Vaguely similar in feel and, like Sigiriya, a World Heritage Site, the temple complex at Dambulla has drawn Buddhist pilgrims since the 3rd century BC. Such astonishing longevity is testimony to the site’s pedigree: it’s Sri Lanka’s largest and best-preserved cave-temple complex with 2100m² of murals depicting Buddhist fables and historical events. An outstanding example of Sri Lanka’s religious art, these paintings and statuary are unique in scale and their degree of preservation.
Sited on a huge granite inselberg which faintly resembles a beached whale, it’s a beautifully atmospheric spot seemingly receiving far fewer visitors than nearby Sigiriya. A torch and a good guide are invaluable to make sense of it all. Dambulla’s expansion into what one sees today occurred over centuries with over-hung cave-temples extended into the rock, brick walls constructed to screen the caves, and eventually the creation of magnificent sculpture to adorn the various shrines. In more recent times, several bouts of restoration and refurbishment, repainting and reconstruction have maintained Dambulla’s vitality as a religious and tourist destination.