The Golden Temple of Dambulla, built underneath an enormous boulder of gneiss, towers 160m over the surrounding plains in the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. The temple, which has been a place of worship since its inception, and is even today a monastery, is the oldest well-preserved structure in Sri Lanka.
Inside the five cave sanctuaries, there are 157 magnificent statues of Lord Buddha and a few Hindu deities. Among the many representations of Lord Buddha, is the 15m-long reclining Buddha statue. The walls and the ceilings are covered with a series of cave paintings recalling the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The murals have been created, enhanced, and restored with relentless effort throughout many centuries. The artistic works also seem to tell the history of ancient Sri Lankan art through their chronology, from the 1st to the 15th century.
Above the undeniable historic and artistic interest of the site, which earned its UNESCO World Heritage classification, the temple vibrates with a sort of immaterial force. The statues and the paintings set in the rock since the dawn of time, radiate on the visitors despite the rarity of light. The images drawn in wine-red and moderate yellow, which follow the outlines of the rock, undulate overhead to unveil strikingly beautiful designs.
It is believed that Dambulla became a place of worship from the 1st century B.C, after King Valagamba, chased from Anuradhapura by a South Indian invasion, came to find refuge here with the help of Buddhist monks. When he regained his throne, he ordered a temple to be built in the place of his old hideout as a sign of gratitude. The kings who succeeded him contributed afterwards in making the temple the miracle it has become today. It was the King Nissanka Malla in the 12th century who had the walls of the cave covered with golden flowers, which gave the temple the name Ran Giri (Golden Rock), and erected about seventy new statues of Lord Buddha.
Do not be fooled by the tall golden stupa at the entrance of the complex, as you have to climb the stairs up to the top of the rock to access the temple. If you wish to make offerings during the course of your visit, you can buy a bouquet of lotus flowers before starting your climb. But beware of the monkeys who adore the nectar of these flowers and who will not hesitate to attack you. The climb towards the caves can be a bit tiring, but it is not unpleasant. The view from the mountain top offers a fascinating panorama, from where we can see the rock of Sigiriya, which reaches towards the sky.
The temple of Dambulla is a site of tourism and pilgrimage. It is better to climb towards the top of the site very early in the morning or at the end of the day, when the groups of sparrows gather in front of the caves, in order to avoid the crowd and to fully enjoy the extraordinary atmosphere of the site.