Welcome to Dambulla. Discover the Golden Temple complex !
A UNESCO World Heritage since 1991, the Golden Temple complex in Dambulla is one of a Sri Lanka’s most visited sites. The situation of the town, almost equidistant from Anuradhapura and Kandy, makes it a not-to-be-missed stopover whether you are heading north or south of the island.
Situated 70 km north of Kandy and 22 km southeast of Sigiriya, the historical town of Dambulla is famous for the series of impressive cave temples located on top of the huge granite rock overlooking the valley. The different rooms, occupied since the 3rd century BC, make up for the largest cave complex in Sri Lanka.
Thanks to its central location, Dambulla has managed to remain a prominent town of commercial significance as well with a population of 70.000. Dambulla can serve as a base for venturing to other places like Sigiriya and Habarana.
How to reach Dambulla and how to move in and around
Bus: Dambulla is situated at a crossroad. Here the route from Kandy to Anuradhapura intersects with the route from Colombo to Trincomalee. Getting to any of these Sri Lankan cities from here is easy: Kandy is just 2 hours away and a bus ride to Colombo is about five hours. Schedules may vary and it is best to check the timings at your hotel before you leave.
Train: From Colombo, there are two trains per day on the Colombo – Trincomalee route that stop at Habarana railway station, which is 25 km from Dambulla.
Top tourist attractions in Dambulla
The Rock Temple is the star attraction of the town. If you want to enjoy the sights and avoid the crowds, it is best to visit the temple early in the morning or late in the evening. The temple is open from 7:30 am and closes at 6 pm.
This site was most likely built in the first century BC by King Vattagamani Abhaya, who had to flee from Anuradhapura fearing Tamil invaders. He and his family were offered refuge in caves already occupied by monks who also taught him how to seek alms. When King Abhaya regained power, he transformed the sparsely decorated caves into bountifully decorated temples that can be seen today.
When you reach Dambulla, you are invariably attracted by the sight of the 30-metre golden Buddha statue. This was a gift from Japan, South Korea and Thailand. Tickets to the Rock Temple are to be bought the counter just under the statue.
Avoid buying your tickets elsewhere.
To reach the Rock Temple, you climb a rock-cut flight of stairs to the left of the golden Buddha. There are a few guides who offer their services when you reach the temple. Remember to keep your shoulders and knees covered on all times when you are in the temple premises.
Once you reach the top, you are treated to stunning vistas of the entire area on your left. On a clear day, depending on the time of your visit, you can see Sigiriya Rock from here. In the evenings, visitors are treated to blazing sunsets accompanied by chirping birds and cries of monkeys.
As you enter the complex, you can see a corridor with entrances and arches to your right that are a testimony to perfect anachronism, as the corridor was an addition during the British period, sometime in the 1930s. From this corridor, you can enter the five caves that contain about 150 statues of the Buddha and exquisite frescoes that were executed over the centuries starting from the 1st century BC. The frescoes cover a total area of 6,000 sq. m. and constitute one of the richest examples of cave art in the world.
Your visit to the temple is best done in the following order:
First Room known as Dev Raja Viharaya that literally translates to “Temple of the King of the Gods”
This room is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. You can see a statue of him inside. Vishnu is regarded as one of the four guardian gods of the island. There is a 14-metre long reclining Buddha statue cut in granite. The reclining pose is a rare one and not often seen in sculptures as it represents Buddha on his deathbed. The Buddha has breathed his last, as attested by the fact that his legs are not aligned and his eyes are half-closed. He has attained Nirvana but his disciples, depicted on the frescoes, weep and mourn his loss. The statue was painted in gold somewhere around the 12th century that has withstood the test of time. The frescoes, though dating back only to the 18th century, show marked signs of ageing.
Second Room known as Raja Maha Viharaya that literally translates to “Temple of the Great King”
This is the largest and most impressive of all the caves. A 10-metre long reclining Buddha statue with open eyes and parallel feet depicts the Enlightened one at rest. King Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa had this statue covered with gold foil in the 12th century.
There are a series of Buddha statues (53 in all) that represent him in various poses and mudras. In some corners of the cave, other statues of notable kings can be seen. The simplest and least adorned of these is that of King Vattagamani Abhaya.
The walls are completely covered with brightly coloured (mostly yellow) frescoes representing the life of Buddha both before and after enlightenment, and even his earlier incarnations. The spread of Buddhism on the island is also documented by these frescoes.
Third Room known as Maha Viharaya Alut that literally translates to “New Grand Temple”
This is the most recent cave and is separated from the second room only by a wall. It is likely that it was used originally as a storeroom. The entrance is guarded by a statue of one of the last kings of Ceylon. There is a collection of small Buddha statues made in cement, wood and bricks. The frescoes on the walls depict scenes in the life of Buddhist followers, the history of the religion and scenes from the life of Buddha. All artwork is distinctly Kandyan in style.
Fourth Room known as Pascima Viharaya that literally translates to “Temple of the West”
This is the smallest of the rooms but the site of the first temple. You can admire about fifty statues of the Buddha. Pay special attention to the five statues that are to the left of the entrance. They date back to the founding era of the temple. The frescoes here are in a precarious state, some of them dating to the Polonnaruwa era (15th and 16th century) and some others dating to the more-recent Kandyan era (18th century).
In 1975, thieves broke the dagoba inside this room in search of royal treasures that was never really there.
Fifth Room known as Devana Alut Viharaya that literally translates to “New Second Temple”
This cave dates back to the 19th century. A painting representing the village chief who was behind its creation can be seen to the left of the entrance. You can see statues of a reclining Buddha surrounded by Vishnu and Skanda.
After visiting the Rock Temple, you can visit the Buddhist Museum at the foot of the golden Buddha statue. The entry fee is included in the price of your ticket to visit the Rock Temple. Here, you find reproductions of Rock Temple paintings and many other images and statues of the Buddha. If you are short of time, you can give this museum a miss.
Dambulla Dedicated Economic Centre
Set up in 1999, the Dambulla Dedicated Economic Centre allows local farmers and craftsmen to sell their goods and services at fair trade prices. The centre is just outside Dambulla on the Anuradhapura-Kandy Road. This is a wholesale market in the region that deals mainly in fruits and vegetables. A place to visit if you want to understand the agricultural economy at the heart of Sri Lanka.
Open every day except Poya Day.
Dambulla Painting Museum
Open since 2003, but renovated in 2009, the Dambulla Painting Museum is the only museum on the island devoted exclusively to painting. The museum is situated next to the Golden Temple on the Kandy - Jaffna Road. Dedicated to studying and researching indigenous art forms in Sri Lanka, it houses a collection of over 760 pieces. Unfortunately, there is not much to see here and most paintings and frescoes are undated.
Open daily from 8 am to 4:30 pm.
A choice of appealing places to visit when you venture outside Dambulla
Avukana Buddha Statue
Avukana, meaning "sun eating" is best viewed at dusk. The statue is intricately carved in granite and measures about 12 metres. Dating back from the fifth century, the Avukana Buddha, situated on the banks of the Kala Wewa Reservoir, is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful Buddha statues in Sri Lanka depicting the Buddha in a standing pose.
If you are travelling to Anuradhapura from Dambulla or the other way around, consider taking a detour to Avukana,. If you are not travelling by car, you can get there by train (Avukana station lies on the Colombo - Trincomalee line) or by bus (get off at Kalawewa Station).
Kala Wewa Reservoir
Situated on the Kalawewa - Galewela Road, about 45 km northwest of Dambulla and 25 km southwest of Ritigala, this tank deserves to be mentioned. It was from here that water was taken to supply Anuradhapura 1000 years ago.
The best engineers agree that even today, it would be very difficult to build a structure of this magnitude, about 60 km in length.
Situated on the east of the A9 route, the Nalanda Gedige is 20 km north of Aluvihara. This site features a unique architecture, a fusion of Hindu and Buddhist styles, set in an impossibly picturesque locale.
Named after the Nalanda University (Buddhist) in India, very little is known of the Nalanda Gedige. The walls, adorned with murals and shikaras, are similar to temples in India but also hold typically Sri Lankan motifs. Despite the Indian influence, there are no images of Gods as the Nalanda Gedige is a Buddhist sanctuary.
Nalanda Gedige is one of the earliest stone buildings constructed in the country (8th-11th century BC).
Classical, mysterious and beautiful, Nalanda Gedige is a must-go for everyone.
Midway between Kurunegala and Anuradhapura lies Yapahuwa, the erstwhile capital of the kingdom of King Bhuvenaka Bahu who ruled between 1271 and 1283. It was King Bhuvenaka Bahu who brought the sacred Buddha tooth relic with him to Sri Lanka. However, after the invasion of Sri Lanka by South Indian kings when the tooth relic was carried away to India, Yapahuwa was largely abandoned except by the Buddhist monks who continued to live and pray here.
The ruins of Yapahuwa are a testament to the splendour of yesteryears. Built on a rocky mountain, it was a palace as well as a military camp. The Yapahuwa fort is similar to the Sigiriya fort in terms of construction and style.
Typically Buddhist attributes, like a Bodhi tree and the remains of a Stupa are found here amid caves that served as shelters for the monks. In addition, military structures like battlements, moats and ramparts can also be seen. The main attraction here is the ornamental staircase, preserved in near perfect state.
Climbing up the steep staircase lined with pierced stone windows, sculptures of Hindu gods and pottery, you reach a museum that houses remains that were unearthed here thanks to archaeological excavations. You can also walk around the fortress and admire the cave temple near the stairs.
Habarana is a quiet village situated at a busy crossroad between the A11 connecting Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa and the A6 linking Dambulla to Trincomalee. Despite its fame as a transit spot, Habarana is lush, green, and pleasing to the eye.
The fact that Habarana is just 22 km from Dambulla and 11 km from Sigiriya makes it an alternative base camp to explore all major attractions of the Cultural Triangle especially thanks to the varied typed of accommodation available here.
With its beautiful village scenery complete with little lakes, Habarana offers a great spot to ride an elephant in Sri Lanka. Sitting on the neck of a pachyderm as it slowly lumbers its way through the countryside can be an exhilarating and certainly memorable experience to both young and old!
The cost of the trip is based on the duration of the ride. It is better to settle for a price before you set off (around Rs.2500 per person). Agree on a full amount including tips for mahouts who will willingly agree to photograph and videograph you. If you are carrying bananas with you, you can feed them to the elephants.
Set amidst a strict natural reserve with bountiful luxuriant vegetation, the ruins of Ritigala offer a great escape for tourists in search of adventure.
Not much is known about the hermit monks who set up the 24 hectare site in the 3rd century BC except that they were specialists in herbal medicines and probably ran a hospital that welcomed patients in a setting that reminds the visitor of an Indiana Jones movie.
The whole area is embalmed in silence and despite the little architectural interest (except for specialists), a leisurely trek is worth the go. Among the ruins still to be seen is a man-made reservoir for ritual purposes, an entrance complex, pedestrian paths, stairways, raised platforms, sunken courtyards, a hospital and a monastery.
True to their philosophy of renunciation, the monks lived here in an ascetic fashion that stripped even the structures of all unnecessary frills. As a criticism of what was deemed as excesses by other communities, the monks only decorated their urinals, to serve as a daily reminder against futility.
Entrance fee Rs.1200.
Ras Vehera Sasseruwa
Ras Vehera is a typical Sri Lankan forest monastery from the Anuradhapura period. It is a secluded monastery even today and has become a kind of education centre for the surrounding villages, offering Buddhist Sunday school classes for children.
Ras Vehera is probably the remotest of tourist attractions in Sri Lanka and hence, the least visited of them all. Reaching Ras Vehera can be done only by private mode of transport (the mud track is suitable for a jeep).
Ras Vehera is known for a giant rock-cut Buddha, also called Sasseruwa Buddha, which is of almost the same size and similar to the famous Avukana Buddha 12 km away. The complex was erected by three kings Dewanampiya Tissa (307 BC to 267 BC), Valagamba and Mahasen. Another legend connects it to King Dathusena who ruled during the 5th century.
Two cave temples with Kandyan-style paintings similar to Dambulla, but on smaller scale, are the other attractions here. The area is frequented by wild elephants and is thus a wildlife conservation area as well. As it is not a national park, the usual high fees charged by the Wildlife Department is not applicable here.
Additionally, Ras Vehera is a good starting point for visits of less famous, but very interesting and scenic archaeological sites in the Kurunegala District like Arankale or Hatthikucchi.
If you wish to stay in Ras Vehera, the monastery provides five Spartan rooms for guests.
Kurunegala was a royal capital for half a century. Today, it is the capital of the North Western Province. Situated at 116 metres above sea level, it offers a great view of the surrounding coconut and rubber plantations. Eight great rocks encircle the city and are named after the animals they resemble most. The largest of these is the Elephant Rock (Ethagala) atop of which sits a 27-metre giant Buddha statue. The Bauddhaloka Viharaya is a prominent Buddhist shrine.
The Kurunegala Royal Complex houses what is left of the palace and a resting spot for the tooth relic. Nearby, there is a large man-made reservoir used by the kings for water supply to irrigate the farmlands of the region. A memorial for the soldiers who perished in World War I was erected here.
More recently a 67-foot high granite Samadhi Buddha statue was carved out from the rock in the small town of Rideegama next to Kurunegala. It was a local reaction to the destruction of the Bamiyan statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan by the Taliban. This novel initiative came to life thanks to the initiative of Amaramoli Thero, a Buddhist monk, and expertise from India's famous sculptor S.M. Ganapathi Stapathi.
Top wildlife sanctuaries near Dambulla
Situated on the banks of the Kandalama reservoir just east of Dambulla, this sanctuary is famous for its birds. It's a great place to spot winged gems all around the year because of the largely even climate all through the year.
There are more than 145 species here of every kind, that's about one-third of the total number of species this island nation holds.
Admire wildlife and natural parks in Dambulla
Wasgamuwa National Park
Wasgamuwa National Park was first set up in in 1907. It was converted into a nature reserve in 1938 and it acquired national park status in 1984.
With its 40,000 hectares of forest, savannah and swamps, Wasgamuwa can offer a variety of experiences to take home as it is one of the richest places on the island with a fairly sizeable population of large mammals like wild elephants, wild buffaloes, leopards, wild boars and bears. There are also many varieties of reptiles, birds and crocodiles. Encounters with elephants and on the tracks between the lush vegetation are a common treat to the visitor.
For the culturally oriented visitor, the archaeological sites near Buduruwayaya in the south-western part of the park, where the Amban River and the Kalu River meet, can prove very interesting provided you take time to discover them.
How to keep your kids occupied in Dambulla
Ride an elephant
A visit to Sri Lanka is truly incomplete without a ride on the majestic Asian elephant, indigenous to the island. In Sri Lanka, particularly Habarana, elephant rides are a common tourist attraction, one that must definitely be tried out!
Both children and adults are bound to enjoy this opportunity and enjoy the scenic countryside as the pachyderm slowly lumbers! Children might be afraid at first, but just give them some time with these placid, patient beasts and they will be so charmed that they wouldn’t want to get off at the end of the ride.
Just sit back and relax to the undulating gait of the elephants and soak in the sights and sounds of the jungles, marshes and farms of Habarana!
The cost of the trips is based on the duration of the ride. It is better to settle for a price before you set off (around Rs.2500 per person). Agree on a full amount including tips for mahouts who will willingly agree to photograph and videograph you. If you are carrying bananas with you, you can feed them to the elephants.
Great things to do in Dambulla
Hot Air Ballooning
A great way to admire the cultural triangle is to go on a hot air balloon ride. As you hover just below the clouds at a leisurely pace, you are bound to fall in love with the rich and colourful landscape abundant with architectural marvels in this region of Sri Lanka.
Marvellous peacocks, herds of jostling elephants and innumerable deer running wild are just some of the sights waiting to be seized by your eyes and captured on camera.
As you drift around in silence, you realize the rich cultural heritage of Sri Lanka and the tranquillity that reigns all over.
A ride can cost around Rs.13000 per person depending on the season and the duration. This is a great way to enjoy the marvels of the island nation for both adults and children. It is advisable to dress comfortably. Remember that it is always a little warmer while the sun is out. Also carry a hat or cap to protect you from the heat of the burners. Some companies do not accept very young children. Others allow adolescents and adults to participate in inflating and deflating the balloons.