The Dambulla Cave Temples were outstanding. These are five caves filled with Sinhalese Buddhist masterpieces. The caves became Buddhist shrines sometime in the rule of Vattagamani Abhaya, who reigned during 103 BC and 89 – 77 BC. Over the centuries these caves were repeatedly adorned, restored and remodelled, leaving behind the beautiful murals and statuary you see today. We took the advice of the Rough Guide to Sri Lanka and visited the caves in reverse order, from #5 to #1, as the #1 cave is the most elaborate. Seeing them in reverse order meant that the caves gradually built in magnificence, with the grand finale of cave #1. Ah!
This place is fabulous and not to be missed, but please follow the rules and don't take flash photos! Light, especially obnoxious modern flashes, is not good for such ancient artwork. I lost count of how many idiots I saw using flash photography in the caves, despite numerous signs warning against it, and unfortunately no one seemed to be enforcing the rules. I personally think that if you go in there and take flash photos on purpose, your camera should be taken from you and pitched over the rockface, or even better, donated to a needy Sri Lankan.

Supposedly there are 200 steps from the bottom up to the caves. I ws panting too hard to count. It wouldn't have been quite so tiring had we not climbed 1200 steps at Sigiriya on the same day!



The Golden Temple and its enormous 30-metre-high seated Buddha, finished in 2000. This temple lies at the foot of the granite rock outcrop that houses the Dambulla Cave Temples.

The cave entrance, constructed in 1938. It was a ten-minute walk uphill from the Golden Temple entrance to here. And look, another bored monkey. Well, I suppose I am anthropomorphosizing (no, that was not easy to spell. I had to sound it out in my head. Thank you to my grade 1 teacher, Mrs. Winters, who is either dead or in a retirement home now.) Maybe the monkey isn't bored. Maybe he's wishing I'd throw him a banana. Or get out of his temple!

A lily pond outside the caves, and a toque macaque getting soaked in the pouring rain. The granite is slippery when wet, so we watched our footing carefully, particularly since we had to leave our shoes outside the entrance.

Another shot of the entrance to the caves, with more resident monkeys. You get a sense of how tall that granite rock is when you see it next to this building.

A toque macaque and his amazingly long tail. They have black lips and a very funky parted hair-do.

A very, ahem, MANLY toque macaque. For those 18 and older only! Oh well, if you've got it, flaunt it. I swear that when I took this photo, I didn't notice that Mr. Macaque was an exhibitionist. Still, he wasn't quite as much of an exhibitionist as one of the male elephants I saw on safari. My oh my. Elephants are large in many, many ways.

Alas, I must admit that I mostly forget which cave is which in these photos. I was so awestruck by the statues and paintings that I just walked around with the camera glued to my eyeball and my mouth gaping open. Some statues were plaster, some were carved from rock, and at least one was made of wood.

Wall mural with lotus flowers.

Lord Buddha.
Now listen up, people! When a historic site such as this (featuring ancient works of art in darkened caves) has signs EVERYWHERE imploring you not to use flash photography, DON'T USE FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY! You are not special. Your flash is not special. Last time I checked, you were not famous (unless you are Colin Firth, in which case, contact me backchannel, 'kay?) The flash rule applies to everyone, and helps protect the artwork. I saw several idiots using their flashes to take photos in the caves. I guess these tourists all thought they were special! Oh yeah, they were SPECIAL all right...

Buddha (behind a parted curtain) with fabric lotus flower offering.
See, I took ALL of these pictures without a flash (and even without a tripod), using my Nikon D70 digital SLR. And they turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. But even if I had had some garbage disposable camera, I would have had no right to think I was above the rules, and start taking stinking flash photos left, right and centre. Hello, it's not THAT important that you get photos inside the caves. Go buy postcards instead!

A row of seated Buddhas. You can see that there is some water damage on the ceiling. One of the caves has a constant ceiling drip, the water from which is collected in a special caged-off vessel, as the water itself is considered holy.

More seated Buddhas in Cave 3. Look at the beautiful artwork on the wall behind them. According to my friend The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka, the mural shows "a picture of an idealized garden with square ponds, trees, elephants, cobras and Buddhas – a rather folksy, nineteenth-century addition to the original Kandyan-era murals."

Can you imagine painting all those geometric designs on the wavy ceilings of these caves? Such patience and devotion! I mean, as a graphic designer, I could create that particular pattern in no time on my treasured iMac, but imagine perhaps lying on your back painting all those circles and squares by hand, and NOT on a flat canvas. Look how evenly they are painted. To me, it's an amazing feat, a labour of love.

Reclining Buddha.
Another thing NOT to do in the caves (or any Buddhist temple, for that matter): don't sit on Buddha's lap and have your photo taken. It's incredibly disrespectful, and as far as I know, illegal. Photography was completely banned in these caves for quite some time after some moron tourist sat on the lap of a Buddha statue and had her friend take her photo. The story I heard was that this was discovered after she was stupid enough to get her photos developed in Colombo. The photo developer turned her in to authorities.
Just think, people: would you like it if some brain-dead tourist came into your church and climbed up the giant crucifix to sit on Jesus' head, while she wearing shorts and a tube top no less? No, I don't think so. I think you might be just a titch peeved. When you're visiting a foreign country, have some manners and show some respect, and follow the rules on the signs at the various attractions. I mean HOW STUPID ARE YOU? If you're that desperate to sit on statues, go to frigging Disneyland! YEESH! Do not pose with Buddha!
Still more Buddhas. Look at the detailed geometric painting on that cave ceiling! Can you sense that we were awestruck by this place? Another head of Buddha. More artistry. I forget what the various creatures signify. I need a better memory.
I think this is a staute of Kirti Sri Rajasinha, with his four attendants painted onto the wall behind him (only two shown.) He was a Kandyan king of Sri Lanka (1747-1782). If I'm wrong, somebody let me know!

Two of the Buddhas in this cave (I think) were carved out of solid rock, if you can imagine. This at a time when they worked only with basic chisels! For Dambulla photos of a more professional quality, check out:

Entrance to the new Hindu kovil at Matale.

More of the kovil wall. Unfortunately, I'm not very up on my Hindu gods. I found the Hindu kovils (temples) fascinating works of art unto themselves.
All photos and text copyright Natalie Rowe 2008 - Stealing brings bad karma. Don't make me set my lawyer-husband upon you!