Posted: April 18, 2023 | Last Update: 26. Jun 2023
Everything you need to know about the bucket list must-do destination Dambulla Cave Temple and Golden Buddha Temple
Ayubowam from Dambulla! Today we are in central Sri Lanka and explore Dambullas two famous temples. If you want to know what makes these temples a must-see destination, we’ve got you covered. Whether you are a history buff, a Buddhist disciple or a nature lover, this place has something for you! Let’s find out what makes these temples so special
Understanding the difference between Dambulla Cave Temple & Dambulla Golden Buddha Temple
Dambulla Cave Temple? Golden Cave Temple of Dambulla? Dambulla Golden Temple? Are they one and the same? No? Well, which one is it? There is a lot of confusion when it comes to the actually correct term and location of said temples, mostly because these two independent places are being confounded or taken for one and the same site, when they are not. Therefore, I would like to start off by clarifying the differences:
1) Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple (Rangiri Dambulu Raja Maha Viharaya):
this is the UNESCO World Heritage Site temple on the hill, consisting of several caves hewn into the rockface, that are home to the world famous reclining Buddha statue. This temple will be the main focus of my article.
2) Golden Temple of Dambulla (Rangiri Dambulu Uhanwatta Viharaja),
also called ‘Golden Buddha Temple’ or commonly referred to as ‘Golden Buddha’: that’s the one by the roadside of the major route from Kandy to Jaffna and easily spotted from afar because of the massive golden Buddha statue sitting on top of the building.
Dambulla Cave Temple
Exploring Dambulla Cave Temple / Dambulla Raja Maha Viharaya
UNESCO World Heritage Site
During our travels to Sri Lanka, visiting the Dambulla Cave Temple was an ‘optional excursion’, but certainly not one I was planning on missing out on.
After all, it is one of the most iconic temples in all of Sri Lanka and particularly well known for the giant reclining Buddha statue (approx. 15m / 45” long). Out of the many rock and cave temples in Sri Lanka, the Dambulla Cave Temple is the oldest, dating back over 2000 years and the most well preserved one, too.
It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Here is what UNESCO says about the place: ‘A sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries, this cave monastery, with its five sanctuaries, is the largest, best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist mural paintings (covering an area of 2,100 m2 ) are of particular importance, as are the 157 statues. ‘
Getting to the Dambulla Cave Temple
If you are going by taxi or tuk-tuk, make sure you clarify you want to go to the CAVE Temple rather than giving an address, because both the Dambulla Cave Temple and the Golden Temple are located on Kandy Road. If you drive yourself, keep on driving if you see the golden Buddha statue - the cave temple entrance is NOT here.
Once you have arrived at the correct location, your first stop will be at the ticketing office, which is just up a flight of stairs, on the left.
The opening times are from 7am to 5pm.
If the booth is temporarily closed (this happened to us, the ticketing officer was having breakfast), wait! Do NOT shrug it off and continue upstairs in the hopes you will be able to purchase a ticket by the temple entrance - you won’t. You will be sent back downstairs to acquire a ticket and most people certainly wouldn’t want to have to do that climb again :)
The entrance fee is 2’000 LKR (approx 6 Euro / 6 USD).
We recommend getting there early to beat the crowds and because the hotter it gets, the more exhausting the climb becomes and most tourists will arrive between 10am and 2pm.
Climbing up stairs to get there
The way up the hill is straight forward but does require a bit of physical fitness, as you have to climb over 360 steps (there is no ramp etc., so it is not accessible for e.g. wheelchair users).
Wear appropriate shoes and attire
Because we were not aware of the required climb and ignorantly assumed the temple would be on flat terrain, we simply wore flip flops as you are required to walk barefoot in all temples anyway (did you know that? You can learn more about this rule and many others in my my overview of Sri Lanka Temple Etiquette).
However, it had been raining on the morning of our trip to the Dambulla Cave Temple and the ground and steps were slippery. Please heed my words of caution: make sure you wear footwear appropriate for climbing steps and uneven ground (we did struggle a bit in our flip flops).
The actual ascent will take you around 20-30 minutes.
It is, however, a beautiful experience in itself, and you will be mostly walking on paved and well maintained steps with an amazing view of the surrounding forest.
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The temple grounds of Dambulla Cave Temple
Once you arrive at the top, before entering the temple, take a moment to admire the beautiful vista of the landscape below you - you might be joined by some of the resident monkeys, too.
When you are ready to start your exploration of the temple grounds, remember to take off your shoes. (See #1 in this article: Temple Etiquette) - leave them at the shoe storage stall and not just outside the temple gates. Chances are the monkeys will steal them.
Our first impression of Dambulla Cave Temple was that it felt very different to any of the other buddhist temples we visited in Sri Lanka. The temple grounds consist of a paved court yard that features a sacredBodhi Tree.
To your left you have a breathtaking view of the valley below, and on the right you can see the caves that have been hewn into the face of the 600ft tall rock some 2000 years ago. You enter this temple through a colonial style building.
Dambulla Cave Temple has a total of five caves, showcasing wallpaintings of a total of over 1500(!) buddha images and frescoes that cover a total surface of approx 23’000 sqf, as well as 153 Buddha statues.
Cave I: Davaraja - cave of the King of the Gods
The first cave we entered, ‚Devaraja‘ (= King of the Gods) is small and very narrow - here is where you can admire the world famous 45” long reclining Buddha statue that has been hewn out of the rock face.
It is very difficult to get it on a photo, partially due to the confined space, but also because of there not being any light aside from the sunshine outside.
Cave II: Maharaja - cave of the Great King
The second cave, ‚Maharaja‘ (= Great King) is the biggest and definitely most spectacular one!
It measures up to 170” in length, 75” in width and up to 22” in height and showcases breathtaking statues, amongst them another reclining Buddha, that you can admire from up close.
Flickering candlelight supports the subtle daylight and accentuates the reverent atmosphere of the cave.
Cave III: Maha Aluth Viharaja - Great New Temple
Cave No. 3, ‚Maha Alut Viharaya‘ (= great new temple) is rather spacious as well and offers yet more opportunity to take a closer look at Buddha statues and frescoes.
Cave IV: Pachima Viharaya - Western Temple and Cave V: Devana Aluth Viharaya - Second New Temple
There are another two small caves (N0 4 ‚Pachima Vihara‘ = Western Temple and No. 5 ‚Devana Aluth Vihara‘ = second new Temple) with pretty much ‘more of the same’: Buddha statues, frescoes, a small stupa.
Most visitors will probably suffer from a bit of ‘Buddha fatigue’ now, because to the untrained eye the caves are now just a series of pretty much identical Buddha idols.
My video will show you some impressions from caves 2, 3 and 4.
Those who have delved a bit deeper into Buddhist religion will be able to spot the differences between Buddha before and after his enlightenment.
In case you want to learn more about the history of the caves, the meaning of the different buddha statues and the differences between the temples, you can hire a ‘guide’ at the temple entrance for about 5 US$. We were offered this service by one of the locals but decided against it, so I cannot vouch for how knowledgeable they are and whether or not they are any kind of certified tourist guide.
How much time do you need for Dambulla Cave Temple?
In my experience: One to Two hours.
Of course the answer to this question depends mostly on how in-depth you want your experience to be.
As a rule of thumb I would say you won’t need much more than an hour to simply see everything there, but if you want to dive deeper in to history and religion, you might want to plan with two hours. On top of that you need another 30-60 minutes for the ascent and descent, depending on how fast you climb the steps.
Either way, a visit to Dambulla Cave Temple should be planned as a half day excursion max.
Now you know why Dambulla Cave Temple is a must-see destination! Don't miss it!
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And since you are here anyways, make a small detour to
Explore the Golden Buddha Temple of Dambulla
Dambulla Golden Temple
Once you are done visiting the cave temple, I strongly recommend taking a quick look a the famous golden Buddha.
Getting to the Golden Buddha
Starting at the Cave Temple, you can easily get there on foot by going in the opposite direction of where you came from. So instead of heading back to the ticket office, walk along the other side of the temple and down the steps to the village.
Of course you can also get there by car, tuk-tuk or bike.
The Golden Temple is directly on the main road and really cannot be missed.
The Tallest Golden Buddha Statue
Dambulla Golden Temple is famous for its 100” tall golden Buddha.
This gigantic statue can be spotted from afar and sits on top of a three storey Buddhist museum. It was built between 1998-2001 from brick and concrete and holds world record: it is the world’s tallest Buddha statue sitting in ‘Dharmachakra Mudra’ position.
If you want to know more about its meaning, I recommend checking on the University Of Stanford website.
By the way: see the steps on the bottom center-right of the picture? That is where you would arrive if you descended from the cave temple.
Another unique feature of this temple is the golden stupa. In most cases these will be plastered and painted white in Sri Lanka, as opposed to the golden stupas in, say, Thailand. However, this golden stupa is an exception to the rule.
Monks live and worship here on a daily basis
Hooked and ready to go? :)
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