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The Cave Temples of Dambulla: A Saunter Through Time, Space, and Tons of Monkey Business

submitted on 16 August 2023 by

A Brief Overview of the Dambulla Cave Temples

Behold the Dambulla Cave Temples, a complex of five sanctuaries that shelter some of the most beguiling Buddhist mural art and sculpture in Sri Lanka. Carved into the side of a massive rock, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has been around since the third century BCE—making the caves old enough to have seen the rise and fall of countless empires, and still have a bit of spare time to practice their knitting. Today, the caves are not only a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, but also a magnet for travelers who revel in history, art, and getting up close and personal with a tribe of rather rambunctious monkeys.

Reaching the Top: A Stairway to (Sweaty) Heaven

As one would expect from a cave temple complex perched atop a 600-foot rock, getting there requires a bit of legwork. The journey begins with a perilous climb up a seemingly endless series of steps, many of which were, I can only assume, designed with giant, long-legged mountain goats in mind. The climb is arduous, but fear not, for you shall be joined on your ascent by the aforementioned monkeys, who seem to have appointed themselves as furry guardians of the ancient site. They will watch your every step, either offering moral support or silently judging your physical fitness, depending on their monkey moods.

Inside the Caves: A Peep into Celestial Realms

Upon reaching the summit, you will be greeted by the first of the five caves—the aptly named Cave of the Divine King. It's here that the true wonder of the Dambulla Cave Temples truly begins to unfold. As you step inside, you'll be welcomed into a world of vibrant colors, serene statues, and the faint scent of incense lingering in the air (or is it monkey musk?). The walls of the cave are adorned with an astounding collection of Buddhist mural paintings, depicting various episodes from the life of the Buddha, as well as historical and mythical figures from Sri Lankan history. The effect of these paintings is, quite simply, enchanting. As you gaze upon them, it's hard not to feel a sense of awe and an affinity for the graceful, ethereal beings that seem to float above you.The pièce de résistance of the cave complex is the colossal, 50-foot-long reclining Buddha statue, which resides within the second cave, known as the Cave of the Great Kings. This enormous depiction of the Buddha in a state of peaceful repose is an incredible sight to behold and has a certain magnetism that can't be put into words. I'd like to think that the statue represents the Buddha's ultimate triumph over the pesky monkeys that roam the temple grounds, but that's just my own personal interpretation.

Surviving the Monkey Menace: Some Practical Advice

  • First and foremost, do not, under any circumstances, attempt to feed the monkeys. This will only encourage them to harass you further, and may even result in a full-blown monkey attack.
  • Keep all belongings secure and close to your person. The monkeys are notorious for snatching bags, cameras, and anything else that looks remotely interesting to their curious little minds.
  • If a monkey does manage to steal something from you, do not attempt to retrieve it yourself. Instead, seek the assistance of a local guide or a non-monkey temple worker, who will likely be well-versed in the art of monkey negotiations.
  • Finally, remember the golden rule: Keep your distance and treat the monkeys with respect. After all, they were here long before the tourists arrived, and they'll probably still be here long after we're gone.

A Final Word: A Trip Worth Taking

Despite the trials and tribulations of reaching the top, the Dambulla Cave Temples are without a doubt a must-see during any visit to Sri Lanka. The remarkable art and architecture of the caves, combined with the thrill of encountering the cheeky monkeys that call the complex home, make for a truly unforgettable experience. Just remember to keep your wits about you, and you'll be able to navigate the caves, the stairway, and the monkey menace with minimal fuss—or at least with a semblance of dignity.
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