Located in central province of Sri Lanka, the Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple is a living Buddhist site that is focused on a series of five cave shrines. There are clear evidence of this cave temple was inhabited by forest-dwelling Buddhist monks for 23 centuries. These natural caves have been transformed continuously throughout the historical period into one of the largest and most outstanding Buddhist complexes in the Southern and South Eastern Asian region, showcasing innovative approaches to interior layout and decoration, moreover the cave temple is declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991,also listed as one of the top 10 sacred caves in the world by National Geographic.

In keeping with a longstanding tradition associated with living Buddhist ritual practices and continuous royal sponsorship, the cave shrines underwent several renovation and refurbishing programs before assuming their present interior forms in the 18th century.

Dambulla Cave complex

03rd century BC to 07th century AD :

According to the story told by the oral tradition the king Valagamba (103,89-77BC) of Anuradhapura Kingdom having been shown the caves by a Veddha hunter ,when he was forced to flee for his life, he is believed to have seek refuge here from South Indian invaders for 15 years, after regaining his kingdom he convert the caves to a place of worship. Also Over 50 inscriptions have been found on site, these inscriptions gives evidence that Dambulla was a flourishing religious worship for centuries.

During this period the main caves had been separated by walls & rain proofed, ancillary buildings & dagabas had been built, multiple statues had been built & ornamented. 80 rock shelter based residences were constructed on the western slopes of the main rock and offered to the monks.

Around 30 inscriptions dated between 3rd century BC & 2nd century AD, the carved window between cave 02 & 03 that showcase the woodwork from early Anuradhapura period, fragments of paintings belonging to the classical tradition in cave 03 & 04, Buddha statue carved out of the rock as are the floor, roof & walls in cave 01 & seven stones cut statues including the main buddha statue under the Makara thorana (Dragon arch) in cave 02 are remaining from this period.

Proto – history :

Despite the fact that most evidence in five cave shrines has been hidden under the two millennia of development , important findings on the hillside caves confirms that the Dambulla cave were occupied during this period.

11th century :

After regaining the kingdom from South Indian Chola invaders , King Valagamba (1055 – 1110 AD) made major renovations to Dambulla cave temple during the period of transition of the capital from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa. According to the ancient chronical Mahawansa Dambulla cave temple have been an ascetic monastery & an elaborate temple through the centuries.

12th Century :

King Nissankamalla (1187- 1196AD) has set out his contribution to the renovation & development of the cave by adding 73 gold plated reclining, sitting & standing Buddha statues & also has renamed it as Swarnagiri guha (Golden – rock -cave). “King Nissankamalla is famous for his tendency towards self – promotion, he has added his statue in cave 02 & a long stone inscription about his contribution towards the cave in cave 01. His statue is now hidden behind a large Buddha statue, possibly placed by someone who was not happy with King’s ego.

13th to 17th Century :

The continued royal patronage by a series of kings compiled the historical account in the 18th Century. The series of kings include Buwanekabahu (1372 – 1408), Vickramabahu III (1357 – 1374), Rajasingha I (1581 – 1591), Vimaladarmasuriya (1592 – 1604), & Senarath (1604 – 1635). The seat of government changed from Gampola to Kotte. Kandyan school painting in the caves are from Gampola period.

18th Century :

It is believed the instability of the government and the continued threat from the European powers may have caused King Sri Veera Narendrasingha (1707 – 1739) to handover the document in 1726, that includes the history of the temple and of the kings who have contributed & renovated the temple.

King Keerthi Sri Rajasingha (1741 – 1781) has made extensive repairs & over painted the murals & statues due to his deep commitment towards Buddhism. He has re – modelled cave 03 completely & added 50 buddha statues. Following the King Nissankamalla’s path he has made a statue of himself in cave 03. Another completely new shrine (Great New Shrine / Maha Aluth Viharaya) was built in cave 04.The paintings you see today & the colors of the statues resulted from the renovations happened during this period, also the entrance “Vahalkada” was renovated in this period Kandyan style.

19th Century :

Devana Aluth Viharaya ( second new shrine) was added during this period, but by whom and when is unknown. Buddhist monks & Dambulla viharaya premises were involved in a final bid for freedom from the British in 1848, and this resulted the monks of Dambulla viharaya being tried for treason.

20th Century :

Under the encouragement of Tolambagalle Korala from Ehelepola the second new shrine was re-painted in 1915. The final reconstructions took place in 1930s. As the Archeology departments steps in the characters of cave shrines changed, and it becomes a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991. All inclusions to the shrine are now limited to the area below rock.

All this information I gathered from different sources & the main source is the book “Sigiriya and Beyond”. If you know any significant information , please feel free to comment below. I hope you got to know many things from my blog. I used only few sources, but there are many more sources where you can find more in-depth information about the history of Dambulla cave temple. ~ Kaku 🙂

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