Sri Lanka’s magnificent cave temples: Dambulla and Mulkirigala

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Reclining Buddha at Mulkirigala Cave Temple

The cavern is enormous. It’s filled with statues of Buddha, kings and deities. The walls and ceilings are covered with murals. Of all the amazing cultural sites in Sri Lanka, my favourites are the cave temples. We visited two: the large, busy Dambulla Cave Temple in the country’s Cultural Triangle and the smaller, lightly-visited Mulkirigala Cave Temple in the south. They’re historically significant for their role as places of Buddhist practice and ritual for over 2000 years, and they remain important holy sites. I’m overwhelmed by the visual feast that’s housed in these natural rock overhangs carved into the cliffs.

Dambulla Cave Temple

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Massive rock overhang that houses the Dambulla Cave Temple

We follow a long line of white-dressed pilgrims up the path to the the Dambulla Cave Temple. This Unesco World Heritage Site, only 17km from another outstanding UNESCO site at Sigiriya, is deservedly busy.

The complex consists of five caves that sit under a massive overhang on the side of a sheer rock face. The caves contain 157 exceptionally crafted statues, primarily representation of Buddha with a handful of Sri Lankan kings, gods and goddesses. The cave walls and ceilings are entirely covered with murals—florals, geometrics, and religious scenes. The colours and designs are breathtaking.

Historians believe that Dambulla has been a place of worship since the 1st century BC when King Valagamba was driven out of Anuradhapura and found refuge in the caves among meditating monks. When he regained his throne, he transformed the caves into magnificent rock temples. Over the centuries, subsequent kings added to the collection of statues and wall paintings. The process of restoring the old artwork and adding new continued into the 20th century.

There’s beauty to be found in all five caves, but caves I and II are particularly memorable. Most people find Cave II the most impressive—a huge cavern measuring 52m X 23m. Its size is brought to life for us by a large group of school children who sit on the floor listening to their teacher. They take up only a tiny fraction of the cave, which has an unbelievable number of statues around its perimeter and in pods sprinkled throughout. My favourite though is Cave I. I’m transfixed by the beautiful designs on the feet of the reclining Buddha, the statue of his disciple behind his feet, and the paintings surrounding the scene.

It’s difficult to adequately depict in photos the atmosphere and magnitude of the Dambulla Cave Temple, but here are a few that I like.

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Feet of 15m-long recling Buddha in Cave I

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Buddha disciple and incredible wall paintings in Cave I

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School group sits in enormous Cave II

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Buddha statue once completely covered in gold leaf

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The colour and detail of the Dambulla cave statues are striking

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Recling Buddha in Cave V

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Standing and sitting Buddhas surround the perimeter of the caves

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Exquisite Buddha carvings in Cave III

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Row of seated Buddhas in serene poses

Mulkirigala Cave Temple

Mulkirigala is not a substitute for Dambulla, but it’s an impressive place and far more peaceful. On our visit, we share the caves with no more than half a dozen people. It makes for an easy cultural side trip from the heavenly beaches at Tangalla, only 16 km away.

The caves at Mulkirigala are believed to have been used as places of prayer and devotion for over 2000 years, but the current temples and cave art date back to the late Kandyan period in the 18th century.

Like at Dambulla, the Mulkirigala caves are hidden in a rocky crag. It’s a sweaty 500 steps to a series of seven cave temples on several terraced levels. The caves house a number of large reclining Buddha statues and smaller seated and standing figures. I’m most drawn to the wall paintings, especially the lovely floral designs.

Unfortunately our visit coincides with one of the frequent scheduled power outages. With only the natural light, many of our photos don’t turn out well. Here are a few I salvaged.

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Recling Buddha surrounded by gorgeous wall paintings

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Dragon arch entrance to one of the caves

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Heavenly ceiling mural

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Captivated by the beautiful floral wall paintings

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Reclining Buddha surrounded by flower design murals

Next posts: Jaffna, and one or two other Sri Lankan highlights. Some of you have been asking about my cycling trip in Brittany and Normandy—posts are coming, hopefully early in the new year!

Categories: Sri Lanka, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 38 Comments

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38 thoughts on “Sri Lanka’s magnificent cave temples: Dambulla and Mulkirigala

  1. Pingback: Happy days in Sri Lanka: Highlights of a 3 1/2 week trip | Writes of Passage

  2. Lovely picture n post thnx to share

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Incredibly epic Caroline. The caves seem at once both so tranquil and so vivid. Wishing you and yours a most happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Happy New Year to you and your family too. I’ve been thinking about you as I hadn’t “seen” you in some time…happy to see your post in my inbox and looking forward to reading it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you Caroline! I’ve been away from blogging in order to write for other magazines and journals. But, I’m hoping to do both this year on a more scheduled basis.

        Like

  4. These two sites are our absolute favorites of Sri Lanka and it is wonderful to re visit through your eyes and lens. Your photos are wonderful and definitely do the places justice. Given we have been “on the road” for the past two months, I am late in reading and writing, but then again, this post is timeless isn’t it?

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember you writing and talking enthusiastically about these two sites, and now I know why. Without your post about Mulkirigala, I’m not sure we would have visited. I’m so glad we saw both. Timeless indeed! Hopefully these wonders will be preserved for years to come.

      Like

  5. Stunning photos!! The craftmanship is indeed a feast for the eyes. Happy New Year Caroline! ~Steph

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m generally not a cave person, but these do look very cool! I love the shot with the white-robed pilgrims … maybe because no one is IN a cave yet – haha.

    Liked by 3 people

    • These aren’t your typical damp, dark, spooky caves, which I’m not a fan of either. Your comment actually got me thinking that these rock temples didn’t feel like cave at all—probably because of all the magnificent artwork everywhere.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Fantastic,

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Your images from both places are A-MA-ZING. I had to save a few to my Pinterest (and could have saved more). Sadly, I couldn’t convince the Captain to visit here. How much fun I’ve had on your pages today – first in Mexico where I am going and now, here in Sri Lanka, which I adored. Definitely going around again!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are making my day Lisa with all your kind comments on my Mexico and Sri Lanka posts. The cave temples are really stunning. I’m glad Peta and Ben told us about the ones at Mulkirigala.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. What a fascinating post. Adding to our bucket list. Thanks for the great information, Caroline!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Sounds like a two majestic temples to visit, Caroline. I liked that you chose a large and busy cave to visit and a smaller, less frequented one. Traveling that way you get to experience the popular tourism for it is and the quieter side of local life. Dambulla Cave Temple does sound like a large cavern and the Buddha statues are a sight to behold. I also liked how you make a mention of the group of school children coming through. Very astute observation on your travels 🙂

    Sorry to hear about the power outage at Mulkirigala Cave Temple. Must have been quiet an experience and hope everyone was okay. The photos you had from there look amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are right Mabel, It was really interesting visiting both sites. I read an article in The Guardian suggesting that Dambulla should be traded for the less visited Mulkirigala. Dambulla was indeed busy, but having the many white dressed pilgrims there (including the school children) actually enhanced the atmosphere for me and reinforced that Dambulla is not just beautiful but also an important Buddhist holy place.
      The power outage was one of many we experienced while in Sri Lanka. The power company could not keep up with requirements during the particularly long, hot season and therefore scheduled periodic shutdowns. Timing was bad but we still saw lots of Mulkirigala.

      Like

      • You bring up a good point when you mention Dambulla and the white dressed pilgrims: while a place might be busy, it can be of significant importance to the locals. That’s a great reason to visit a place and immerse yourself in local culture.

        Good that you didn’t let the power outages stop you from going places. The locals must be used to that.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I remember how impressive the cave temples in Dambulla were on my very first visit to Sri Lanka. Did you notice the drip ledge above the caves? It was very interesting to learn about how the locals thought of creating this feature a long time ago to preserve the paintings inside. And did you see the monkeys outside the temple compound? They have among the coolest hairstyles in the monkey world! I’ve never been to the caves in Mukirigala, but I think I read about them from Ben and Peta’s blog and they surely look intriguing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m sorry to say that we missed the drip ledge feature. I’m glad they had the foresight and skill to create this. We did however see the monkeys with the cool hairstyles. They were pretty aggressive—I assume because people feed them. I bought a dish of cut up mangoes and they wouldn’t leave me alone, so I didn’t stop to take photos. I got my chance in Polonnaruwa. They are amazing looking…I gather you don’t have these cool dudes in Indonesia?

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Both caves are indeed spectacular! I think the natural light works just fine in the second cave 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Beautiful photos Caroline, the wall paintings are magnificent.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. We love Dambulla too. I think #2 is our favourite too, the one with the large stupa. Great that there were pilgrims dressed in traditional white when you were there, for us it was mostly tourists.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Gorgeous photos Caroline. I’m completely captivated. I’d not heard of either place, and now I want to go!
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  16. You’re right. The wall and ceiling paintings at the less-visited cave are something else. Really beautiful. Are the paintings in good shape?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Neil, I believe the paintings at the less visited caves are newer than at Dambulla. Many, but not all, are in really good condition. I wish I had a room with walls like this!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. .
    Wonderful. Thank you. Liked and shared to my social and flipped to my Travel MaG.

    Twitter : https://twitter.com/outosego/status/1202772465455230976

    Travel MaG : https://flipboard.com/@outosego/travel-mag-0pjv4fh7y
    .

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Caroline! Your pictures are unbelievable. So beautiful. Yet another amazing part of Sri Lanka you have shared with us. I really love the image of the feet. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

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