Dambulla’s cave temples are cut out of an enormous granite outcrop that rises more than 160m above the surrounding countryside and offers majestic views across the plains of the dry zone as far as Sigiriya, over 20km distant.
Note that it’s best to visit the caves in reverse order, starting at the end (cave 5) and working backwards – this way you get to see the caves in gradually increasing degrees of magnificence, culminating in the wonderful cave 2.
The cave temples date back to the days of Vattagamini Abhaya (also known as Valagambahu or Valagamba; reigned 103 BC and 89–77 BC). Vattagamini lost his throne to a group of Tamil invaders and was forced into hiding for fourteen years, during which time he found refuge in these caves. Having reclaimed his throne at Anuradhapura, Vattagamini had temples constructed here in gratitude for the hiding place the rock had offered him – the individual caves which now house the temples were created by building partition walls into the space beneath what was originally a single huge rock overhang. The cave temples were further embellished by Nissanka Malla – while comprehensive restorations and remodeling’s were carried out by the Kandyan kings Senerath (1604–35) and Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747–82) – the latter also created the magnificent Cave 3 and commissioned many of the vast number of murals that now adorn the interiors. Most of what you now see dates from the reigns of these last two kings, although precise dating of individual paintings is made difficult, since these are traditionally repainted on a regular basis once their paintwork fades, and further changes and embellishments were added right through to the twentieth century.