The beautiful Royal Rock Temple sits 100m to 150m above the road in the southern part of Dambulla. The hike up to the temples begins along a vast, sloping rock face with steps in some places. The ticket office is at the gate near the monstrous Golden Temple, and your receipt is checked at the entrance at the base of the hill. Cultural Triangle tickets are not valid here. Photography is allowed inside the caves, but you’re not allowed to photograph people. There are superb views over the surrounding countryside from the level of the caves; Sigiriya is clearly visible.

The caves’ history as a place of worship is thought to date from around the 1st century BC, when King Valagamba (Vattajamini Ahhaya), 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 improvements were made by later kings, including King Nissanka Malla, who had the caves’ interiors gilded, earning the place the name Ran Giri (Golden Rock).

There are five separate caves containing about 150 Buddha images. Most of the paintings in the temples date from the 19th century.

At the foot of the hill facing the highway stands the modern Golden Temple, a very kitschy structure completed in 2000 using Japanese donations. On top of the cube-shaped building sits a 30m-high Buddha image in the dhammachakka mudra (wheel-turning pose). Signs claim it’s the largest Buddha in the world, but it’s not even the largest in Sri Lanka. A museum displays replicas of the cave paintings, imported Buddha images and little else, with only brief labels in Sinhala.

Cave I (Devaraja Viharaya)

The first cave, the Temple of the King of the Gods, has a 15m-long reclining Buddha. Ananda, the Buddha’s loyal disciple, and other seated Buddhas are depicted nearby. A statue of Vishnu is held in a small shrine within the cave, but it’s usually closed.

Cave II (Maharaja Viharaya)

The Temple of the Great King is arguably the most spectacular of the caves. It measures 52m from east to west and 23m from the entrance to the back wall; the highest point of the ceiling is 7m. This cave is named after the two statues of kings it contains. There is a painted wooden statue of Valagamba on the left as you enter, and another statue further inside of Nissanka Malla. The cave’s main Buddha statue, which appears to have once been covered in gold leaf, is situated under a makara torana (archway decorated with dragons), with the right hand raised in abhaya mudra (pose conveying protection). Hindu deities are also represented. The vessel inside the cave collects water that constantly drips from the ceiling of the temple – even during droughts – which is used for sacred rituals.

Cave III (Maha Alut Viharaya)

This cave, the New Great Temple, was said to have been converted from a storeroom in the 18th century by King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe of Kandy, one of the last Kandyan monarchs. This cave, too, is filled with Buddha statues, including a beautiful reclining Buddha, and is separated from Cave II by only a masonry wall.

Cave IV (Pachima Viharaya)

The relatively small Western Cave is not the most westerly cave – that position belongs to Cave V. The central Buddha figure is seated under a makara torana, with its hands in dhyana mudra (a meditative pose in which the hands are cupped). The small dagoba in the centre was broken into by thieves who believed that it contained jewellery belonging to Queen Somawathie.

Cave V (Devana Alut Viharaya)

This newer cave was once used as a storehouse, but it’s now called the Second New Temple. It features a reclining Buddha; Hindu deities, including Kataragama (Murugan) and Vishnu, are also present.