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Part of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, the Dambulla Cave Temple is one of island’s most visited attractions - and it really does live up to the hype. Inside five sacred sanctuaries lies some of the country's most impressive religious art - we’re talking more than 150 ancient Buddha statues and colourful paintings covering every inch of the cave wall. A time-capsule of a bygone era, these shrines have a strong spiritual - almost ethereal - presence that needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated. If this hasn’t roused your curiosity, nothing will.
On most days, the temple is thronged with tourists looking to tick a cave temple off their holiday wish-list. It’s easy to brush over the site’s long and fascinating history, but if there’s one place where it’s worth doing some background research, it’s here. The shrine is thought to date back more than 2000 years, when the exiled King Valagamba took refuge in the caves and later had them carved into spectacular temples. Various religious art, embellishments and restoration work has been added over the centuries, and the result is strikingly beautiful. Today, the UNESCO-listed site is the most well preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka and a must-see for history and culture buffs - or anyone who wants to take some incredible holiday snaps.
As one of Sri Lanka’s most historically important (and visually impressive) attractions, you’ll want to give yourself at least a couple of hours to explore the caves. You can look around the temple at your own pace, or opt for a guided tour to ensure you don’t miss any of those important details.
To get to the caves, you'll have to climb more than 300 steps. Tiring, yes - but trust us when we say the views are worth it. A vast ocean of greener-than-green canopies await, and you can even see the magnificent Sigiriya Rock in the distance. Look out for playful monkeys swinging from the branches and Buddhist worshippers making pilgrimages to the temple.
As you explore the atmospheric chambers barefoot, you can’t help but feel awe-struck by the stunning Buddha statues and intricate murals. While each of the five caves may look alike on first-sight, they each vary in size and splendour and have their own unique artwork, so make sure you spend plenty of time in each. The second cave is the largest and arguably most impressive of them all. Known as the ‘Cave of the Great Kings’, it has numerous statues of Buddha in various positions, as well as other garland-adorned deities and kings. Enhancing the wonderful spectacle of statues are the brightly-coloured paintings depicting religious and historic events. It really is an unforgettable sight.
If you’re craving more information about the caves, there’s a museum nearby. On its roof is a huge golden Buddha, so you really can’t miss it.
The Dambulla Cave Temple is located in central Sri Lanka, 148 kilometres east of Colombo and 72 kilometres north of Kandy. Most tourists choose to stay in nearby cities such as Habarana or Kandy and kill two birds with one stone by visiting the cave temple and Sigiriya Rock in one trip. After all, they’re only a 30-minute drive apart.
The caves are open from 7am to 7pm, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the ticket counter closes at 5pm - so make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to look around.
Many tourists arrive early morning, so if you want to avoid the crowds, opt for an afternoon visit. The sunsets are amazing from the temple’s lofty perch, but again, you can expect more tourists to be visiting at this time.
As with most temples in Sri Lanka, you’ll need to cover your legs and shoulders before going inside. Remember you'll be climbing more than 300 steps too, so comfortable shoes are a must – though of course you’ll have to take them off before entering the actual site of the temples.
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