Dambulla Caves, Sri Lanka

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The Golden Temple of Dambulla

We’re up early in the morning again. Early enough that the children manage to fit in a quick dip in the pool before breakfast. The pool is not really ideal for children though, it’s more of a relaxing pool. It’s a strange triangular shape with a large shallow paddling area in which some of the loungers have been positioned so you can relax on the water. The water gets deeper as you swim towards the point of the triangle and it seems common to come across the occasional large insect floating desperately in the water. Despite this it’s a remarkably relaxing pre-breakfast swim and we’re pretty much the only people there.

Breakfast is a pretty quick affair but we do decide to try curry for breakfast for the first time (well for some of us, Lisa has been known to finish up a takeaway curry the morning after). This is a weird but extremely pleasant experience which we are to repeat many times on our holiday. After this it’s a quick pack of our wet clothes and we meet Chris in reception, almost on time at 9am.

We’re heading down to Kandy, Sri Lankan’s second city and while its not far on the map, we’re already prepared that it will be a long journey because of the state of the roads. We bump along and to be honest I don’t think we saw much of the countryside as it “flashed” past!

The entrance to the museum at the Golden Temple of DambullaHowever our first stop is not that far down the road anyway – The Golden Temple of Dumbulla. Your first impression of this temple has to be the enormous golden statue of the Buddha which towers over a large square. In the statue the Buddha sits as normal, in a lotus position however his hands are in front of him with a the thumb and finger of each hand touching each other. This pose, apparently called the Dhammacakra Mudra supposedly represents the Buddha’s teaching.

Rising up from the square, which is created from diamond shaped paving, is a magnificent staircase which has to be around 4-5 metres wide and flanked by the golden legs of a lion. The staircase leads to a Buddhist museum which has two double doors beneath a enormous set of white teeth that appears to belong a golden monster than could be a lion or a dragon or some other mythical creature!

This impressive facade however is not the main event. Above and behind the Buddha statue is a serious of ancient caves that is still the site of a working Buddhist temple and houses a serious number of smaller Buddhists statues.

I’ve read in a few guides that the caves are reached by climbing a gentle slope – this is not how I would describe it! The slope is actually made up of wide sloping steps and while each individually slopes gently upward, there is a great deal of uneven grey stone steps! Halfway up we encounter several beggars sitting alongside the path. These beggars, both men and women are in a pitiful state and we can’t help but leave some our small change (which is very small indeed in value but they seem very grateful). Further up the path opens out into a small plateau – almost like a rock landing at the top of a stone stair case. On this landing there are a number of hawkers mainly selling wooden carvings, many of the Buddha. Monkeys in the trees at the Golden Temple of Dambulla Sri LankaThere are also numerous small monkeys who walk or lope around, quite unconcerned by the people although there is little evidence of monkeys actually approaching anyone. Beyond the landing the path becomes a grey clad slope which leads to a square which looks mainly natural rock.

It is a very hot day indeed and by the time we start to reach the top we are all sweating profusely. It’s hard work although all of us make it easily enough and the view of the top is impressive. Just as at Sygiria Rock, the vista is mainly one of jungle. It is rather surprising to use because while you’re driving though it, bumping up and down, you feel like you’re simply driving past a forest. But from above the expanse of jungle is clear. From here you can also see the rock of Sygiria and I am told you can see down to Kandy, around 70km south but we couldn’t pick it out.

As we approach the entrance to the caves there is a couple of men, manning a large set of shelves with all manner of shoes, boots, sandals and other footwear. We remove our shoes and hand them over to the men. It is very informal and we don’t get a ticket!

Now shoeless, the extent of the head is clear. The ground is scorching underfoot and we’re pretty glad that we came in boots. Not only because of the climb up to the caves but also because it means we’re all wearing socks which provide some protection from the hot ground. This is another place where Chris is not allowed to guide us so we say goodbye to him at the entrance and make out way into the courtyard of the cave temple.

Some of the ponds in the calm setting outside the cave temple at DambullaIt is difficult to describe this temple. There is a large rock face that rises almost vertical on one site and a small wall with a fence on top of it on the other. In the centre there is a pretty courtyard with ponds, laden with water lilies and flowers growing around them. The temple caves are dug in at the base of the rock face and are reached by 2 or 3 steps leading to a raised, covered pathway that runs along the line of the rock face.

One of many statues of Buddha at DambullaWith a certain reverence we walk into the caves one by one. Each of them is cool and dark and they are all full of statues of the Buddha in many different poses. They are all of a similar colour and style.

Three are five caves and so many statues it’s impossible to count although the guidebooks say there are around 150. Despite this being an important Buddhist temple, Sri Lanka’s other main religion, Hinduism is also represented as are a few statues of some of the kings responsible for creating the caves.

We probably spent about 30-40 minutes looking at the different statues and the children were surprisingly patient. You’re allowed to take photos of the statues and other parts of the caves but photographing people inside the caves is forbidden. The children therefore took it in turns to take pictures and as a result, we have several tens, if not hundreds of photos and videos of the statues, many at extremely odd angles!

Outside we spend a few moments taking in the courtyard. I personally think this is probably even more impressive that the caves themselves which while interesting feel very much like collections of statues, many of them similar if not identical. There is also real evidence that the temple is not just a tourist attraction as there are several monks, sitting in the shade and what appears to be a Buddhist act of worship going on in one of the caves with many flowers and candles on display.

Our budding buddhist monk at Dambulla Cave TempleWe walk back to the entrance and reclaim our shoes, offering the normal 100 Ruppees tip (just one for keeping all the shoes rather than one for each pair!). Meeting up with Chris we start making our way back down the path, past the hawkers – where we buy some melons to cool us down – past the beggars and back down to the car. We’re then on our way again, down towards Kandy.