th century, all different sizes and different poses.

Some tower over everything else and dominate a cave. Others sit neatly in a row and blend in with the overall aesthetics.

Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka

But the statues have a strange effect. They speak to you… not in a literal sense, but theologically.

For hundreds of years they have sat in these dark caves, their eyes always open. Why would they not close their eyes… unless they are waiting for you?

Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka

The Dambulla caves are not just hollowed-out rock. They are as alive as the statues and they radiate despite an absence of light.

Almost every surface of the interiors are covered in colours, vibrant reds and yellow painted on as divine images and striking patterns.

Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka

This is why, on second thought, perhaps the statues created the men who chose to live here and devote themselves to the site.

Did these people walk into the caverns and see this spectacular site and be so moved they had no choice but to commit?

Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka

There are 157 statues in the caves of Dambulla. I know this not by counting but from research.

I also don’t know whether this number is religiously significant. What I do know, however, is that it’s significant that so many still exist.

It’s not by accident, though. It’s because of the dedication and patronage over centuries of those who have preserved this spiritual centre.

Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka

The rock surfaces have been repainted many times over the centuries with similar designs and colours – the same for the statues.

It has been a process of maintenance and rejuventation, not of change or advancement.

For one of Sri Lanka’s oldest Buddhist monuments, there’s no need for progress. It’s special the way it has always been.

Visiting Dambulla, Sri Lanka

To get to the cave temples at Dambulla you first arrive at a large golden stupa by the side of the road. Do not be fooled, as I was initially, into thinking this is something important. In the grand scheme of this site, it is just a mere sign by the gate.

You need to climb the stairs – lots of them – up the rock to get to the top for the real temple. Buy your ticket at the bottom and then after twenty minutes of climbing stairs – and possibly fighting off over-confident monkeys – you’ll reach the entrance.

Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka

From the outside, it appears as though a long and low building has been constructed along the side of a cliff. This is just a verandah built along the entrances to the caves to provide shelter for humans and protection from the elements for the statues.

From this verandah you can access the five main caves which are all different sizes. You’ll come to the larger ones closer to the entrance.

Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka

If you would like to visit Dambulla as a day trip from Colombo or Negombo, there are some good options here that also include Sigiriya.


This is a tourist site, of course, but also still a very spiritual place for Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority.

There are particular times of the year for mass pilgrimages but you’ll find people doing their own form of pilgrimage every day. Look for people carrying flowers or other offerings – there is much power in the caves.


Dambulla is a convenient place to base yourself while you explore the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka.


I think the best backpacker option in town is the New Dambulla City Hostel.


For a friendly hotel at an affordable price, try Hotel Gala Addara.


One of the area’s nicest hotels with an incredible landscape is Jetwing Lake.


And if you want a treat at a relaxing retreat, you won’t find better than Kalundewa Retreat.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Jetwing Hotels and Jetwing Travels but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.


This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

8 thoughts on “Sri Lanka’s painted caves”

  1. Wow!! I have visited the caves in India but have not heard of Dambulla caves. they are amazing. I would love to visit. The photo’s are wonderful – thank you for sharing your visit to such an amazing spiritual place.

    • Yeah, it was really cool. I think I spent more than an hour in the caves. There are only a few caves and most of them are quite small but there’s so many little details to look at, it can take quite a while to soak them up properly.

  2. Congratulations for your comments on the experience you had in the caves, acknowledging the energy you felt, rather than merely describing the artwork. I would have enjoyed more about the art,but this is a good article. Now forty years have elapsed since I was there, and experienced none of the commercialism I sense is now present. Happy travels.nj


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