The UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Golden Cave Temple complex is the largest and well preserved of its kind in Sri Lanka and is situated within a huge cavern in the rock that is 160 metres high over the surrounding plains. For many centuries, Dambulla Cave Temple has been a pilgrim site for Buddhists and monks till today. The temple comprises of five caves that are extraordinary and covers a wide area of the complex. These temple caves and monastery were constructed in the 1st century BC by King Vatagamini Abhaya or Valagamba in gratitude for the monks’ efforts and help in during his exile and the reforming of his army to return to reclaim his throne at Anuradhapura.
There are 80 caves at the site but the main ones are located in 5 sanctuaries. It is believed that before the arrival of Buddha, the caves had been occupied by pre-historic locals who were believed to be the monks who used to meditate in these caves. These were determined during excavations and many human remains were found. All the caves have their own significance and have their own names as of, Deva Raja Viharaya (Cave No.1), Maha Raja Viharaya (Cave No.2), Maha Aluth Viharaya (Cave No.3) and Paschima Viharaya (Cave No.4) and Cave No.5 has no historical value since it was done in the second decade of this century. Entry fees to the complex for Foreign Nationals is USD $10 which can be purchased at the ticket office at the base of the rock.
The Deva Raja Viharaya or the ‘Temple of the King of Gods’ (Cave No.1) houses the 15 metre long reclining statue of the dying Buddha. This name was given because it was believed that the god Sakka (King of Gods) had given the final touches to the reclining statue. The statue is carves almost in circular form from the natural rock which still remains intact and well preserved.
The cave contains five more statues with one in standing position at the southern end of the cave.
The most spectacular of the caves is the 50 metre long Maha Raja Viharaya or the ‘Temple of the Great King’ (Cave No.2). the name derived from the common belief that its founder was King Vattagamini Abhaya who had personally helped in this contruction. This cave is the source of attraction since it consists of over 150 Buddha statues of various sizes belonging to different periods of time, beautiful colourful paintings on the ceilings and walls that reflect the life of Buddha and Sinhalese historical culture. There are murals of Lord Ganesha and Lord Vishnu. The portal of entry is at the front which follows through a lofty archway with statues on either side. The height of this place lowers gradually in an arc towards the ground inside.
The Maha Aluth Viharaya (Cave No.3) or ‘The Great New Temple’ is detached from Cave No.2 by a wall. It was assumed that this was used as a store room before the 18th century BC. The entryway is through a door and this room was converted into a shrine room by Kirti Sri Rajasinha who had reformed the Buddhist Church in the 18th century. Most of the new paintings and refurbishments of the temple were in connection to this last contributor of Dambulla. A statue of this king in his robes of state sits at the left side of the entrance. This cave is approximately 90 feet long. The rocky surfaces have also been painted in exotic colours depicting various events of the Buddhists and the history of Buddhism. There are 50 buddha statues in this cave. The main statue is in a standing pose under a thorana and all these statues have been carved out of rock.
One statue is in a horizontal posture with its head on a pillow, similar to the one in Cave No.1. Roughly 30 feet long and carved in symmetrically.
The Paschima Viharaya (Cave No.4) or ‘The Western Temple’ is roughly 54 feet in length and has a sloping roof. There are ten equally sized statues in this cave in which the main one is also under a thorana which is a very beautiful creation seated in the posture of meditation carved out of the natural rock from the cave itself. The statue is in well protected condition and has been painted in bright exotic colours which were influenced by the Kandyan era. It has distinct and clear features with long pierced ears and a draping robe. There is an immaculate stupa which is in the centre of the cave. This is called Soma Chetiya. The walls and ceiling also have paintings and illustrations of Buddha‘s life and historical events.