From The Press

The Archaeological Department has started work on conserving theDambulla rock temple murals and statues, according to a recent media report.The danger to these valuable artefacts had been highlighted earlier too andit’s heartening to know that work has begun. The damage to these is reported tobe due to seepage of water and termite attacks.
Situated on the Colombo-Anuradhapura highway, Dambulla is acknowledged as themost spectacular of Sri Lanka’s cave temples. One of the country’s WorldHeritage sites, Dambulla forms part of the Cultural Triangle, theUNESCO-sponsored project to safeguard and preserve ancient places of historical


Dambulla dates back to the days of the 1st century KingVattagamani Abhaya (Valagamba) who was hiding in the area waiting to regain histhrone in Anuradhapura from usurpers from South India. Once he was successful,he had converted the caves into a temple in appreciation of the protectiongiven to him. It was then known as Jambukola Vihara. Later, King Nissanka Malla(1187-96) had improved the place.
While shrines had been erected in selected caves, it had been during the timeof Kirti Sri Rajaisnghe (1747-82) that Dambulla had blossomed out as a Buddhistcentre with high quality murals.
Writing in the UNESCO publication briefly tracing the evolution of paintings inSri Lanka, Dr. Roland Silva states: “Dambulla accounts for the largestcollection of ancient mural paintings in one site. Sri Lanka is rich in thisregard although the bulk of the paintings are from the eighteenth andnineteenth centuries. The five caves on the southern escapement of the rockhave 2,000 square metres of classical murals. It is for this reason thatDambulla has been included in the Cultural Triangle programme.

“The earliest remains of paintings in Sri Lanka may be dated to about thesecond century A.D., in sites such as Vessagiri in Anuradhapura and later atKotiyagala, to the south of the island. Sigiriya in the fifth century comesfairly high in terms of its chronology, which suggests that there must havebeen a well-established school of painters prior to this period. With the highwatermark of Sigiri paintings, we see an element of baroque intrusion in thedetails of Hindagala dated to the eighth century and those at Puligoda andMahiyangana which precede the twelfth-century efforts at the Tivanka Pilimage.

“After this period the paintings are rare with occasional appearances as seenat the upper chamber of Gadaladeniya until the King Kirti Srirajasimha period.It is quite possible that many temples were over-painted during this phase asseen even at Dambulla. However, our largest resource of murals come from theeighteenth-century period and of these Dambulla is the finest. There are wellover 500 temples with paintings in this country and this is a treasure that ismost delicate and must be preserved for posterity.”
In the same publication, Senake Bandaranayake refers to Dambulla as “one of thelargest cave temple complexes in the South and Southeast Asian region and oneof the most important centres of Buddhist pilgrimage in Sri Lanka.”


Architectural masterpiece
The picturesque site can be reached by climbing several rows of steps up to thebig rock. Five caves are set on a side of the rock. The main cave is identifiedas ‘Maharaja Vihara’ after the founder, King Valagamba and is accepted as thearchitectural masterpiece of the complex. Over 50 metres in length, it is 23metres deep with a maximum height of seven metres near the main screen wall.The setting inside is unique with a main Buddha image in the centre. The seatedBuddha is under a ‘makara torana’ with attendant deities. On one side of thecave is a rock cut stupa surrounded by eight seated Buddha images.
This setting is elaborated by Bandaranayake who describes the vast interior asone of the most dramatic internal spaces in Sri Lankan architecture and pointsout that though it is not compartmented but is specially differentiated by acomplex arrangement of statues and paintings.

“Despite the absence of architectural divisions, a loosely defined but clearlyobservable system of spatial zoning and hierarchy exists within the elaboratelypainted and sculptured space. The iconography of the shrine divides it intothree distinct areas: the central sanctuary in front of the principal Buddhaimage and attendant deities is flanked by two subsidiary areas to the east andwest, one surmounted by a large panel or narrative registers painted on itsceiling and the other by a small rock-cut stupa, surrounded by eight seatedBuddha images.

“Moving further east, we find an extension or ‘antechamber’ to this centralsanctuary in the form of a hall or subsidiary sanctum, covering a large,relatively open space. Its limits are defined by the ‘dagaba’ and centralsanctuary in the west, rows of Buddha images to the north and east, and a largerecumbent image to the south. In the centre of the eastern section of thisantechamber area is a small, half-walled precinct in which a large vessel isplaced to collect water dripping from the ceiling of the cave, the waterbelieved to have sacred properties and used in daily temple offerings.”


Most important heritage of Dambulla
The 18th century murals are considered the most important heritage of Dambulla.They cover an area of more than 2,000 square metres spread over the five caves.They are also the largest preserved group of rock and wall paintings, sculptureand architecture, and one of the most ambitious undertakings of the Kandyanartists.
Dambulla paintings do not give pride of place to Jataka stories. Instead, theaccent is on the life of the Buddha. These include murals depicting thedaughters of Mara trying to disturb the Buddha reaching Enlightenment, Buddha’sfirst sermon, ‘Parinirvana’, and the meeting of the first council after‘parinibbana’. Scenes of prince Vijaya’s arrival, introduction of Buddhism,battle between Dutugemunu and Elara and Ruvanveliseya are among the muralsrelating the early history of Sri Lanka.


Rich collection of Sri Lankan sculpture
Dambulla also has one of the richest collections of Sri Lankan sculpture, saysBandaranayake. These include the large number of Buddha images in standing,seated and recumbent postures as well as a few outstanding figures of gods andBodhistvas and three royal portrait sculptures.
The royal portraits are those of the three kings – Valagamba (Anuradhapuraperiod), Nissanka Malla (Polonnaruwa period) and Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (Kandyanperiod) – who have contributed immensely to make Dambulla such treasured centreof Buddhist veneration.

Pix by Sarath Perera