Dambulla Cave Temple or the Golden Temple of Dambulla is the best complex of cave temples in Sri Lanka. It is located in Dambulla city, central District. The temple is located 148 km east of Colombo, north of Kandy. It is the largest cave temple complex in Sri Lanka, with 160m high rock towers in the plains surrounding the complex. The area has more than 80 documented caves. The most prominent attractions are divided into five caves, which contain statues and drawings. Drawings and statues related to Lord Buddha and his wife. It has three statues of Sri Lankan kings and four statues of gods and goddesses and 153 Buddhist statues. The next four caves contain statues of a Hindu deity, Vishnuvanish. The frescoes cover an area of 2,100 m². The drawings on the walls of the caves include the sedition of the Half-God Mara of the Buddha and the first sermon of the Buddha. This carved -into -the rocks complex, with its five mausoleums, formed a pilgrimage in Sri Lanka 22 centuries ago, and it is the largest and the most well-preserved complex among the cave temples in Sri Lanka and is particularly distinguished by its Buddhist wall paintings covering an area of 2,100 square meters and by 157 statues.
The story begins when monks and priests over the years started to excavate caves and decorated them as pious acts and as offerings to gods. This idea was invented by the priests in Central Asia and then was brought to China and the neighboring countries. They started to build these caves around the 4th Century in places such as Dunhuang and Longmen.
This cave was first built during the reign of king Vattagamini Abhaya ( 103 BC and 89-77 BC ) according to inscriptions found inside the temple as Dambulla has become a residence for the Buddhist during his era. Surprisingly, Vattagamini Abhaya's fame was not mentioned in the written records, but his name was often found engraved on these caves. A lot of Dambulla caves bear the inscriptions of his royal name ( King Valagamba). The Historians state that the king's kingdom ( Anuradhapura ) was invaded by the South Indians, so he fled to Dambulla and the monks living in it helped him. So after freeing Anuradhapura and becoming the king, he showed his gratefulness by transforming those caves into caves for Buddhist monks and built walled partitions under the rock overhang which spans the whole area making it as one large cave. Moreover, He got drip ledges made along this huge cave and made it suitable to resist rainy weather and avoided water seeping inside the caved areas. There are three cave temples called Maharajalena, the Paccimalena, and Devarajalena are built by him. The next king ( Mahaculi Maha Tissa ) followed his uncle's footsteps and took good care of the temple as it was mentioned in an inscription.
The next king who patronized Dambulla was king Nissankamalla, being a foreigner, he wanted to gain popular support and wanted his presence to be felt among the people, So he undertook regular tours throughout the country. He also was interested in visiting prominent places such as Kelaniya, Anuradhapura, and of course Dambulla as was mentioned in his various inscriptions. And according to the chronicle, during Nissankamalla's visit to Dambulla, he spent a lot of money on decorating the cave temple and set up 73 golden statues of Buddha. The other inscriptions on the rocks showed his other pious acts as he covered the statues of Buddha with gold, celebrated the festival of the great Puja lavishly, and the most important thing he named the temple ( The golden rock cave ). Moreover, after the downfall of the Kingdom of the Polonnaruva at the end of the 12th century, Dambulla did not receive the attention of the Sinhalese kings until the 17th century when it came back to the political scene. Due to the decline and depopulation and shifting of population centers and kingdoms during that period, prominent religious places like Dambulla were neglected. Fortunately, during the reign of the king Senaratna (Senarat) (1604-1635 A. C.) of Kandy in the XVIII century, Dambulla regained its eminent position as a religious center when this king restored and renovated the temple.
The temple contains 5 caves, four of them are filled with different persons of the Buddist order or history, statues of Buddha, and more than 150 images, cave number 5 was built in the second decade of this century so it has no historical value.
Cave No. 1 (Deva Raja Viharaya)
The first thing the visitor will see is cave No. 1, named Deva Raja Viharaya, or the temple of the lord of gods, it is called by this name as it is claimed that the god Sakka ( known as the lord of gods ) gave the final touches to this cave. The cave contains a forty-seven feet image of Buddha carved in the rock, and still intact and well- preserved. There are also 5 images one of them is supposed to belong to Arhat Ananda ( the immediate disciple of Buddha ) showing him weeping because of the death of his master. And there is a statue of Visnu which is believed to be one of the four guardian deities in Sri Lanka. Due to the incense burnt by devotees, the paintings on the walls and ceiling can not be seen.
Cave No. 2 (MahaRaja Viharaya)
The next cave to visit is MahaRaja Viharaya (the temple of the Great King), it is the most impressive and the largest cave and it is believed that king Vattagamani Abhaya personally helped in its construction. The cave is painted in shining colors, the size is around 125 ft long and around 21 feet in height, and 75 in breadth. There are a lot of Buddha statues and 53 images. The room contains a lot of treasures, to demonstrate, at the northern corner of the cave there is a neatly executed Makata Torana above it an image of a standing Buddha. And two standing figures of the deities Natha and Maitreya, and handsome stupas at the right of the entrance. One of the most important paintings in this room is the painting which represents the battle between Duttha Gamani, the Indian who ruled the country for 44 years, and the greatest hero of Elara and Sinhalese. There is also an image of Vattagamani Abhaya at the right of the northern entrance to this cave.
Cave No. 3 (Maha Alut Viharaya)
It is called (The Great New Temple) and it was built by the King Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1782 AD ), this king ruled Kandy and redressed the Buddhist Church in the 18th Century. This cave was used as a storeroom. There are a lot of paintings and a well-executed figure of the king at the left of the entrance. In addition to a Statue of Buddha and other statues making the cave a mine of raw material.
Cave No. 4 (Paschima Viharaya)
This cave is also called the Western Temple, the size of the cave is 54 feet and around 24 in width and 27 feet in height. There are ten figures of Buddha, the most important one is the principal image which is under a Torana. The other figures are in a fine state of preservation and brilliantly painted and the features are still clear. Moreover, the roof, and the front wall, and the side of the rock are beautifully painted and decorated with a lot of figures mainly Buddha, and also there is a stupa in the middle of the cave called Soma Cetiya.
Cave No. 5 (The Devana Alut Viharaya)
This is the recent cave temple, it is also called the cave of the second new temple, there are about 11 standing and seated Buddha images, and a large image of 32 feet of Buddha. These statues are made of plaster and brick while the images are made of granite.