Erica & Matt Chua: A Buddhist View of Sri Lanka

Palm trees, surfboards, sandy beaches and seafood are the images that come to mind when someone mentions Sri Lanka. The tiny island is known for it’s beaches, however their cultural sights are stunning, if expensive.  The north of the country is definitely worth your time, maybe not all your money, but don’t let the ticket prices scare you away.While visiting Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa will all set you back a pretty penny, Dambulla is an easy and affordable day trip from Kandy.

If all these foreign names aren’t familiar, here’s a crash course: the ancient cities of Sri Lanka that lie north of hill country were formerly known as Rajarta, Land of the Kings.  For 1500 years this was the heart of Sinhalese culture and today offers a glimpse into the past.  In the last decade both Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were unearthed by archaeologists, revealing an incredible irrigation system.  The enigma of Sigirya has been studied offering both royal and military explanations for the huge rock structure jutting out of the desert as a result of an extinct volcano.  Possibly the oldest of the ancient cities are the rock cut Buddhist temples at Dambulla, which are thought to date back to the 1st century BC.

With the mini-history lesson out of the way we can jump right into photos of the phenomenal Buddhist caves in Dambulla.  There are five separate caves containing over 150 Buddha images.  Most of the paintings in the temples date to the 19th century, however the just barely ten year old structure at the base of the caves is your welcome to this ancient worship sight.  If a spiritual place can be kitschy the entrance to the Golden Temple is just that.  Although the enormous golden Buddha perched on top of the building claims to be the largest Buddha in the world (later research found it wasn’t even the largest one in Sri Lanka).

Past the kitschy entrance, several flights of stairs and hoards of feral monkeys carry visitors to the first of the caves.  Devaraja Viharaya, the Temple of the King of the Gods, features a massive reclining Buddha.  At the Buddha’s feet is Ananda, the Buddha’s loyal disciple.

The second cave, the Temple of the Great King, is the most spectacular and by far the largest with vaulted ceilings and enormous Buddhas. To take in the entire temple and truly appreciate the spiritual nature of the space a personal visit is a must.  While I may lack the flowery language and wide ranging vocabulary to do this sight justice, I do have photos to give you a peek into this phenomenal place.

The vibrant paintings that adorn the walls and the ceiling are colorful and awe-inspiring.  It was difficult to take in every detail, much less count all the Buddhas.

The intricate tempera paintings adorning the roof of the cave date back to the 18th century and tell the story of Buddha’s life.

The Dambulla rock temples were quiet when we visited, which added to the ambiance of this spiritual site.  The monks silent in prayer was yet another reminder of the higher purpose the temples serve.

The dagoba (stupa) that serves as the centerpiece of the second cave collects water from the crack in the ceiling.  This sacred water is said to have strong healing powers and is used in Buddhist rituals.

The third cave, The Great New Monastery, features ceiling and wall paintings in the typical Kandy style during the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinha and has over 50 Buddhist statues as well as a sculpture of the King himself.

The photos of this magical spot in northern Sri Lanka don’t begin to showcase the incredible art and amazingly colorful murals that lie within the caves.  However, I hope they whet your appetite for more and you enjoy some culture between your beach bumming on your trip to Sri Lanka.


Bring a tripod for your camera. If you plan on capturing photos within the temples you will need a tripod and a remote for the best results.

Plan on spending the entire day. If you are based in Kandy it takes nearly 3 hours each way to visit the temples and the art deserves more than a quick look, so plan for an entire day at Dambulla.

Are you planning an upcoming trip to Sri Lanka?  Visit our travel guide to see more photos and get travel tips by clickinghere.


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