Finding the Buddha in the caves of Dambulla

Sri Lanka's Dambulla Cave Temple stuns the viewer into an awed silence

Dambulla Cave Temple, Sri Lanka

If late, I have broken a long-time habit, that of reading up on a place before I visit it. Because when you go someplace you know little or nothing about, the visual pleasure of what you come across is underlaid with the spurt of surprises that accompanies a reading-up of what you have seen.

Which was why I was climbing the stone steps 350 feet up to Dambulla Cave Temple, some 45 miles outside Kandy in central Sri Lanka, knowing next to nothing about the place, and quite literally stopping to smell the roses. Oh, there were no roses that I could see, but the steps in the 160-metre-high Dambulla Rock I was climbing were cut in the midst of thickets of trees, most of them bereft of leaves or flowers. There were small monkeys sitting on the branches, quietly observing those observing them. Apparently on a clear day, one can spot the monolith of Sigiriya, 19 km away, but this was not one of those days.

And then I was at the top, removing my footwear and quietly stashing it away in the appointed place, then walking through the painted gateway into the caves complex, which is yet another of Sri Lanka’s World Heritage sites. The next two hours were ones of total absorption and enjoyment, as I went from cave to cave marvelling at the statues, the friezes on the walls and ceiling, gazing at the small lily pond with the blue water lily, Sri Lanka’s national flower, blooming bright in the water. There are more than 80 caves in the vicinity, but only five of them hold some truly amazing sculpture and artwork. In Golden Temple, the Buddha is the dominant leitmotif, but of course; the place is supposed to have 153 statues of the ‘Enlightened One’. The Buddha statues are in varying sizes and altitudes, with the largest a magnificent 15 metres long. There is the reclining Buddha, the Buddha with his hand raised in blessing, the Buddha holding his hand in the intellectual argument and debate mudra, the protection mudra, the compassion mudra, the meditative mudra. There is the Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha to come. There are some Lankan kings, there is a magnificent Vishnu complete with the requisite tinge of blue, there is Ganesha, too.

The 'reclining Buddha' in Dambulla Cave Temple
The 'reclining Buddha' in Dambulla Cave Temple, Sri Lanka

The life and times of the Buddha are told in pictorial panels; these murals, spread over an area of 2,100 sq m, are representative of many ages of Sinhala sculpture and art. One cave has over 1,500 paintings of the Buddha covering the ceiling. There is also a dagoba (pagoda) and a spring which drips its water, said to have healing powers, out of a crack in the ceiling.

The India connect? Well, the first cave holds a 14-metre-tall statue of the Buddha hewn out of a rock. At his feet is his favourite pupil, Ananda; at his head is Vishnu, who apparently used his divine powers to create the caves. Then again, this is contested legend; historians will have it that the figure is Upulvan, one of the four guardian deities of Sri Lanka.

However, there seems to have been life before Buddhism in these caves. Burial sites with human skeletons about 2,700 years old in the area lead experts to believe that prehistoric people might have lived in these cave complexes well before the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

This temple complex, a sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries, dates back to the first century BCE. The five caves nestle under a vast overhanging rock, but not all of them speak of antiquity; as recently as 1938, the structure was embellished with arched colonnades and gabled entrances. One striking thing about the murals on the undulating ceiling is that the artwork follows the contours of the rock.

Dambulla Cave Monastery is beautifully preserved. King Valagamba of Anuradhapura is said to have converted the caves into a temple. On the run from Chola invaders and exiled from Anuradhapura, he sought refuge here for a long period of 15 years. After reclaiming his capital, the king built a temple as thanksgiving. Many other kings added to it later and by 11th century, the caves had become a major religious centre.

As I leave the complex, my mind’s eye playing out in a spool the glorious contents of the caves, my eye catches the fluttering prayer flags and pennants tied to the Bodhi tree in the compound. Twilight apparently brings hundreds of swooping swallows to the cave entrance but close to midday, it is quiet and peaceful.

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Finding the Buddha in the caves of Dambulla

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