The Dambulla Temple – Improved Communication Approaches For Conservation of Living Religious Heritage Sites



The Rangiri Dambulu Viharaya (the Golden Mountain Temple of Dambulla) is sadly in the limelight for the wrong reason. The purpose of this article is to provide a bird’s eye view of the Dambulla Temple, its history, grandeur and sanctity, and the status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, to encourage more Sri Lankans to undertake a pilgrimage or a visit to the Dambulla temple. My recent pilgrimage to the Dambulla temple gave me a calmness of mind as a Buddhist and immense happiness as a Sri Lankan of what we can offer to World Heritage.


The article also touches upon the invaluable national role performed by the Maha Sangha from time immemorial with integrity and self sacrifice and hence suggests the desirability of State party empathizing with the Buddhist monastic perspectives and traditions in jointly developing a conservation strategy for the Dambulla temple.


This is particularly important as UNESCO’S and World Heritage Centre’s thinking on conservation of living religious heritage sites have undergone substantial change, especially in regard to the role of religious communities (meaning clergy of respective religions) in the conservation of these heritage sites. For example, UNESCO’s ‘Steering Group on Heritage of Religious Interest’, advocates for the Conservation Community to make a special effort to recognize “that values and traditions attached to heritage of religious interests as well as use requirements may contradict the views and standard working practices of the conservation community, thus requiring understanding and adaptation”. The Group also requests that “religious communities be considered as key partners in site management and in the creation of new approaches for joint management”.


The UNESCO document titled ‘Annex 1 Research on Integrated Implementation Strategy’ provides the following rationale for the above suggestion: “Legal protection is not sufficient for the preservation of living religious and sacred sites and their transmission for future generations as their survival depends on the custodial role played daily by the religious communities in caring for these as living heritage” . (


The history of the Dambulla temple (as per stone inscription) begins with King Valagambahu (89-77 BC). However, the presence of Buddhist monks in Dambulla pre-dates the temple. A stone inscription indicates that a cave had been donated to Maha Sangha by King Saddhatissa, (brother of King Dutugemunu) during 77-59 BC, proving that Buddhist monks had been in residence in Dambulla caves, prior to King Valagambahu seeking refuge in Dambulla caves due to a Chola invasion. About 80 such natural caves with drip- ledges cut to prevent rain water trickling in were found on the Dambulla rock. On winning the throne back from the Cholas, King Valagambahu built the Dambulu Vihara in gratitude for the monks of Dambulla who had helped him.


The ‘Paschima’ (western) Vihara was the first cave to be converted by King Valagambahu and initially contained five statues and a small dagoba. The dagoba was named after Valagambahu’s queen Somadevi, who jumped off the royal carriage to lighten it, so that the carriage could gather speed to escape the enemy carriage that was in hot pursuit.


King Valagambahu also converted the biggest cave (‘Maharaja Vihara’ -Temple of the King) and the smallest cave (Devaraja Vihara-Temple of King of Gods) into temples.


The Maharaja Vihara is the largest and the most vibrant. Here the devotees can pay obeisance to 56 statues of Buddha. A unique feature is the existence of a dagoba inside a temple building. It is cut out of existent rock. Around the Dagoba are eight statues of Buddha, again an unusual placement-as normally only four Buddha images facing the four cardinal directions are located around a Dagoba. Further away, there is a large sleeping Buddha statue. Another unique feature is the non-stop dripping of water from a minute crack on the cave roof, even during extreme dry seasons. The water believed to contain sacred properties is used in daily rituals.


The Devaraja Vihara is sanctified by the 27 foot long Parinibbana statue (statue depicting the passing away) of Lord Buddha. It is shaped out of the existing rock. There are four Samadhi Buddha statues and a standing statue of Ananda Thero, too.


King Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa added a number of Buddha statues to the three Viharas existing at that time. His main contribution was the gilding of the new and the many existing statues in real gold. The word ‘rangiri’ (golden rock) was added to the name of the temple due to the gilded statues. The King Nissanka Malla’s inscription dominates the rock face on the right hand side as one enters the Temple complex through the main entrance.


King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe(AD 1747- 1782) built the Maha Aluth Vihara (Great New Vihara) comprising 58 Buddha statues, and added more Buddha statues to the Western Vihara built by Valagamba. Significantly, Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe caused painting and repainting of about 22000 sq. feet of wall and ceiling surfaces (spread over the five viharas) with murals. The mural containing thousand Buddhas painted on the granite ceiling is awe-inspiring. ( 1012 paintings of Lord Buddha to be precise).The murals were done by families of traditional painters living in a village called Nilagama.


Senaka Bandranayake reflecting on the Dambulla temple murals writes- ” The(se) murals at Dambulla are the largest preserved group of rock and wall paintings in the region after….. Ajanta. …….belonging to a pan-regional tradition that extends across South and Southeast Asia……Dambulla is undoubtedly one of the finest and most impressive expressions of this tradition.” ……”. (From the book- The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, UNESCO-CCF,1993)


The Devana Aluth Vihara ( -The Second New Temple) comprising 11 statues of the Buddha -the last to be built- is credited to Chief Minister Duullewe of the Kandy.(AD 1895-1913).


The complex of these five cave viharas, are known as the ‘Dambulu Viharaya’ and is a sacred place of worship for all Sri Lankan Buddhists.


Bandaranayaka, explaining further states that the Dambulla Temple “…constitute one of the largest complexes of ancient cave or rock shelter architecture in the South and South East Asian region………This is a distinctively Sri Lankan expression of a broad South Asian temple concept and has few parallels elsewhere. Dambulla is undoubtedly the largest, the most dramatic, best preserved and most integrated example of this type of Buddhist vihara in Sri Lanka


From the very inception, the Dambulu Vihara had been managed by a long line of Chief Monks. The first chief incumbent was Jayamangala Sumana Thero. Ananda Marasinghe in his book ‘Dambulu Len Viharaya’ based on research of Professors Mangala Ilangasinghe and Anuradha Seneviratna reproduces some of the names.


Dambulla temple certainly has archeological and cultural value. However, as the above descriptions prove it is first and foremost a Buddhist Temple and the majority of cultural artifacts are objects of religious worship. The Dambulla temple complex contains 151 Buddha statues and hundreds of murals depicting Buddhist events. The area belonging to the temple was also sanctified by hundreds of monks including Arahants from, at the very least, the first century BC. Thus the statement of the present Chief Monk of the Temple to the effect that Dambulla temple was a Buddhist heritage, before it became a cultural heritage is correct and has to be understood in that monastic perspective.


UNESCO too accepted this view in 1989. Two reasons were adduced by UNESCO to justify the inclusion of Dambulla as a World Heritage site. Reason 1- was the excellence of the religious art and statuary found in the monastic ensemble and their significance for Sri Lanka, south and southeast Asia Reason, and their excellent degree of preservation. 2- is UNESCO’s acceptance that “Dambulla is an important shrine in the Buddhist religion in Sri Lanka”.{Report: World Heritage List No.561, The Golden Rock Temple of Dambulla, ICOMOS,1991, Adobe Acrobat Document 561-ICOMOS -663-en (1).pdf)}


Thus the Chief Incumbent of the Dambulla Golden Temple Complex, becomes a key stakeholder in any activity and decision-making connected with the Temple.


The institution of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka are known as ‘Jathiye Muradevatawas’- the Guardians of the Nation. When the Country faced deep adversities, the Buddhist monks always provided moral, psychological, and ethical momentum as well as political advocacy to the Nation to come out of adversity.


One of the best examples of such moral leadership was the silent but unyielding battle waged to protect the ‘oldest recorded tree in the world’-The Sri Maha Bodhi.


The protection and sustenance provided for the Sri Maha Bodhi for about four centuries in the abandoned former capital of Anuradhpura is a story of ‘sadhdha’ (intelligent faith), moral courage, self-sacrifice, and valour. The main characters of this epic story were the Bhikkhus who stayed put in the Mahavihara, (their pupils, and their pupils and so on), despite the mass exodus of people to Polonnaruwa due to periodic South Indian invasions. Generations of Bhikkus and some of the lay families tasked with serving the Bodhi Tree, braved the Chola military attacks, the ever-advancing forest, periodic drought, semi-starvation, and disease, as well as nightly incursions of elephants and other roaming wild animals for the sole purpose of protecting the Bodhi Tree. For these Buddhist Monks the Bodhi Tree was more valuable than their lives.


Professor W.I. Siriweera in an article titled ‘The Sacred Precincts of the Srimahabodhi Tree in Anuradhapura’ ( in “Maha Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura Sri Lanka-the Oldest Historical Tree in the World’ edited by HSS Nissanka) acknowledges this epic feat: “….. the history of the Srimaha Bodhi in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries has to be reviewed as the history of the preservation of the tree as well as the continuation of the ritual therein by these dedicated monks”. Thus the Monks of Sri Lanka have a proud tradition of preserving Buddhist heritage sites.


The latest example of selfless service by the Maha Sangha occurred during the terrorist armed conflict. Many Chief Monks as well as junior monks did not abandon their temples and continued to reside in their temples in the north, the east, and the threatened villages, despite threats to their lives, to protect the temples and the lay communities. The Nayaka Theros such as venerable Tantitirimale Hamuduruwo and venerable Dimbulagala Hamuduruwo paid for this national service with their lives.


In this context, it is hoped that the Authorities would not consider it high-handed for a citizen to make some suggestions through the media on appropriate communication approaches to facilitate greater understanding between the two key stake holders regarding the Dambulla temple situation.


A communication approach that encompasses and exhibits a deferential attitude towards the clergy; use of non-prescriptive, participatory, and dialogue-based communication techniques; and use of ‘cause-effect analysis method’ as necessary to resolve complex issues ( first used by Lord Buddha in ‘Patichcha Samuppada’ – dependent origination methodology) would be helpful in making progress on Dambulla temple conservation.


This suggestion is absolutely not an attempt to imply that such approaches are not presently used by State organizations. Neither is this meant to be prescriptive. The purpose is to express an opinion that such or a similar communication approach would certainly improve the quality of dialogue and make the monastic establishment feel that they are important partners in the conservation process. This in turn would quicken the achievement of the common objective of the State and Temple stakeholders. Such a communication approach would help Sri Lanka to work within the guidelines offered by the Steering Group on Heritage of Religious Interest of the World Heritage Centre. The Group has unequivocally accepted the principle that religious communities (respective clergy) are vital co-stakeholders connected to decision-making on and conservation of heritage sites of religious interest.


(The writer is an ex-Journalist, Communication Researcher and a retired Officer of the International Civil Service of the United Nations System.)


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