The known and little- known wonders of Dambulla

Dambulla is one of the top destinations in Sri Lanka. Deservedly so, as Dambulla Cave Temple is by far the biggest, best preserved and most beautiful cave temple in the country. It is also the most touristic one. Dambulla town isn’t the most peaceful place but it’s cheap to stay there. It could be used as a base for exploring the iconic Sigiriya rock, just 20 km away. Nalanda Gedige, a little know, ancient Dravidian style temple, is also just a short bus ride away.

Remnants of stone collonade path through the forest lead to a small ancient stone Nalanda Gedige temple
Mysterious Nalanda Gedige

Dambulla on a budget

The journey with a government bus from Kandy was quick, smooth and very cheap. If we didn’t have luggage, we’d definitely have stopped in Aluvihara (a mountain cave near Matale) on the way. We got off at a bus stand at a busy road and walked a short distance to a guesthouse hidden away in a small alley. The accommodation was cheap and good value for money: 1200 rupees for a very decent room with a shared bathroom.

Dambulla is a touristic place, so most of the restaurants and shops increase the prices for foreigners. A bun which should cost 30 rupees cost 50 in Dambulla. It took us a while to come across a bakery and an eatery with fairer prices where the locals dined. This being said, Sigiriya, as a much smaller and typically touristic destination is even more expensive. Logistically and economically,it makes more sense to stay in Dambulla.

Dambulla Cave

We managed to see Sigiriya (climbing Pidurangala and skipping Sigiriya itself) and Dambulla Cave in one day. After coming back from Sigiriya and having lunch in Dambulla, we took a bus to Dambulla Caves. We could have walked the distance, but we thought we were running out of time. We got off in front of a giant golden Buddha statue and rather tacky Golden Temple. The temple houses a museum of Buddhism. We found a small arrow pointing to the caves on the left- hand side of the museum. We went up the stairs and followed the sign to the ticket counter.

A new, tacky building of golden temple in Dambulla, featuring a giang golden Buddha and a entrance in the form of a mouth of a lion
Golden temple on the way to Dambulla Cave

From there, it was a short walk up the stairs to the top of a 160 meters tall rock. On the way, we could enjoy the view of the surrounding mountains, plains and a large reservoir far in the distance. Before entering the temple, we had to take off the shoes. It’s outragous to be charged 25 rupees extra despite already paying astronomical 1500 rupees for entrance. It was equally disappointing not to receive any information about the site. The temple was very busy both with the locals and foreign tourists.

A view from Dambulla rock at the mountains on the horizon and green plains below
Walking up to Dambulla Cave Temple will reward you with such views

Dambulla Cave Temple (in fact a complex of five connected caves) is incomparably bigger and more impressive than any of the cave temples in Sri Lanka. A 20th century long, whitewashed arcades with separate entrances to five caves blends with an overhanging rock The complex dates from 3rd and 2nd century BC, but the frescoes are from the Kandyan era (18th century).

A white arcade entrance to the Dambulla Cave Temple blended with an overhanging rock
Modest entrance doesn’t prepare for the rich and colourful interior of the caves

The first cave from the entrance – the Cave of the Divine King– is tiny. It contains only a 14-meters stone reclining Buddha and a figure of his student, Ananda, at his feet.

Seated Buddha statues and colourful frescoes in a dark interior of Dambulla Cave Temple
Interior of Dambulla cave temple

The following Cave of the Great Kings is large, spacious and beautiful. As the name suggest, you can find there statues of two Sri Lankan kings, as well as of two gods: Vishnu and Samana. There is also a stupa surrounded with seated Buddha statues. The sacred water drips from the ceiling to a special receptacle. All the walls and the ceiling are covered with 18th century frescoes.

Dusky interior of Dambulla Cave Temple with natural ceiling covered with frescoes and a stupa surrounded with seated Buddha statues
Stupa inside the Cave of the Great Kings

After visiting the caves, I walked up the rock to check the view to the other side. It was worth to have a look since I could even see Sigiriya rock in the distance.

A view at the rocks and green plains from Dambulla Cave terrace
The terrace of Dambulla Cave

We returned to our guesthouse, using back lanes and small roads featuring on Walking past the ticket office, we soon saw a large, brick stupa and other ruins, empty and unvisited. We followed the dirt road leading around the rock and managed to spot a few exotic birds. We took quiet, peaceful lanes for most of the way back, apart from the last 500 meters along the highway.

A brick Buddhist stupa in Dambulla
Stupa at the feet of the mountain with the caves

Nalanda Gedige

It’s worth to travel a little from Dambulla towards Kandy to visit Nalanda Gedige, a true hidden gem. We took the first bus in the direction of Kandy and covered a 25km distance in around 30 min. We got off at Nalanda village. We had 100 rupee rice and curry in a cheap eatery before turning into a small and quiet, 1km long road to the temple.

An 8th century Dravidian style temple and a Buddhist stupa in Nalanda Gedige
A presumably Hindu temple with a Buddhist stupa behind

Unusually, the entrance to the temple was free. A water reservoir surrounded the temple from three sides. We walked through the forested area, following a stone-lined path to the temple. Once we saw the temple, we gasped in awe. This small, stone structure had somethng about it reminded us of Angkor Wat complex temples. The backdrop of trees and water added to the special atmosphere.

A stone collonade leads to a statue of a Hindu god at Nalanda Gedige temple in Sri Lanka
A stone collonade leading to the tiny interior

Looking closer, we spotted some erotic scenes carved on the walls of the temple. The stone collonade led to a tiny interior with one complete and a few broken stone statues of Hindu deities. Behind the temple there were ruins of a Buddhist stupa. This ancient temple was built as a Hindu temple between the 8th and 10th century in a Dravidian (South Indian) style. The stupa is from a later period.

A giant squirrel lies on the branch among the greenery in Sri Lanka
Giant squirrel

We enjoyed the serenity of this deserted jewell of place so much that we lingered for a while. Sitting in silence, I spotted a stunning yellow-and-black bird: a black-hooded oriole. Shortly afterwards, something large ran through the branches of the tree. It was a giant squirrel. The icing on the cake.


Getting to Dambulla
Dambulla has a very convenient location, mid-way between Anuradhapura, Pollonaruwa and Kandy. It lies at the intersection of the Colombo-Trincomalee-Highway with the Kandy-Jaffna-Road which means you can easily get there by bus from any of these destinations.
Very frequent buses from Kandy to Anuradhapura pass by Dambulla. It takes around 2-2.5h to Kandy and 1.5-2h to Anuradhapura. You can also get from Dambulla directly to Polonnaruwa (direction Kuduruwela), in 1.5- 2h or to Trincomalee on the west coast (2.5h). Colombo and Jaffna are 5.5h away.
All these buses go from the main bus stand near the clock tower.

Prices in Dambulla [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019]
1500 entrance to Dambulla Cave
1275 accommodation (room with a shared bathroom)
130 lunch of hoppers, sambal and gravy
120 bus Kandy to Dambulla
107 bus Dambulla to Polonnaruwa
50 bus Dambulla to Nalanda
45 bus Dambulla to Sigiriya
35 a sweet bun from local bakery
14 bus to Dambulla caves from Dambulla bus station

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