Sri Lanka is renowned for packing a lot into a small space. This island nation of only 21 million people is home to no less than eight UNESCO World Heritage sites. Only thirty-eight other countries can boast a greater number. Dambulla and the surrounding area is Sri Lanka in microcosm. Three World Heritage Sites of profound historical and cultural importance are found only a short distance from each other. All together, they span twenty-two centuries of history.
This area is a popular base to spend a few days visiting the three main sites as well as a host of impressive smaller sites. It was monsoon season and the weather was oppressively hot and humid, making sightseeing a bit challenging and occasionally very wet. We stayed at the Kandalama, an extraordinary eco-hotel that was so relaxing and luxurious we probably didn’t spend as much time on cultural activities as we might have.
I don’t normally write about hotels, but this was something special. The infinity pool alone had views over the lake to the ‘Lion’s Rock’, a hulking granite peak that forms the most dramatic part of the 5th century city of Sigiriya. If you’re lucky, you might even see elephants below at the lake shore. We could have spent most of our time in the hotel, but duty called and we went off to nearby Dambulla, home to the Dambulla Cave Temple.
Filled with statues and ancient Buddhist murals, this is the best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. It has been in continuous use for over 2,200 years. This might be one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world, yet the Golden Temple that greets you upon arrival might make you think you were entering a Buddhist theme park. In fact, it is home to a Buddhist museum and is weirdly kitsch-commercial.
I’ve learned from bitter experience to be wary of temple monkeys, but the ones in Dambulla were more placcid than others I’ve encountered. Dambulla itself was fairly unremarkable, sitting on a couple of major highways with a lot of traffic, but the temple complex is quite extraordinary. I don’t really understand Buddhist iconography, but the intricately decorated caves sitting under a granite outcrop are fascinating to wander around.
Leaving the temple complex, we headed to the delicately carved yet monolithic granite statue of Buddha close to the village of Aukana an hour away. Standing around 13 metres high, it’s an impressive sight and testimony to the sculptors who carved it around 1,200 years ago. It’s difficult to assess its size without anything for comparison, but it’s big. It stands in a prayer building known as the Image House, sadly today a ruin.
It’s famed for the unusual hand position of the Buddha, known as ‘asisa mudra’, or the blessing position. Hand gestures, mudras, have deep spiritual significance in Buddhism and there are many of them. This gesture, with the hand raised up but with the palm facing inwards is supposed to reflect peaceful intentions or benevolence. Some say it looks like a karate chop. My intentions after spending the day sightseeing were also peaceful.
With another busy schedule planned for the next day, we headed back to the hotel to take advantage of the infinity pool. Afterwards, we sat drying from our swim on the terrace with a cold beer in hand, and watched the Lion’s Rock glow red as the sun set over the valley below. It’s not every day that you can visit one UNESCO World Heritage Site and watch the sunset behind another that you’ll visit in the morning.