As with several other famous tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, the advice we’d received regarding the Badulla Caves Temple had been “Go early.” We duly got up at the crack of dawn and by seven o’clock had arrived at the ticket office below the site. In fact, the office’s window was still shuttered, and an old fellow had to shuffle out of an adjoining building to attend to us. Then we were directed upwards, for there were steps to climb.
Even if we hadn’t been able to enter the temple, which dates back to the first century BC and is recognised as the biggest and most impressive cave-temple complex on the island, I think it would have been worth going there just for the ascent up the steps. Filtering between the branches and fronds of the trees growing on the lower slopes, the hazy, dreamy morning light gave the stone staircases and the sections of pathway between them an enchanted look. Later, when we emerged above most of the trees, we had a gorgeous view. The land below was carpeted in now-bright and sun-drenched treetops, which parted close by to reveal long clay-tiled rooftops, while a high beehive-shaped mountain rose up across the way.
During our ascent we encountered monkeys. People who’d put comments about Dambulla Caves on Trip Advisor had warned about those monkeys, portraying them as brigands hellbent on ambushing and robbing visitors. But we waded through a squad of them and were treated with indifference. No doubt it helped that we weren’t carrying any food – which according to Trip Advisor is the thing they’re determined to steal. At one point, three monkeys became visible sitting on the steps ahead, and I half-expected their three pairs of hands to clamp over their eyes, ears and mouth in a see-no-evil / hear-no-evil / speak-no-evil pose.
The highest steps are smooth, worn slots that long ago were carved out of the rock and are more awkward to climb. These take you up onto a big flat surface with the temple-entrance on the left and a hut containing racks for visitors to leave their shoes on the right. The entrance is a white building with doors and a tiled roof, while the steep line of the hillside – actually a huge, sheer bulge of rock – rises behind it.
Having passed through this building we went down a flight of wide steps into the temple grounds. These consist of a long, narrow compound covered in rectangular stones no bigger than bricks. The compound’s features include a broad tree wallowing within a stone dais, surrounded by incense sticks, candle-cups, little figurines and multi-coloured Buddhist flags and exuding long, low branches; and a horseshoe-shaped pond whose circumference-wall is made out of boulders and whose surface has floating canopies of water-lilies with purple water-flowers poking up between them. However, the real attraction of the temple is along the compound’s right-hand side.
At the bottom of the wall of rock – whose height the temple’s Wikipedia entry puts at 150 metres – runs a veranda with diamond-shaped flagstones, white walls, arched glass-less windows and a long roof. This veranda gives access to the caves, which burrow into the rock’s base. Where each cave-entrance opens at the back of the veranda-structure, a corresponding stone staircase leads up to a doorway with an arched top and pillared sides at the front of it. There are five caves in total, the biggest one more than 50 metres across and almost 25 metres deep.
Wikipedia states that the caves house some 160 statues, mostly ones of Buddha. There are rows of them seated in a lotus position, with long earlobes, broad shoulders, hands cupped on their laps, gowns rippling around their legs and torsos and left shoulders – their right shoulders bare. In one cave, a ring of eight of them surround a miniature stupa. There are also many upright figures, right hands raised to give blessing; and occasionally a giant reclining Buddha, the wedge of daylight that makes it through the entrance and the dark shadows elsewhere meaning that only a small section of the figure is properly visible. Other items in the caves include flowers garlanding the surfaces in front of the images, and cauldron-sized, cauldron-shaped pots, and blue-painted metal donation boxes set at strategic positions.
Despite the considerable dimensions of some of the caves, I always got a faintly claustrophobic vibe from them because of the lowness of their ceilings and the obvious, tremendous weight of the rock above. These rock ceilings are painted and illustrated and, though the murals have faded with time, they remain impressively intricate. (When I entered the first cave, my immediate impression was that the temple-monks had covered the cave-roof with some fancy but now-aged wallpaper.)
At the same time, however, the caves are wonderfully atmospheric – dim, shadowy and full of mysterious dark recesses and corners. The fact that the statues often loom up half-seen in the gloom, their outlines, proportions and details hinted at by the meagre light creeping in through the doorways (and very occasional windows) just adds to their grandeur. Conversely, when I turned on my camera’s flash and took pictures, the images that appeared in the artificially-lit photos looked slightly flat and not quite as exotic as I’d hoped.
As we emerged from the final cave, we saw a just-arrived package-tour crowd seeping in through the entrance, down the steps, onto the far end of the veranda and into the first cave. And as we walked back past the first cave, we heard a multitude of voices babbling and saw a frenzy of camera-flashes popping inside it. We’d had that cave to ourselves an hour earlier. Its stillness and quiet had added immensely to its atmosphere. So getting there early, before the main influx of tourists, had been a good decision.
There followed an interlude on the temple steps, during which my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, spent a few minutes befriending the temple cat, a which was a charming white creature with tawny face-patches and a tawny tail. Then we descended from the temple by a route different from the one by which we’d come up. This took us to a site at ground level where a giant golden-skinned Buddha statue sat on a building containing a museum. A sign informed us that this was the largest statue in the world – 30 metres high – depicting Buddha in the ‘Dhammachakka’ posture.
A stone ridge extended off from the statue’s left side and along this stood a line of human-sized statues, swathed in red robes, presumably meant to be queuing to pay homage to Buddha. Bald-headed and blank-faced, these adherents bore a slight but unfortunate resemblance to plastic shop-window dummies. Meanwhile, the museum building that served as the statue’s pedestal had turrets at either end, had pink, red and blue lines of flower-shaped ornamentation along each of its three tiers, and generally looked like an over-iced wedding cake.
We didn’t hang around there for long. This modern site – the statue had been built between 1997 and 2000 – felt a bit too Disney-fied after the majesty and ambience of the ancient temple complex in the giant rock above.