CANVASES IN CAVERNS
Dambulla Cave Temple
Human beings have navigated the world over and across the years, learning of its ancestors and people, cultures and rituals, traditions and trades through the remnants of ancestral records and recollections inscribed and engraved on cave walls or paper. These works of art cover the interiors and exteriors of spaces across the island from palaces and temples, tombs and museums. Murals and statues, monuments and sculptures of religious and cultural subtexts often take on the role and responsibility of presenting the identity and culture of a space and community; to create a work of art pertaining to culture and heritage is to create a picture of society manifested from tales, beliefs, and change. The works of art from sculptures to murals that exist in abundance across Sri Lanka are those that are culturally influential, symbolically indicative of the nation’s identity and heritage. Located at the very centre of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, is in fact, one such space that is abundant in murals and statues, a site remarkable in the Buddhist world for its association with the continuous tradition of living Buddhist ritual practices and pilgrimage for more than two millennia.
The story of the Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temples begins with King Vattagamini Abhaya, who is more commonly known as King Valagamba, sought refuge from the South Indian usurpers as he was exiled from Anuradhapura. He is known to have sought safety for about 12 years inside the caves and eventually regained the kingdom of Anuradhapura after which he expressed his gratitude by converting the caves into Buddhist Temples. The massive rock expanse of land and its caves, dubbed the Dambulla Cave Temple – ‘Dambulu Gala’ as in, Dambulla Rock and the Golden Rock Temple, ‘Rangiri Dambulu Viharaya’ – stands at an elevation of 1118 feet from the sea level rising from the surrounding plains of Dambulla. The monastic complex of Dambulla stands out for its presentation of religious art of Sri Lanka, South and Southeast Asia. The cave shrines, statuaries and frescoes, from its beginning in the 2nd Century BC to 18th Century BC are consequences of much change and renovation. The most significant aspect of this World Heritage site is the incredible and innovative representation of the longstanding Buddhist ritual practices and continuous royal patronage through paintings that cover an area of 2,100 square meters and 157 statues.
As the largest and best preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka, the Dambulla Cave Temples is one that’s also a culmination of many reigns from King Valagamba to King Nissankamalla, each of whom have renovated and added on to the existing site. Divided into five sanctuaries, each cave is unique to its architecture and the works of art that exist inside. From the Devaraja Lena to the Maharaja Lena, the Paccimalena, the caves are carved hold the statue of Buddha in varying stances of meditation and recline, his disciple Ananda, varying Gods and statues of the Kings who ruled before. Its existence today is a consequence of the brilliant architecture that instilled a drip ledge along the cave that allowed it to withstand rainy weather and preserved areas from water seeping in thereby protecting the religious works of art that cover the expanse of the walls.
The sheer dexterity of the intricate detailing that aligns each sculpture, monument and painting does not cease to awe the observer. Each of the caves vary in architecture and presentation, gold-lined statues and paintings alike in style to those of the frescoes in Sigiriya are indicative of specific epochs in the Sri Lankan kingdom rulers. Records and studies have shown that the classical school of Sinhalese painting became non-existent after the downfall of the Polonnaruwa kingdom at the end of the twelfth century as there are no surviving examples of the same style after the 13th century yet those after the 17th and 18th century indicate work of the indigenous painters. The paintings in Cave 2, the Maharaja Viharaya are said to be the oldest, some even symbolic of the principles pertaining to those from the Sigiriya frescoes due to similar style and patterns. Those from Cave 4 are said to contain works from the newer teachings that flourished in the Kandyan provinces.
From the notion of its symbolic colour palette of yellows and reds, gold plated monuments and intricate carving the craftsmanship displayed in the works of art situated inside the caves are those that monumentally significant in that they are indicative of past lives and the presentation of the beliefs and principles of individuals of that era. The exhibition of craftsmanship in timber frames and woodwork, the cutting technology of rock carvings and stone sculpturing do not cease to awe one’s observation while they continue to present narratives of diverse cultural teachings. It is moreover, evident in the presentation of these works that exist, in how they are spiritually uplifting, connecting the traveller’s soul to the sense of tranquillity showcased in the delicate carvings and beauteous paintings. It is the power of such a culturally connected work of art that it create an aesthetic conversation situating itself in the memory of the encounter as pilgrims and tourists find an ethereal connection to their ancestral beliefs and values.