Buddhist Treasures Beneath A Rock

Asia, South, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Verdant Interior

Close your eyes, and hold them for a few minutes… then slowly open them, only when you feel you’re ready. Do you see the infinite blue skies I’m looking at right now? We were in faraway Japan the last time I took you into a dream like this. But do you know where we are at the moment?

Beyond those lush hills around us, and way beyond the many hills we can’t see from here, is an ocean so vast that if you go south, far south, you’ll find nothing but a few tiny islands before ending up in the extreme cold of Antarctica. Before you start thinking of the freezing bite of the South Pole, let me remind you again that we’re on a tropical island which, if you fly high up into the sky and look down, appears just like a teardrop. This island, Sri Lanka, is surrounded by a great ocean that has witnessed everything from human migration to international trade, from colonization to piracy.

Behind us, there’s a rock that we can climb as it’s not too high. Come with me and I’ll show you why this is such an extraordinary place, so much so that I have to ask you to dream again with me for this journey.

Oh, and don’t mind the monkeys. They’re the toque macaques, and they’re native to this very island where we are now. They have such cool hair, don’t they? You can see where some of us get inspiration for our funky hairdos.

You notice that small white structure with the terracotta-colored roof? That’s the entrance to where I’m about to take you. But before we do so, please have a look around. Magnificent, isn’t it? All plains as far as the eye can see, peppered with gargantuan rock formations here and there that seemingly rise out of the earth. It’s a bit hard to comprehend because they were created in a time when our hominid ancestors had not even roamed the planet, which must have looked so different back then.

After those hills came into existence, it took uncountable cycles of intense rain, scorching sun, and merciless gusts of wind to shape them into how they appear today. Humans only began exploring this hill which we’re standing on now roughly three thousand years ago. A lunatic king even built a palace on top of one.

Now let’s walk to the entrance, shall we?

Those white colonnades, they’re not that old. But what lies behind them, that’s the real treasure of this hill. Before we go inside, let me show you something. Do you notice something rather unnatural on the rock hanging over that white structure? The top of the rock looks dark but then the color on its lower edges is different. That’s because that part of this rock was chiseled away to prevent rainwater from spilling into the cave underneath, preserving the delicate treasures inside. Imagine pouring champagne from a bottle into a glass. Just as you’re about to tilt the bottle back up, some champagne will run over the edge of the mouth and down along the outer part of the bottle. Now imagine if there was a gap just below the mouth; the liquid would never spill over the side of the bottle. This ‘innovation’ was in fact invented recently, but that drip ledge was created many many centuries ago here in Sri Lanka. If only the French had come to this island before they started bottling champagne.

A Giant Buddha at the Entrance to the Dambulla Cave Temple

Heading Up to Where the Sanctuary is Located

A Sweeping Vista of the Island’s Central Plains

A Close Up Look at Sigiriya (right) and Pidurangala

At This Point All Shoes and Sandals Must Be Taken Off

Underneath This Massive Rock Lie Ancient Treasures

Pilgrims and Visitors outside the Cave

Alright, now that I’ve mentioned those hidden treasures several times, let’s go inside.

I know, it’s quite impressive, isn’t it? This cave was established as a Buddhist temple back in the first century BC. As its importance grew, more and more Buddha statues, large and small, were added over the centuries. Then in the 12th century, many of those statues were gilded by Nissanka Malla, a king known for his penchant for constructing new Buddhist monuments as well as refurbishing older ones. He was responsible for erecting some structures in the Sacred Quadrangle of Polonnaruwa.

As for those exquisite murals above us, some believe they date back to the eighth century, although this is hard to prove for repainting has been repeatedly carried out in the past. But if they were indeed first painted more than a thousand years ago, the artists who created them were ahead of the Renaissance painters in Europe by many centuries.

There are four more caves in this compound that we can explore, but let’s go out for a while to see those verdant plains and hills one more time. I was told that having green space around us, at the office, or at least being able to look at trees, can help reduce stress. Probably this very view we’re looking at now was an antidote to the stress those sculptors and painters felt when they were working on this cave; for then, as now, it was such an important pilgrimage site.

Now, do go on and explore the rest of the caves – I think I’ll linger here a little longer.

Fading Colors inside the Cave

The Buddha Attaining Enlightenment

Buddha Statues around A Bell-Shaped Stupa

Buddhas Underneath A Checkered Ceiling

A Chapter of the Buddha’s Life

The Buddha Refraining from Worldly Temptations

Created Long Before Murals Became A Trend

A Less Ornate Corner

Water Lilies in the Temple’s Pond

Dambulla’s Resident Toque Macaques

One Last Glance

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

47 thoughts on “Buddhist Treasures Beneath A Rock”

    • Sri Lanka really is a fascinating island, but unfortunately its ancient sites are often overshadowed by those located in its giant neighbor.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. This was my second time to this cave temple, and fortunately it was not as hot and dry as when I first came.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. That happens to be our immediate ‘down under’. The beautiful introduction takes us back to the earliest times and back like a Time Warp. Your observations are as astute as ever, especially about monkey hairdos.


    • Exactly! It took a fellow blogger who has been living in Chennai a long time to finally step on the Sri Lankan soil. Judging from her photos it looks like she had a great time there. Always appreciate your encouraging words, Umashankar.


  2. That seems like a long walk without shoes. This happens in India as well, and I often find this very uncomfortable. In Japan you take them off, put them in a bag, and carry them with you; and you get to wear special “indoor slippers”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Taking off the shoes, especially when the sun is shining brightly, can be quite uncomfortable. But it was nothing compared to my experience in Anuradhapura the previous day. I had to tiptoe on hot stone under the scorching sun at one of the giant dagobas. However, I do understand why taking off one’s footwear is necessary in a lot of places of worship, although it would have been more comfortable had they provided special slippers.


  3. Bama what a brilliant narrative. I so enjoyed you taking readers on a tour. I could not only visualize yur desciprion but you as the tour leader. I know we have talked about you in this role before. What fun to make that dream come true, albeit in a virtual sense.


    • Being a tour leader in a virtual setting is all I can do now, and I’m glad you thoroughly enjoyed this ‘journey’, Sue. Have you ever thought of doing a cycling tour in Sri Lanka? It’s a beautiful island.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We haven’t Bama but the more I learn about Sri Lanka the more interested in visiting it I become.


  4. Bama, it was incredible to see just how beautifully preserved those murals were at Dambulla. As you pointed out to me when we went, the carved drip ledge above the cave did its job well! Reading this makes me wonder how Dambulla was first chosen as a pilgrimage site, and how the first sculptors became inspired to carve out the bell-shaped stupa, the reclining Buddha and all those other statues.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Imagining how ancient sculptors got their inspiration to create incredibly beautiful works of art — from this cave in Sri Lanka to the ancient temples in India, Indonesia and beyond — is part of the reason why such places are so fascinating. The drip ledge certainly was a clever solution for preserving the murals beneath that rock, and the fact that this was conceived far before the computer was invented is really astonishing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Bama this is one of our all time favorite places in Sri Lanka! Even though we live here we have revisited the cave temples several times! I so enjoyed another visit there, with you!

    In the South of Sri Lanka is another set of Buddhist temple caves with more impressive art. These are less visited as they are not as well known, but are equally beautiful and interesting. We have blogged about both these sites on Green Global Trek.



    • I can see why you love this place so much — those ancient murals are truly amazing. Now I’m really intrigued by your description of that other set of Buddhist temple caves! I will definitely check your blog to find out about it. Thanks for that, Peta!


  6. Thanks for the virtual tour, Bama. I skipped this place when I visited SL few years ago in favor of the coastal towns. The views look amazing from there! Nice to read something about the historical and religious significance of the rock through your blog. I think Sri Lanka interior is gorgeous too – although I skipped it entirely.


    • My pleasure, Pooja. The next time you visit Sri Lanka you really should go to the interior. Its lush landscape is filled with impressive ancient monuments, like this one in Dambulla. And when you do so, Kandy is a nice place for your base. I stayed more than a week in the city and I really loved it.


  7. Heide says:

    I love having you as a virtual tour guide, Bama. Between your charming narration and your gorgeous photos, I do almost feel as if I’ve been there with you.


    • You’re so kind, Heide… thank you! When you happen to visit Sri Lanka sometime in the future, you shouldn’t give this place a miss. The climb to the top is not nearly as challenging as Sigiriya — probably Sri Lanka’s most iconic ancient monument.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. You led us on an enticing path, Bama, and we were rewarded with that first view of the white temple tucked under the rocks! I’ve always been a bit leery of caves, but I think my fears would be overcome here just so I could see those treasures inside.


    • I had been leery of caves too, although this was largely because of what my mom used to tell me; she mentioned all the worst-case scenarios that could possibly happen in a dark cave. However, the ones in Dambulla are far from frightening as they’re not too deep, and I’m sure you’ll get distracted by those beautiful murals.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. What an excitement to be able to visit this temple! The history of this temple in Sri Lanka is very interesting. I like the fact you shared about how green space around us especially for people who work in an office can reduce stress. I believe that! no wonder most of the places I enjoy visiting are outdoors with lots of trees and greenery around. Thank you for sharing this experience.


    • Some of the most impressive ancient sites in Sri Lanka are in fact surrounded by thick green foliage. The rock fortress of Sigiriya that I mentioned in this post is one of those sites — a large palace compound once stood on top of it, providing its occupants a sweeping green vista. Learning from the past, we simply need trees — lots of them — to become more creative! Thanks for reading, Liz.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for the lovely journey. Reminds me of some of the cave paintings in Ajanta, India. I find it fascinating that Buddhist monks wanted to be apart from society and devoted such time and effort to this wilderness sanctuaries.


    • The Ajanta and Ellora caves in Maharashtra are on top of my wish list of places I most want to visit should I get the chance to return to India one day. Judging from the photos, I believe the Ajanta caves are significantly larger and more expansive than the ones in Dambulla. But that’s not to say that these Sri Lankan caves are less impressive.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks to you and Peta (Green Global Trek) I have become totally captivated by Sri Lanka. The innovation of chiseling away the lower edge of the rock to minimize rainwater penetration is brilliant. I really enjoyed your comparison to the champagne bottle. What a gorgeous interior!


    • I think you would enjoy Sri Lanka as much as we did, Caroline. The island nation is a milder, cleaner version of India, and it is a good starting point for one’s journey across South Asia (or to end it). Its ancient sites are impressive, the landscape magnificent, the cultures fascinating, and the food tantalizing.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Bama, what fantastic storytelling. I am so in love with this place; wishing I could be there at this very moment. I had to chuckle when you said that the colonnades weren’t that old – from your Eastern perspective, probably not. From my USA perspective – very much so! We marvel at our 120 year old buildings here in the American West for crying out loud! LOL On what kind of ground is everyone walking barefoot? Is it rock? Probably not uncomfortable, right? I spent a lot of time barefoot in temples and mosques in India and I loved it. There is something wonderful about the feeling of cool stone beneath your feet. BTW, how did they make the gold paint on the Buddha’s feet?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ahh yes… old is relative. This reminds me of a conversation my friend and I had with the Portuguese manager of the hotel where we stayed in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste (East Timor), back in 2012. She recounted her trip to Australia and she was shown the country’s “old buildings”. Perplexed, she said “my grandmother’s house in Portugal is older than this!”

      Yes, everyone was walking on the rock to enter the caves. I recall it wasn’t particularly a hot day, so the short barefooted walk was doable. As with the gold paint, or any paint inside the caves in Dambulla, I honestly have no idea how they were created; it’s definitely something to learn further.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jess! Really appreciate your kind comment.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. This is some piece of Sri Lanka which I haven’t seen, but yet… how can you grasp an entire country in a couple of weeks?

    I loved how ‘serene’ Buddhist Sri Lanka felt. Seeing the rather more Hindu part in the hill country didn’t give me the same feeling.

    Thanks for the tour!


    Liked by 1 person

    • Even for a ‘small’ country like Sri Lanka a couple of weeks are certainly not enough to explore its entirety, indeed. I have yet to visit the country’s predominantly Hindu regions; I wonder if those places bear a lot of similarities with India’s Tamil Nadu.

      You’re very welcome, Fabrizio. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 2 people

  14. I’m living in Sri Lanka, and It is far away from my home town, however I’ve been there. Had a nice experience. The artistic value is huge.
    Tip: Beware of Monkeys, They will steal your food or camera.


    • I’ve been to these caves in Dambulla twice, and fortunately I’ve never had any incident involving those monkeys — probably the fact that I’ve seen worse in some parts of Indonesia really helped me to be more vigilant of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Bama, we visited Dambulla’s Cave Temples when were were in Sri Lanka. It’s a wonderful temple and unlike anything that we’ve seen. In addition to the excellent cave art and stone carving, we really enjoyed watching the ceremonies of all the pilgrims there. I don’t know if it was some kind of holy day, but it was very crowded with large groups and families, so the sights and smells were entrancing. Thanks for a great memory. ~James


    • You’re so lucky to be there during a religious festival. I remember my first visit to Sri Lanka’s ancient city of Anuradhapura back in 2012 coincided with the preparation for a big festival. So many pilgrims and families there, most of them donning white clothes. As for Dambulla, I do wonder how the caves were like with so many people at the site during your visit.. or were the ceremonies performed outdoor? Glad this post brings back some good memories to you, James.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bama, most of the ceremonies were inside, and the caves were filled with incense smoke, and the quiet mumble of prayers. There were tiny shrine offerings all over outside on the rock shelf and the haze of candle smoke filled the air. It was a wonderful experience. ~James


      • Wow, that sounds magical! It must have been a sight to behold, I believe.


    • Thanks Rama! It’s been a while since the last time I wrote in this style. Your comment reminds me that it’s probably time for me to be more playful with words again.

      Liked by 1 person

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