The Golden Temple of Dambulla in Sri Lanka is also known as Dambulla Cave Temple, precisely because it is uniquely housed within a natural cave complex. Clearly the largest and best preserved cave temple in Sri Lanka; it is found in the central regions of the country, about 148 kilometers to the east of the capital city of Colombo and 72 kilometers north of Kandy, which is the spiritual center of the country. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is not just one amazing building but a collection of 80 documented caves, five of which contain ancient statues and paintings related to Buddha and his life. Found within the five caves are a total of 153 Buddha statues, three statues of Sri Lankan kings and four stone gods and goddesses, which include two Hindu gods, Vishnu and Ganesh.
Also on the walls of the excavated shrine-caves are wall mural paintings that cover a total of 2,100-square-meter area. They depict the Buddha’s first sermon and the temptation by the Demon Mara. Including 18th-century masterpieces from the Sri Lankan school of Kandy, these very old artworks are definitely the best examples of religious art that represent not just the local culture of Sri Lanka but of the Indian subcontinent and much of Southeast Asia as well. The way they were preserved is unique in scale and degree of preservation.
Archeological finds prove that these cave complexes predate Buddha and Buddhism since there are human remains that are over 2,700 years old. It is not difficult to imagine prehistoric Sri Lankans settling and finding protection within these natural fortresses. The remains were specifically found in a megalithic cemetery at Ibbankatuwa. It is now believed that the Golden Temple of Dambulla and its five cave sanctuaries used to be a sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries.
At the center of the cave complex is the rock of Dambulla. The place is not only religiously and culturally important but also geologically and archeologically. These centuries-old caves, all eighty of them, were used as residences and living quarters. The upper most caves were converted into shrines probably in the 1st century BC, and were furthered developed into temples from the 5th and 13th centuries. Developments probably ended by the end of the 12th century after King Nissanka Malla created and placed the sculptures on the upper terrace. Since then the cave-temple complex remained still for a number of centuries before it was rediscovered in the 18th century. The surface paintings were most probably done around the late 18th century and early 19th century. Around this time, the upper terrace was restored, the Buddhist figures were repainted, the front walls were rebuilt and roofed, Cave No 5 was repainted in 1915, and several other restoration and maintenance works were done until the 1930s. Today, continuous maintenance is done by the Sri Lankan government as well as private donors to make sure that this important site is preserved through many more millennia.
The Golden Temple of Dambulla, today, is a leading tourist attraction and place of prayer and worship. The site is undeniably sacred, tranquil and spectacular. Near the cave complex are a monastic chapter house, bodhi tree temple, dagoba (or stupa, a mound-like typical Buddhist structure) and what is believed to be the earliest known village in Sri Lanka.