Historical Caves in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is the island of rock boulders. Groups of granite rocks can be found in almost all parts of the country, only the central hill counry has fewer. These boulders play an important role in the nations cultural history. They were the locations of forest hermitages and often became richly adorned pilgrimage sites. Sri Lanka hence is also the island of cave temples. But be aware: What is called "caves" in guide books nd scientific literature about the ancient Sinhalese civilization, is usually called, more adequately, a rock shelter in other parts of the world. Sri Lanka's "caves" are indeed semi-caves, covered by an overhanging slab of rock, and half of the sides of such a sheltered room are open. The accurate archaelogical name for what is called "caves" in Sri Lanka is the French term "abri". Abris are finding places of prehistoric artefacts and bones all over the world. Sri Lanka is not an exception to that rule. But what's exceptional in Sri Lanka, is the role of such abris in the historical period. The amount of such caves and the high percentage of rock shelters that where used as dwellings of Buddhist monks is indeed unique to Sri Lanka. This is why they are called "historical caves" on this website, in order to contrast them to prehistorical caves and abris elsewhere. In fact, most ancient temples in Sri Lanka are rock temples or cave temples. India's Buddhist monasteries which are contemporary to those in Sri Lanka (in the centuries around the beginning of the common Era) were cave temples, too, but of a different kind. Hundreds of Buddhist monasteries, particulalry in Maharashtra in the northwest of the Indian Dekkan peninsula, were artificial caves. Most Indian Buddhist cave rooms are man-made. In contrast, almost all cave temples in Sri Lanka use natural caves or rock shelters as dwellings and also as ceremonial halls of Buddhist monks. There were temple constructions inside town, too. The largest temples of the ancient Sinhalese civilzation, Mahavihara, Abhayagiri and Jetavanarama in Anuradhapura, were no rock temples or cave monasteries at all. But even in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, there are cave temples, namely Isurumuniya and Vessagiriya. And the oldest inhabited part of Polonnaruwa during the Sinhalese recorded history was a cave, too. But most Sri Lankan cave temples from the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods are far away from the big cities. They were forest monasteries of reclusive monks or even of hermits, though Buddhist monks usually live in groups and not alone. The Buddhist edifices in the cities were centres of scholarship but also served as administrational units, because the "big three" monasteries of the Anuradhapura period were owners of land for paddy cultivation distributed all over the Sinhalese kingdom.
Those monks looking for undisturbed or more austere life, dedicated to meditation, often left the monasteries and dwelt in a group of rock boulders, inhabiting the natural rock shelters. They loved the natural setting and did not alter much, but they protecting their "cave" rooms below the slabs of rock by two features. A small wall, not of the full size of the cave entrance, separated the room from the wilderness, hindring snakes to enter the human habitat. And, even more often and today more abviously, they cut the vertical rock surface just above the cave entrance, created a horizontal drip ledge. Rain water running down the rock surface then did not flow into the dwelling but trickled down in drops in front of the cave. Thus the cave remained drier. Such drip ledges can be found at numouous rock shelters throughout the island. And very often the protected rock surface just below the drip ledge was used for inscriptions mentioning a king or nobleman, who owned this land, as the donor, who endowed this cave to the Sangha or to a specific monk. The earliest inscriptions were written in Pali language, with Southindian Brahmi characters. These inscriptions are the oldest written documents of Sri Lankan history. As such inscriptions are emblematic for monastically used rock shelters, these typical Sinhalese natural monk cells are indeed historical caves in the true sense of the word "historical".
Monks living such a serene life in the wilderness were highly respected by Sinhalese peasants, who supported them by bringing food and clothes. Not surprisingly, almost all Arahants (monks who reached Nirvana) who are believed to have lived in Sri Lanka, are associated with specific historical caves. Mahinda, the first Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka, had his cave with a stone bed in Mihintale. Maliyadeva, according the chronicles the island's last Arahant before the arrival of the future Buddha, is said to have lived in Arankale. Several Arahants lived below the rock of Ridigama. Also other forest monks living in cave dwellings became famous for the piety and were visited by pilgrims. This caused a kind of dilemma: Monks living a serener life attracted more visitors. The pilgrims liked to have adorned the caves to make them more attractive. And kings donated wooden huts for the monks close to their cave and transformed the cave from a plain dwelling to a richly decorated shrine room with Buddha statues and murals. Sometimes even stupas were erected inside Sri Lankan rock shelters. In the course of the centuries, many ancient Buddhist caves became indeed splendid temples. The most famous example for this result are Sri Lanka's largest monastic caves, Dambulla, which is now a World Heritage Site. As a result of these different delopments, there is a wide range of historic caves in Sri Lanka, some are left completely without any hints of human habitation except drip ledges or inscriptions, other are basic forest dwellings even today, others are a colourful kind of image houses below rocks.
If you expect a cave to be a a system of spaces and connecting tunnels extending deep underground, then there is only one true cave in Sri Lanka. It is the islands's only huge dripstone cave, Wovul Pone. This cave is situated in the eastern outskirts of the Sinharaja mountain range. Until recently, it was almost unknown to tourists. But now it has become a number one destination for a newly introduced holiday activity in Sri Lanka, caving. Wovul Pane remains natural, it is prepared for visitors. It is completely impossible to visit the interior of this cave system without high-quality torches. "Wovul Pone" means "Bats dwelling". It is indeed the habitat of Sri Lanka's largest bats population of an estimated quarter or half a million bats. The limestone cave with stalctites and stalagmites is about 500 million years old. It extends 135 m and consists of several chambers. It also has an underground waterfall.
Pahiyangala, though almost unknown to tourists, is a very special place, for at least three reasons. First of all, Pahiyangala is the most spacious rock shelters all over South Asia. Secondly, it is the finding place of the ealiest human bones that are, up to now, known in South Asia. A scull found in this giant abri was 34,000 to 37,000 years old. Pahiyangala is an excavation site of utmost importance for research on Sri Lanka's prehistoric Balangoda culture. Last not least, Pahiyangala is believed to have served as the abode of one of the most famous Buddhists in world history, the Chinese scholar and pilgrim and explorer Faxian (Fa Hsien), hence the name of the cave: "Pahiyan" is the Sinhalisation of Faxian, since the Sinhala alphabet has no characters for "f" and the Greek chi-sound, which is transcribed as "x" for Chinese words. Faxian is said to have lived here several months before climbing Siri Pada.
Batadomba Lena is a remote rockshelter in a rubber plantation close to Kuruwita. It was a kind of "home cave" of Sri Lanka's renowned family of archaeologists, father and son Deraniyagala. They proved, that Batadomba Lena’s late Pleistocene inhabitants had a broad range of foods, also including snakes and monkeys. Most exciting was Siran U. Deraniyagala's finding, that the Balangoda men living in Batadomba Lena used geometric microliths already 31,000 years ago, many millennia earlier than Europeans. In Europe, this kind of tools is the hallmark of the period called the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age. Notably, the occurrence of marine shells was a hintf, that there habe been early trade contacts between the coast and the hillcountry. After rainfalls, Batadomba Lena has a small veil of a waterfall. The very picturesque site can be reached by hiking 1.5 km in a very pleasant scenery.
Divaguhawa is both a prehistoric and a historic cave. In scientific literature, it is known under its old name Batathota Lena, also spelt Batatota Lena or Bathatotalena. Divaguhawa is the name of the Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is considered to be one of Sri Lanka’s 16 Solosmathanas, which are places visited by the Buddha during his three journeys to the island. Sinhalese Buddhists believe, that Divaguhawa was that cave, mentioned in ancient cronicles, where the Buddha rested with 500 followers when ascending Adam's Peak, where he had left his footprint, Siri Pada. Eratna near Divaguhawa is the starting point of one of the three major pilgrim routes to the top of Sri Lanka's holy mountain. The cave, decorated in the Kandyan style, has some intersting features, such as a reclining Buddha and statues of Hindu gods and a pond filled with fish. It catches water only from drops fallinf from the cave ceiling.
Beli Lena, situated in an elevation of 600 m, high above the Kelani River Valley, is a group of comparatively deep caves, one of them has a large excavation area, which was of significance for research on Sri Lanka's prehistoric Balangoda culture. More than 12,000 years old skeletal remains have been found here, which were described as "Homo sapiens balangodensis" by Paul E. P. Deraniyagala, father of the later Archaeological Commissioner S. U. Deraniyagala. Recently, Beli Lena has become a destination of caving expeditions, which are suitable for beginners. The entrance of the largest cave is behind a small waterfall, a very picturesque site indeed. The Beli Lena caves are a habitat of a population of thousands of bats. The region of Beli Lena are a paradise for nature lovers for the abundance in bird species and butterflies. A waterfall for abseiling adventures is close-by.
Dimbulagala, known as Udumbaragiri or Dumarakkapabbata in Sri Lanka's ancient chronicles, is an isolated mountain range of more than 4 km length and more than 500 m height. The British called it Gunners Quoin. Dimbulagala is situated 16 km southeast of Polonnaruwa, just at the opposite side of Sri Lanka's largest river, Mahaweli. The mountain has historic caves at either side, which were inhabited by forest monks already during the early Anuradhapura period. The Pulligoda caves at the southern foot of the Dimbulagala hills has rare paintings from the Anuradhapura period, which are the second best, after the famous Sigiriya frescoes. Close to other historical caves, a systematically planned monastery, now called Namal Pokuna, was established at the northern slope. The modern monastery at the southwestern end has caves, too, wizh gaudily coloured statues.
Pidrurangala is the neighbouring monadnock of Sigiriya. When Kassapa transformed the monastic cave complex at the foot of the Sigiriya rock to a part of his palace gardens, the monks got a new abode in Pidurangala. Pidurangala has a long row of abris, These rock shelters are excavation sites of interest for the prehistory of the island. But for today's travellers, the most attractive abri is occupied by a reclining Buddha made of brick. Parts of the original plaster can be seen, too. This Buddha statue is attributed to King Kassapa, the founder of the Sigiriya citadel. Kassapa is daid to have greeted this Buddha on the neighbour rock every day. Pidurangala has also an ancient reclining Buddha with a coat in the colourful Kandyan style, it is in a cave temple at the foot of the hill. The very top of the hill, which is not easy to reach, is the best panorama viewpoint in the northern half of Sri Lanka.
Dambulla is definitely the most excellent example of an ancient Sinhalese cave temple, concerning both quantity and quality of the statues and murals. Dambulla is the only cave temple in Sri Lanka, which is declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The history of this temple goes back to the 1st or 2nd century B.C.E. The huge rock shelters, originally serving as monks's dwellings, were transformed to image houses in the course of the centuries. The openings of the caves to the south were closed by walls. And the interior was decorated with hundreds of Buddha statues from the Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy periods. Though traces of early paintings prove, that murals existed already in antiquiy, the wonderful paintings that can be seen at the ceilings and walls today, are from the Kandyan period. These very best Kandy paintings show seens from the Buddha's life. More...
Rasvehera is off the beaten tourist path, though it is a worth a visit for different reasons. Rasvehera's main attraction is a colossal rock-cut Buddha statue, which is called Sasseruwa Buddha. It almost equals the much better known Aukana Buddha in size. Another attraction of Rasvehera is the wildlife. The sanctuary is frequented by wild elephants in particular. But first of all, Rasvehera is a typical Sinhalese Buddhist cave temple. There are two painted caves with dozens of Buddha statue, making Rasvehera a smaller version of Dambulla. The caves have dozens of Buddha statues and paintings of Jataka stories. These texts belong to the Buddhist Holy Scriptures, which are called Tipitaka. They are very popular stories, because they are well narrated stories illustrating Buddhist moral values. Murals from the Kandyan period love to illustrate some of the most beloved of these stories.
Yapahuwa is described in many guide books, but it is not too crowded. Yapahuwa likes to be called "Sri Lanka's second Sigiriya", because it's a rock fortress, though Yapahuwa is much later, from the 13th century. There are further similarities. For example, Yapahuwa's main structures seem to be secular. And Yapahuwa is the finding place of coins from a far-away region. China ceramics were found in Yapahuwa, too. A highlight for visitors is the palace stairway with sculptural decorations. They are similar to contemporary Indian works of art. Climbing to the top of the Yapahuwa rock is rewarded by wonderful views to the coconut-tree covered plains of the North-Westen Province. But monastic architecture, e.g. a small stupa, indicate, that the rock was already a sanctuary before becoming the centrepiece of a fortified city. later, the historical caves of the monastery at the foot of the rock were painted in the Kandyan style.
"Ridi Viharaya" means "Silver Monastery". It is located a few kilometres outside Ridigama. "Ridagama" simply means "Silver village". The name is related to a famous story. When King Dutugemunu (Dutthagamani) built the giant Ruwanweliseya stupa, he ran out of funds and required materials. But miraculously, a silver or was found just in time at that place that is now the "Silver Temple". In gratitude, Dutthagamani built the monastery. Second only to Dambulla, Ridigama's Ridi Vihara has the largest painted cave with Kandyan style murals. Notably, Dutch tiles, a gift from the 18th century, can be seen on the pedestal of the reclining Buddha, one of them depicts Jesus, some more Paul and other Christian saints. Beside the typical image caves in the Kandyan style, the Ridi Vihara has a small, but beautiful and well-preserved building in the Polonnaruwa style, with an interesting porch.
The ancient rock and cave temple of Aluvihara near Matale is of significance for Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, as it is believed to be the place, where the 4th Buddhist Council was held to lay down the Holy Texts of Buddhism, the Tipitaka, for the first time in written form. This council took place during the reign of King Valagamba, after he had regained his thrown n Anuradhapura. During his years in exile, when Anuradhapura was ruled by foreign invaders, the Buddhist monasteries had fallen into decay and many monks specialized in memorizing parts of the Holy Texts, starved to death. In order to prevent the loss of the texts, they were now safed by inscribing them on palm leaves. Sri Lanka became the only country in the world, where the original Tipitaka was handed down completely till the present day. Appropriately, a palm script museum is established at Aluvihara today.
The Degaldoruwa Cave Temple was restored and embellished in the late 18th century by Kirti Sri Rajasinha; Kandy's most ambitious king with regard to riviving Buddhism, and finalized by his brother and successor, Rajadi Rajasinha, Besides Dambulla and Ridigama, Degaldoruwa is one of the best examples of a historical cave temple decorated with Kandy-paintings. The main cave is fully covered with murals. Its outer wall, which separates this rock shelter from a porch, is even richer in details. The paintings depict four different Jatakas. "Jataka" means "birth story", referring to the Buddhist idea of rebirth. Actually, the canonical Jataka stories are narratives about the historical Buddha's previous lifes. The most popular one, depicted on the left side, is the Vessantara Jataka, a story of utmost renunciation and sacrifice. Degaldoruwa can claim to haveSri Lanka's best examples of Jataka illustrations,
The Buddhangala rock temple is one of the most ancient Buddhist temples in the Eastern Province and one of the oldest Buddhist sanctuaries in Sri Lanka. Possibly, it was already inhabited by reclusive Buddhist monks before Buddhism was officially introduced in Anuradhapura in the 3rd century B.C.E. This area belonged to a principality called Digamadulla, which was ruled by Prince Dighayu in the 4th century BC. The monastery premises extend over more than 500 hectares, covering 5 rocks. Historical caves in the valley in between the rocks are still inhabited by monks and are also used as a library for valuable palmleaf manuscript. A small replica of Polonnaruwa's Gal Vihara group of rock-cut Buddhas can be seen near the entrance. Buddhangala is a typical example of a historical monastery in the east which had been abandoned for centuries, before single Buddhist rediscovered them and brought them back to life.
Sithulpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya, also called "Sithupahuwa Raja Maha Vihara", is a perfect panoramic viewpoint overlooking the entire block 1 of Yala National Park. The monastery is situated on two neighbouring hillocks. Apart from caves, there are also several foundations of brick buildings. The ancient Sithulpawwa monastery is bellieved to have been built by King Kavantissa, who was the ruler of Ruhunu (Rohana), the southern part of Sri Lanka. Kavantissa is the father of, who conquered Anuradhapura and reestablished Sinhalese rule over the entire island. The name "Sithulpawwa" is derived from "Chitthala Pabbatha", which means "hill of the peaceful mind." Traces of rare Anuradhapura era paintings can be found in the historical caves of Sithulpahuwa, whereas Buddha and Bodhisatva images, typical for the southern kingdom Ruhunu, are placed in front of the caves.
The inscriptions at the historical Mulkirigala cave temple proclaim that the temple was a monastic complex 2000 years ago. Mulkirigala likes to be called "Sigiriya of the South" due to its steep tall monadnock as well as "Dambulla of the South" because of its painted caves. Indeed, Mulkirigala has southern Sri Lanka's most sophisticated murals from the Kandyan period, particulalry from the 18th century. The rock temple has terraces on three levels. On the lower level, the inner walls of the cave called Paduma Rahat Viharaya bear excellent murals depicting Jataka stories from the Buddhist scriptures. The next terrace is the Meda Maluwe. Mulkirigala's largest cave, called Raja Mahavihara, has a reclining Buddha statue and excellent paintings of musicians and dancers from the Kandyan era. The upper terrace has a white dagoba and is a perfect panorama view point.
Sankapala Raja Maha Viharaya is said to be founded by Pussadeva, a giant, who was a warrior of King Dutugemunu. Indeed, the name "Pussadeva" is mentioned in a rock inscription in Sankapala. Pussadeva was the king's helper blowing the conch shell as signal for the troops. The conch shell became the emblem to identify him. After his final victory, Dutugemunu rewarded his ten commanders, Pussadeva being one of them. The entire area where conch shell sound could be heard, when he blow it atop of Mount Sankapala, was given to him as a reward. Later, he built a temple here, entered Priesthood, and found enlightenment, His mausoleum is venerated in the temple premises. During the reign of the Kandyan King Rajadi Rajasinha, Sankhapala, then a deserted place, was donated to a Buddhist monk called Korathota Dhammarama as a reward for a sophisticated poem which had delighted the king.
Not far from Yakkala, which is located at the A1 mainroad from Colombo to Kandy, there is a forested area spotted with hills and rocks. It is a quite untouched piece of nature in the otherwise densely populated Gampaha district. This area, historically known as Siyane Korale, has several natural rock shelters which were used by Buddhist hermits, some of them till the present day. Situated amidst this lush green scenery, one small forest temple has a spectacular balancing rock, consecrated to the Buddha by carrying a small dagoba, is very rarely visited by tourists and even unknown to most Sri Lankans. Its name is "Pethagangala", which simply translated to "rocking boulder". There are many different spellings of this toponym, for example "Pettigala", "Pettagangala", "Petthagamgala", "Petta Gam Gala" etc. Twigs are attached by pilgrims to help to keep it in balance symbolically.
Warana Rajamaha Vihara is situated at the village of the same name. Though almost unknown to tourists, Varana is an important monastery for Buddhist studies and mediation classes, since Varana is the largest forest monastery in the western part of the island. Warana is one of the many cave temples associated with King Valagamba, who lived 14 years in exile at the beginning of the 1st century B.C.E. Indeed, the Warana caves seem to have been inhabited by forest hermits even earlier, though the donation inscriptions mention names of monks, which was a practice introduced in later centuries. The temple compound of Warana is a pleasant small rocky hill. Caves exist on three different levels, the second level called Meda Maluwa (“middle terrace”) being the most intersting one, with Warana's largest painted caves and a dagoba from the Polonnaruwa period.
Maligathenna is the highest elevation in Gampaha District. Some natural caves are still inhabited by monks. Typical ancient drip ledged cuttings prevented water from flowing into the inhabited cave areas. The monastic complex is situated slightly above ground level but far away from the top. The stairways to the summit will cross the monastic complex. The main rock shelter is quite large. Indeed it is a horizontal slab of rock covererng a wide room below it. This became the main image house of the Maligathenna monastery. This cave temple claims to be founded and adorned by King Valagamba. A person called Hiripitiye Rala is said to have helped the king when he was hiding here, expelled from his capital Anuradhapura. Maligatenna's main attraction however is not cultural but natural. The way to the top is quite scenic, crossing small caves and rock chasms.
Though unmentioned in most guide books, Pilikuttuwa is actually one of the largest and most picturesque and most intersting cave temples in Sri Lanka. One reason for this is, that some caves are still inhabited by reclusive monks. Those rare foreign visitors who find their way to Pilikuttuwa, hence can experience a genuine Sri Lankan monastery, giving an impression how historical caves may have looked like, when they were founded in the early Anuradhapura period. There are many more reasons to visit Pilikuttuwa. The location is tranquil and quaint, a labyrinthic complex of 99 caves. Kandyan style paintings can be found as well as many untouched natural rock shelters. One of Sri Lanka's oldest wooden bridges is a kind of decoration in a pleasure garden of the monastic complex on ground level. A new small Hindu shrine can be found , too, close to the crest of the Pilikuttuwa hill.