architecture, history and travel of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka's Largest Rock Cave Temple built on a 600 feet high Rock
Located at an elevation of 1118 feet from the sea level rises a massive rock from the surrounding plains of Dambulla of 600 feet high and over 2000 feet in length. It is home to the Worlds most acclaimed Cave complex of magnificent Buddha Images and Rock Paintings of vivid colours and shapes constructed and painted from around 2nd Century BC (Anuradhapura era ) and continued up to the Kandyan era of the 18th Century. Sinhalese people call it as ' Dambulu Gala' ( Dambulla Rock) and the Temple is called as the ' Rangiri Dambulu Viharaya' (Golden Rock Dambulla Temple).
Dambulla Rock Temple History
The Dambulla Rock Temple had first been constructed during the rein of King Vattagamini Abhaya ( 103 BC and 89-77 BC ). The Sinhalese often call him as King Valagamba. During a South Indian invasion the king had to abandon his Anuradhapura Kingdom . For 12 years, King Valagamba was in hiding and had frequented these caves for his safety. After regaining the kingdom of Anuradhapura and becoming the King, to show his gratefulness for his safe place, he converted those caves into Buddhist Temples by constructing walled partitions under the rock overhang which spans the entire area as a single large cave. He got drip ledges made along this large cave and made it suitable to withstand rainy weather and avoided water seeping inside the caved areas. The three cave temples named as Devarajalena, Maharajalena and the Paccimalena were constructed by him.
After King Vattagamini Abaya's rein, for several centuries this cave temple had not come under the patronage of any other Kings until Vijayabahu I (1055-1110 AD ), who made Polonnaruwa his kingdom. He had done renovations to the Cave temples and it is believed that there were Buddhist monks dwelling in this and nearby caves at that times. King Keerthi Sri Nissankamalla (1187-1196 AD ) was much involved in uplifting the place with many additional Buddha images being constructed and gold plating some seventy three Buddha images in the cave temple.
King Buwanekabahu (1372-1408 AD), King Vickramabahu III (1360-1374 AD), King Rajasinha I (1581-1591 AD) and King Vimaladharmasuriya I (1592-1604 AD ) are the other Kings merited with the uplifting of the status of the Temple at various times of the years gone by.
Another interesting fact is that the Archeologists state that this cave and other numerous caves around the main rock had been in use for dwelling in pre historic times too from the evidence found so far.
Reaching Dambulla Temple
Located in the centre of the Cultural Triangle of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy, the Dambulla Rock Cave Temple can be reached by coming from Kandy along A9 road which runs up through Dambulla and Anuradhapura. Situated by the main road, it is 68 km from Kandy and from the entrance to the Rock Temple by the main road, it is 2 km to the Dambulla town.
Rock ascend landscape
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Once stepping in from the main road, the path takes a few hundred feet along the gravel path until one comes to the start of the rock with a gradual ascend. On the way up there are fine viewpoints enabling to see the surrounding landscape up to about 20 km. distance. The Cave Temple premises needs to be accessed through the Vahalkada entrance.
Dambulla Cave Temple
Coming through the entrance leads in to the stone paved terrace of the Cave Temple. The Bo tree is right in front and the Devaraja Viharaya is to the right side.
Cave # 1 - The Devaraja Lena - The Cave of ' Lord of the Gods'
The first Cave temple is called as Devarajalena Vihara or the Lord of the Gods Temple. The large 45 feet Sleeping postured Buddha statue is said to be the Parinirvana status or the final passing away of the Lord Buddha. A statue of Venerable Ananda , who was Lord Buddha's devoted disciple is found near the feet of the colossal Sleeping Buddha statue. The God Vishnu image which is believed to be constructed during the King Vatta Gamini Abhaya 's rein (89-77 BC ) must have given the name Devaraja Lena. The present names of the Cave temples are said to be belongs to a period later than the initial temple construction times as those names have first being mentioned around 1700 AD in temple history. The Buddha images belongs to a period later than 2nd century BC as suggested by the scholars since the art of construction of Buddha Images took place after that period in Sri Lanka. The old paintings found in the caves had being repainted over the periods of renovations that took place and probably date back to the 17th and the 18th centuries. Paintings of this cave are of a faded status due to the lighting of Oil lamps and incenses by the worshippers of earlier times.
Cave # 2- The Maharaja Lena - The Cave of ' Great Kings '
This cave is being called as the Maha Raja Vihara Lena or the Cave Temple of the Great Kings. The statues of King Valagamba and King Nissankamalla are to be found here. King Valagamba image is made out of Wood and the statue details are painted. It is placed near the cave entrance. There are around sixty images in this cave. The size of the cave is approximately 125 ft long and 75 feet broad and has a maximum height of 21 feet by the entrance to the cave. There is a Stupa in this temple surrounded with eleven seated Buddha images. The statues of gods found here belongs to Gods Saman, Upulvan, Maithree and Natha. This cave is the largest and the most attractive due to the large number of Buddha statues of seated, lying and standing postures that depicts samadi mudra,abhaya mudra, varada mudra and vitarka mudra. A main feature of this cave is the fascinating life size granite standing Buddha statue. A Makara Torana or the Dragon Arch is constructed above this statue. This is said to be one of the gilded statues done by King Nissankamalla as parts of gold can still be seen today. This dimly lit cave has its own characteristic charm and the serenity not found in a Buddhist Temple anywhere else. The Rock paintings appearing here portrays the early Buddhist historical events. There are thousands of murals painted on the rock ceiling and the walls with impressive designs and colours. Another fascinating feature is the dripping water droplet collecting bowl placed at the right side of the cave. Even in a severe drought , this water source doesn't get dried up and said to be there since the earlier times.
Cave # 3- The Maha Alut Viharaya - The Cave of ' Great New Temple'
This was constructed by the King Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1782 AD ) who ruled in Kandy and is considered to be second only to the Maharajalena temple. There are two doorways with Dragon Arch designs to enter this cave temple. This cave measures about 90 feet in length, 80 feet in width and is about 36 feet high near the entrance wall. There is a reclining Buddha statue of 30 feet in length carved out of the living rock here. There are about fifty Buddha statues surrounding the prominent seated Buddha Statue with a Dragon Arch design constructed in the centre of the cave sculptured out of granite. There are about forty two standing Buddha images and about fifteen seated Buddha statues inside this cave. A statue of King Kirti Sri Rajasinha is also found here by the right side of the entrance. On the wall behind his statue, a mural of four of his attendants appear. The magnificent mural paintings done on the rock has the characteristic Kandyan style artwork and a fascinating thousand seated Buddha image paintings on the rock ceiling.
Old Timber Work and water drip ledges of the Rock caves
Proceeding along the passage from the cave #4 towards Cave #5, one comes across a now partly decayed, beautifully designed timber framework. A close view of the chiseled out drip ledge construction of the cave is of interest too. One still cannot fathom this rock cutting technology of the yesteryears and the technical abilities of those craftsmen who made all those magnificent stone sculpturing all around the island's numerous temples.
Cave # 4- The Paccima Viharaya - The Cave of ' Western Temple'
This Cave temple was the westernmost at the earlier times but later an additional cave was added to the west side of this cave temple. This cave measures about 50 feet in length and 27 feet in width. The main attraction is the beautiful seated Buddha image with a Makara Torana in ' dhyana mudra' posture. Almost identical images of the main seated Buddha image are placed around this cave. A small dageba which was regarded to contain the jewellery of Somawathi , the queen of King Valagamba is situated in this cave. This chetiya is called as 'Soma chetiya' due to that reason. There are murals painted on this small chetiya which are now in a faded status. Statues of God Vishnu and Saman are also found in this cave.
Cave # 5- The Devana Alut Viharaya - The Cave of ' Second New Temple'
This is the newest of the all cave temples at Dambulla and the exact construction time of this temple is not in records. The large reclined Buddha image is about 32 feet in length and there are many standing and seated Buddha images constructed in this temple totaling to eleven. Two of the seated Buddha figures have the Hooded Muchalinda Cobra covering above the images. All these statues are constructed out of Brick and plaster where most of the images at the other caves are made of granite rock.
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Temple Frontage Views
The Frontage of Dambulla Cave Temple is well known to many and different views of the Temple frontage is presented here.
An excerpt from Epigraphia Zeylanica- Inscription of Kirti Nissanka Malla
The rock temple of Dambulla, called in the Mahavamsa (lxxx.22) Jambukola Viharay, and built underneath an enormous boulder of gneiss, upwards of 500 feet in height and about 2000 feet in length, is from its antiquity, its grandeur and the richness of its decorations, one of the most celebrated Viharas of Ceylon.
It is situated about forty seven miles north west of Kandy , on the main road to Anuradhapura, which is some forty two miles further north. The other rock temple of equal fame, Alu Vihara- where , according to the Sinhalese chronicles, the Buddhist scriptures were first committed to writing, under the patronage of Vatta Gamini Abhaya, in the first century B.C- lies about twenty nine miles to the south; while the famous fortress of Sigiri rises aloft like a gigantic cylinder at a distance of about twelve miles to the north east. In their vivid descriptions of Dambulla Vihara, Messrs. Davy, Forbes, Tennent and Burrows mention the existance of several inscriptions in the Cave chracter and of one, by Kirti Nissanka Malla, in Sinhalese script of the twelfth century.
It is neatly engraved on the rock to the right, immediately after passing the Murage, in the courtyard of the temple and consists of twenty five lines, covering an area of about 5 ft. 9 in. by 3 ft. 6 in.
Anuradha Seneviratna - " Golden Rock Temple of Dambulla"