Sitting atop a rock close to Dambulla, at a height of approximately 160m, is a temple so unique that UNESCO has included it as part of its World Heritage sites – the famed Dambulla cave temples, perhaps Sri Lanka’s best-preserved temple complex.
When I was planning my trip to Sri Lanka, I was sure there would be no beachside retreat, unlike my previous visits to this beautiful island. After researching on places to visit, the central part of the country seems the most alluring. From the cultural capital – Kandy, to perhaps one of the most beautiful train journeys anywhere in the world. And then there was a hike up two rocks.
Since Kandy was my base, I hired a private car for my day trip to Dambulla and Sigiriya. The next morning, after an early breakfast, I headed out on an approximately 2½ hour drive to exercise my legs and see and appreciate one of only eight UNESCO attractions in Sri Lanka.
A bit of history
It is thought that the caves were first inhabited by hermits around the second or third century BC. Then around the first century BC, King Vattagamani Abhaya, exiled from Anuradhapura, sought refuge her for around 15 years. When he had finally reclaimed his capital, in gratitude, he built a temple.
Other kings who followed continued to add more temples until, by the 11th century, it had become a major religious centre, with Buddhist monks taking up residence.
Exploring the caves
Make your way to the ticket counter, pay the entry fee and then, ticket in hand, prepare yourself for a slow walk uphill. Unless of course you would rather sprint.
While the initial climb up is a bit more exhausting, take a break once you have reached a platform midway through. That’s your first opportunity to not just catch up on your breath, but also watch the views of the surroundings with some of the monkeys around.
The walk after that is relatively easier. Once up at the entrance to the temple, catch your breath again if you like. This is also where you will need to hand over your footwear before stepping in.
The temple complex, officially known as Jumbukola Vihara, is the largest cave complex anywhere in the country. Apparently, it comprises more than 80 caves. However, it is these five caves that have been the best maintained, with several Buddha sculptures in various sizes, shapes and positions and murals covering the walls and ceilings. The biggest reclining Buddha within one of the caves measures 15m while another cave has as many as 1,500 murals of the Buddha covering the ceiling.
There are also smaller temples dedicated to other Hindu gods and goddesses too. If you are inclined, pay your respects at here too, after which, a priest who sits right outside the entrance will tie a string around your wrist. You are expected to make a small donation.
Once you have finished exploring all five caves, head out of the complex and take time off to see Dambulla down below. Look around and you should also spot another World Heritage Site – Sigiriya rock. But that is a story for another time.
Information you can use
I hired a private taxi from Kandy at a negotiated price of LKR 8,000 for the day. I thought it was fair, though there was the option of travelling by bus too.
There is an entry fee of LKR 1,500 per person. Make sure you buy the ticket before you start the climb. Your driver should point you out to the right office.
Carry plenty of water. The climb up and down is sure to make you thirsty. It can, depending on the time of the day, also get very hot.
If you are feeling hungry, and would rather eat local, it is best to speak with your driver and figure out the best places to stop by for lunch. In my case, I was insistent on eating a local meal. While there is no confirmation on this bit of information, he insisted on speaking and ordering on my behalf when we did find the ideal restaurant. Apparently, the rates that these restaurants charge changes, depending on whether you are a tourist or a Sri Lankan.
Now, that’s food for thought.