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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Where should you stay in Dambulla?
The best budget option in town is the, Dambulla City HostelFor 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.