The rock monastery of Dambulla offers the best example of cave temples, which are typical for Sri Lanka’s ancient Buddhist sanctuaries outside major cities. The cave sanctuaries of Dambulla are the most adorned and best-preserved specimen of those colourful image houses in rock shelters. Cave number 2 is the largest one at all. What is called a cave in Sri Lanka’s monasteries, is not a grotto in the shape of an underground tunnel, rather it is an abri. Abris are the spaces protected by overhanging rocks. These rock shelters where used by forest monks as natural dwellings for a life in austerity. But these holy men were venerated and visited by pilgrims. They helped to embellish the plain caves. In the course of time, some of the caves ceased to be monk cells and became an undergrounf form of image houses. Buddhist statues and murals in these image houses were parts of a monastery serving laymen for worshipping the Buddha rather than ceremonial halls of the monks’ congregations. Since these sculptures and paintings attracted more visitors and donors, they became the most adorned part of what was once a very simple abode for reclusive monks.
Dambulla likes to be called the “Golden Temple”. There is a huge yellow Buddha statue on the rooftop of a modern building at the foot of Dambulla rock, but it is from the 21st century and not the reason for the name. The name “Golden Temples” refers to a visit of King Nissanka Malla from Polonnaruwa, whose donations were used to gilden Buddha statues.
However, the Dambulla monastery is much older. It served as an abode for reclusive monks already in the very beginning of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist era, in the 3rd century BC. It is believed to have been occuoied ever since, making Dambulla one of the oldest monasteries of the world. Probably in the 1st century BC, this uppermost group of rock shelters, on a plateau at the slope of the granite hill, began to be transformed into image shrines. However this development continued and was intensified in the late Anuradhapura period, when brick walls were constructed to screen and protect the caves. Buddha statues from the Polonnaruwa period were donations of King Nissanka Malla, as already mentioned. The caves are believed to have assumed their present general layout during his reign.
The major phase of development, characterising the caves’ present appearance, took place in the 18th century when, after a phase of decay, Kandy King Kirti Sri Rajasingha decided to restore the upper terrace. The surfaces within the caves were painted or overpainted. The Buddhist murals cover an area of 2,100 square metres. They are the masterpieces of the stle of the 18th century art called “Kandy paintings”. They illustrate scenes from Buddha’s life. There are 157 statues from various eras in the caves. Besides Buddha statues, there are also some sculptures depicting Hindu deities and the Kandy king.
In the 1930s, the white veranda, contrasting picturesquely with the dark granite of the Dambulla rock, was rebuilt with some characteristics of the colonial style.
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