If any one place can be called the cradle of civilization in Sri Lanka, it is Dambulla. Doubly significant, this hugely important historical and cultural site is also where Buddhism gained its first footholds.
The region’s prehistory is dated in part from burial site near the Dambulla caves complex. This highlights the development of at least one indigenous civilization long before the arrival of Indian influence, and thus Buddhism.
This early civilization was centered on the network of 80 Dambulla caves that later became a focal point of Buddhism as it grew and flowered into the bedrock of Sri Lanka’s spiritual and secular identity.
The caves are thought to have been inhabited from as early as the 7th to 3rd centuries BC, and with statues and paintings dating back to at least the 1st century BC, contribute immeasurably to the history of Dambulla.
As Buddhism grew and prospered, the monks, under the patronage of Sri Lanka’s ancient kings, created temples and centers of learning and meditation in what is now known as the Cultural Triangle.
Chief among them is Dambulla cave temple, built on a massive rock that towers 520 ft (160m) over the surrounding plains, and which is the largest and best preserved such temple complex in the country.
Spread over five caves, this UN World Heritage Site includes 153 Buddha statues, three of Sri Lankan kings, and four of gods and goddesses, including the Hindu gods Vishnu and Ganesh.
Beautifully painted murals line 22,600sq ft (2,100sq m) of walls and ceilings, including depictions of Buddha’s first sermon and his temptation by the demon Mara.
Visitors will find one feature of particular, if exhausting interest: the old path to the caves, including a long flight of stone steps cut into the rock, which the ancient kings and royals would ascend to worship at the temples above.
According to an inscription carved into one of the steps: ‘Lord of men, King Kutakanna Abhaya (41-19 BC) was responsible for making thirteen steps of the flight.’