Today, many things have changed. Dambulla is now an extensive and modern market town, a commercial hub of Sri Lanka’s North Central Province. The streets are full of shops displaying bicycles by the dozen, a bewildering array of agricultural implements, household utensils, and much, much more. Dambulla is also the location of the country’s newest international cricket stadium, which means that overseas fans of the sport periodically descend on the area.
As importantly, however, some things haven’t changed. While the surrounding area - in particular Kandalama - has seen the emergence of several expansive new hotels, Dambulla still relies heavily on its small but evergreen rest-house. The richly painted cave temple – one of Sri Lanka’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites - still attracts a multitude of travellers and pilgrims alike.
During the initial part of the 19th century the area was known for its cotton, which was grown in cleared spaces in the scrub jungle known as chenas. This crop was invariably sold or bartered to the inhabitants of the mountain districts to the south, who took it home, cleaned it, spun it and finally weaved it into pieces of coarse cotton cloth. A week was spent in the journey and the sudden change of climate was commonly followed by severe and lingering illness.
A point of some interest connected with Dambulla is that it featured in two insurrections against British rule. In 1817 the troops who had been sent to quell the first rebellion, which broke out in Matale, were quartered in the Dambulla cave temple for a few months, but the strictest orders were issued against doing any damage to it. Then in 1848 a lesser rebellion broke out in Dambulla itself, stirred up by a few Kandyan chiefs and Buddhist priests. Though the insurgents numbered some 4,000, they were quickly quelled by the Ceylon Rifles and part of the 15th Regiment, who attacked them first at Matale and afterwards at Kurunegala.
As it happens it was an army doctor, John Davy, who was the first Briton to describe Dambulla and give an indication of the importance of the cave temple in his book An Account of the Interior of Ceylon (1821). “Its rock temples are the most extensive in the island,” he wrote, “the most perfect of their kind and the most ancient, and in the highest state of preservation and order.”
Another to describe Dambulla in detail was the colony’s Colonial Secretary, Sir James Emerson Tennent, who wrote in his book Ceylon (1859): “Long before reaching Dambool, the enormous rock is descried, underneath which the temple has been hollowed out, which from its antiquity, its magnitude, and the richness of its decorations, is by far the most renowned in Ceylon. It lies almost insulated on the otherwise level plain, and unconcealed by any verdure except a few stunted plants in such crevices as retain sufficient moisture to support vegetation.”
During the second half of the 19th century tourists began to come this way. It is remarkable that one of the first was a rare lady traveller, Constance Gordon Cumming, who visited Dambulla in the 1870s and wrote in her book Two Happy Years in Ceylon (1892): “Here from a level plain rises a solitary huge mass of bare dark-red gneiss rock, about 500 feet in height and 2,000 in length. A few human beings, looking like moving mites on the summit, gave me a good idea of the great size of this smooth rounded mountain of rock, chief among many which tower like dark-reddish islands from the green levels of rice or jungle, forming a very remarkable geological feature of this part of Ceylon.”
During this period most tourists travelled to Dambulla either in a private horse drawn conveyance or the mail coach that operated between Matale and Trincomalee via Dambulla. However, with the arrival of the motor age, and in particular the switching of the mail service to the railway in 1910, tourists began hiring cars in Kandy for the excursion to Dambulla and Sigiriya. Alternatively, horse drawn conveyances could be hired at Matale.
The fairly arduous climb to the cave temple situated about half way up the rock is invariably commented upon in written accounts of the place. But it is the stunning panoramic scene that presents itself from the higher reaches of the rock – in particular the looming rock of Sigiriya - that has tested the descriptive powers of every writer on the subject. Probably the best account is by Reginald Farrer from his book In Old Ceylon (1908): “The incline is fairly steep, but the rock surface is gritty, offering sure foothold. At midday, of course, under the sun, this naked, refracting surface of rock is unbearable; but towards evening one mounts at one’s leisure, the air is gentle, and the memory of bygone heat only lends tranquility to the atmosphere.
“And still the ascent goes mounting, mounting, over bare stone towards the crest of the hill far above. And as one goes the jungle opens before us to north and south. Far south, in range after range, peak after peak, lies unfolded in blue and soft purple the mountain country of Kandy. Far north, in film after film of one indistinguishable plain, stretches the jungle. Impressive always, and even terrifying, is this flat unity of the jungle when you see it from a high point. But this view from Dambulla Rock has the added force of surprise. It is unbelievable at first – too fantastic, too overpowering, too like a transformation scene, to be realized at the first glance.
“And there, very far away, over the unchanging surface, rises in the distance a long red bulk of rock, looking like a big pebble posed high on the surface of the tide. Rounded it is like shingle of the sea, and utterly alien from all the sharp craggy lines and pinnacles in which the islands of mountain break from the forest-levels. Now on its face, turned scarlet and golden in the sunset, above the hot golden-green of the illumined jungle, the eye can discern a line of white and ochre, raw-looking and artificial, as if the mass had been broken from its pedestal and then cemented on again. The red rock is Sigiriya, and the raw line marks the gallery of Kasyapa the King by which he would go up to the tremendous citadel, where he took refuge from his terrors.”
There is no doubt that the view from Dambulla is one of the very best to be had in the island. Of course the view from Sigiriya is substantially the same, except the Kandyan Mountains are more remote. There is a lot to commend the view from the rock of Mulkirigala down south near Matara. And many swear by the view from the peak of Namunukula near Badulla in the hills. But there really is something special about Dambulla. Make sure you don’t miss it.