Image by Peter Stuckings Getty Images
The beautiful Royal Rock Temple complex sits about 160m above the road in the southern part of Dambulla. Five separate caves contain about 150 absolutely stunning Buddha statues and paintings, some of Sri Lanka's most important and evocative religious art. Buddha images were first created here over 2000 years ago, and over the centuries subsequent kings added to and embellished the cave art.
From the caves there are superb views over the surrounding countryside; Sigiriya is clearly visible some 20km distant.
Dambulla is thought to have been a place of worship since the 1st century BC, when King Valagamba (also known as Vattagamani Abhaya), driven out of Anuradhapura, took refuge here. When he regained his throne, he had the interior of the caves carved into magnificent rock temples. Further paintings were made by later kings, including King Nissanka Malla, who had the caves’ interiors gilded, earning the place the name Ran Giri (Golden Rock).
This process of retouching original and creating new artwork continued into the 20th century. Remarkably, the overall impact is breathtakingly coherent.