The seeds of Buddhism in Sri Lanka as believed, were officially planted by the son of the great Mauryan King Ashoka in the 2nd Century BCE and from then on Buddhism continues to be the major religion followed in Sri Lanka which in the later period has branched out to various other countries of South- East Asia. The dominant culture of Buddhism gave rise to many noteworthy monuments which have not only gained international recognition but also have become major tourist centers.
One such shining example which is a World UNESCO Heritage site is the Dambulla Cave Temple situated amidst the popular cultural centres of Anuradhapur, Polonnaruwa and Kandy, these caves are a sight to behold exhibiting the true essence of religious art through its extensive mural paintings and 151 statues. Considered the second largest Cave Temple Complex after Ajanta these caves according to the archaeological findings were once used by the prehistoric cave dwellers. But the written authentication of these caves which points out to the fact that they belong to the 1st Century BCE have been found from the Brahmi inscriptions of the central cave.
Historically if seen then the dates coincides with the time of King Vattagamani Abhaya (89-77 BCE) who happened to be the ruler of Anuradhapura during that period. He is said to be in exile and resided in these caves for many years, later when he was reinstated as the King, he built the temple to show his gratitude. After him it was King Vijayabahu I (1055-1110 CE), who added a few more renovation to the cave. It was mainly in the 12th Century CE with King Keerthi Sri Nissankamalla (1187-1196 CE), that the transformation of the cave intensified with inclusion of various statues, murals etc making it look more extravagant with the adding of more than seventy gold plated Buddha images. Patronizing along with adding of new elements continued with various rulers and by the late 18th Century CE a new touch of the Kandy school of art was added to the already existing paintings of the caves which needed retouching. Later by 19th Century some European architectural style got infused with the existing classical setting of the caves which are now seen in the present.
Located three hundred and fifty feet above the plain the whole cave complex consists of 5 shrines with number five being the youngest and the least important, as it was added in the recent years. Therefore, to get a more exciting and hearty feel of the caves artworks it is important to begin with Cave no 5 to Cave 1, in reverse order. In Cave 5, all the statues are made from brick and plaster and the largest sculpture here is a reclining Buddha figure almost 32 feet in length. Cave 4, known as the ‘Pacchima Vihara’ or the Western Cave is about fifty feet long and twenty- seven feet wide. The cave has ten Buddha images with a beautiful seated Buddha in meditating posture under a Makara torana being the main attraction. This cave is also known as the Soma Chaitya as it is believed that jewelry of Queen Somawathi, of King Valagamba is stored inside this cave. Cave 3 known as ‘Maha Alut Vihara’ or the Great new Temple is attributed to Raja Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1782 CE), ruler of Kandy who is credited with the construction of this shrine. There is a reclining Buddha which is thirty feet in length also in the centre of the cave lies fifty figures of Buddha seen surrounding a prominent seated Buddha under a dragon arch. There are various murals on the caves walls which brilliantly illuminates the typical feature of the Kandyan style of art.
The most important of all the caves of Dambulla is Cave no 2, popularly known as ‘The Maharaja Lena’ or the Cave of the Great Kings. This shrine is separated from Cave 3 by a masonry wall, and is believed to have been created by the founder Vattagamini Abhaya. With a height of twenty- one feet, width of seventy- five and length one hundred and seventy –two feet, this cave contains various images of Buddha in different postures depicting various mudras such as samadi mudra, abhaya mudra, varada mudra and vitarka mudra. The cave as referred to be the cave of kings, consist the statues of King Valagamba and King Nissankamalla. There is a life size granite image of Buddha which is believed to have been made by King Nissankamalla with gold platting. It has a makara torana on top. The hundreds of murals painted on the rock ceilings portray the historical Buddhist events and exhibits radiance of purity and serenity with bright colors illuminating the pale dark interiors of the cave.
Lastly one reaches Cave 1, which is known as the ‘Devaraja Vihara’ or the cave of the Lord of the Gods. This particular cave temple is believed to have been given the final touches in its construction by the Lord of Gods (God Sakka) thereby, justifying its name. This temple houses a forty-seven feet long sculpture made of rock depicting Buddha in his Parinirvana state. The robes of the statue touches the ankles leaving the shoulder bare. The face is devoid of emotions with unexpressive eyes and narrow forehead. Another image of Ananda, Buddha’s disciple is found paying homage to the Buddha. The paintings have proof of overlapping done in different periods.
The cave temples of Dambulla are one of its kinds with standing examples of vivid differences belonging to various phases of constructions. The sculptural and mural artworks well preserved inside these caves are proof of the proud cultural heritage of the Buddhist Community of Sri Lanka. Dambulla Caves since centuries have housed the Sinhalese artworks to be treasured by all who visit these wonderful caves and get lost in the wonderful exuberance of the purity of Lord Buddha himself.
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