Discover Sri Lanka: Dambulla Cave Temple

Kandy’s taste of the past whet our appetite for a deeper journey through time. We left the lushness of the upcountry to the warmer, more arid central plains, home to crumbling former kingdoms of ancient Sinhalese dynasties. These lost cities include many sacred Buddhist sites, but on the way from Kandy to Dambulla, we also stopped at a notable Hindu temple in Matale.

Sri Muthumariamman Temple

Sri Muthumariamman, nearly 150 years old, is an eye-catching South Indian-style Hindu temple with a joyful rainbow of colors, kaleidoscopic designs, deities clustered upon a gopuram (an ornate, spired entrance tower), and ceremonial chariots atop the side roof. Decorative statues and figurines abounded.

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Apparently, Buddhists also share the use of this temple as their place of worship, although the temple is dedicated to Mariamman, the Hindu goddess of rain and fertility. As with other places throughout Sri Lanka, including in Galle, I was happy to see multiple religions co-exist peacefully.

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Skin must be covered out of respect when entering the temple. Not only are tourist visitors expected to pay a fee of 300 rupees for entrance, they must also pay 150 rupees just to view the exterior of the temple. Hopefully these fees at least help go toward the maintenance of this striking, colorful place of worship.

Dambulla Temple

While the Hindu temple is relatively old at a century and half, Dambulla Temple is ancient, dating back to the first century BCE. The Dambulla site is not only sacred, but unique, given its cave formation beneath a massive overhanging rock.

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To reach the temple, EZ and I climbed a few flights of stairs up a hillside. Although this might have winded some folks, it was nothing for us after our epic trek up Adam’s Peak.The top of the hill afforded some lovely views of the plains below.

At the summit, we removed our shoes and hats out of respect, awaiting inspection to ensure appropriate dress. For those who bore too much skin, the temple lent out shawls and sarongs.

Finally, we were permitted to pass through the entrance structure and into the courtyard, where a large Bodhi tree sprawled skyward. The Bodhi or “Bo” tree, a sacred ancient fig tree with heart-shaped leaves, is famously the tree under which the Buddha mediated and attained enlightenment. Most Sri Lankan Buddhist temples are accompanied by at least one Bo tree strung with bold-striped Buddhist flags.

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Across from the Bo tree, the temple stretched below the vast rock. The Dambulla cave temple is comprised of an incredible complex of five caves, with a structural exterior facade of arched colonnades and gabled entrances that were constructed in 1938 as embellishment.

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Originally a cave monastery, the site was sought as refuge by the exiled king of Anuradhapura as he fled from South Indian usurpers. The exiled king remained here for 15 years until he was able to regain the capital. Then, as a gesture of his gratitude, he converted the cave complex into a temple, with spiritual statues and murals, and successive kings have since added their own contributions.

The cave shrines EZ and I stepped into had been thousands of years in the making: vibrant paintings curving along the contours of the cave walls and depicting the life of Buddha, myriad Buddha statues in repose or mediation (many sheltered by cobra heads), figures of Sri Lankan kings and guardian deities, sundry symbolic elements. Such a beautiful , artistic expression of worship from bygone ages.

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Not surprisingly, Dambulla Temple marks yet another one of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. But while it preserves the region’s rich history and ancient art, the temple also remains an active monastery. As EZ and I wandered through the caves, we spotted a few people presenting offerings of flowers and meditating in lotus position before their Buddha statue of choice. In the early mornings, before the temple is open to the public, the monks make their rounds.

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Our exploration of the caves only spanned an hour or so at most, but this extraordinary temple, inextricably fused with nature, proved a worthwhile day trip.

Afterwards, EZ and I continued north, further into ancient territory. Our next stop would be one of the most stunning sights in Sri Lanka, and possibly the world: Sigirya.


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