Dambulla was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. Its five caves, or shrine rooms, are part of a vast cavern with more than 80 documented caves in a massive rock that rises 350 feet above the plain. The caves were occupied by Buddhist hermits at least from the reign of King Vattagamani Abhaya (89-77 B.C.), who probably cut the katarama (drip-ledge) along the rock to protect the caves from rain water.
Much later, King Nissanka Malla (1187-96), set on making his presence felt throughout Sri Lanka, spent lavishly at Dambulla and elsewhere. Nissanka Malla—we came to call him “The Inscription King”—confused later scholars by regularly adding his own inscriptions to the existing work of other kings. Dambulla was repaired and further embellished by the kings of Kandy during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Today the shrine rooms are filled with a mixture of religious and secular painting and sculpture representing Sri Lanka’s evolving artistic styles.
There are more than 150 statues of the Buddha, as well as various statues and paintings depicting Buddhist history. Hindu deities are also included, because Buddhist rulers from time to time married Hindu princesses, and wanted them to feel comfortable worshipping together in the same location.
Cave #1 called Devaraja Viharaya (Temple of the King of the Gods) is almost entirely filled with a 46-foot reclining Buddha carved from a single piece of rock, and still joined to the rock at the back. The statue depicts the parinibbana (the last moment) of the Buddha, which is represented—and differentiated from a sleeping or resting Buddha—by three distinctive aspects of the pose: 1) The left hand is not quite directly beneath the head, 2) the knees are not exactly aligned, and 3) the feet are not quite aligned with each other.
Cave #2 is the largest and the most impressive; it’s 172 feet long and 75 feet wide. Called Maha Raja Viltaraya (the temple of the Great King), #2 is painted in brilliant colors and bursts with an enormous array of Buddhas. The main statue is a life-sized standing Buddha with his right hand in the Abhaya mudra or “Have no Fear” posture.