A local’s guide to Dambulla

Approximately a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Colombo, Dambulla is situated in the geographical centre of our island where history and culture merge amidst a natural landscape of water and mountains.

Apart from its main attraction, Sigiriya, there is a lot more to see and experience. Belonging to the Central Province, it is home to the Rangiri Dambulla International Stadium (famous for being built in just 167 days), the largest rose quartz mountain range in South Asia, and Nā Uyana Aranya (Ceylon ironwood forest).

However, it is most famously known for the largest and best preserved cave temple complex of Sri Lanka. Any and all who visit Dambulla are encouraged to visit the cave temples, one of five at the very least.

What you usually wouldn’t do however is drive; only a few kilometres from the cave temples towards Kurunegala, exactly 5 km from Dambulla town to the Ibbankatuwa megalithic tomb site.

The Ibbankatuwa megalithic tomb site
This is the latest archaeological site found in Dambulla that is of significant historical importance. It is a prehistoric burial site, and the cave temples provide evidence of the presence of indigenous civilisations long before the arrival of Indian influence on our island.
The burial site is extremely well-preserved, protected by neatly made up fences with clear sign posts providing the history and data about its importance.
Very fairly ticketed, a guide will explain about the use of carbon dating techniques, and distinguish between the two distinct burial techniques and customs adopted that are evident in the two separate tombs discovered.

Menikdena Archaeological Reserve
Once you’ve visited the burial site, along the same way – only a 20 minutes’ drive down the same road – is the Menikdena Archaeological Reserve.
If you ask the locals, this is not to be missed, as according to them – much unlike the tomb site which to a degree feels as though it is heavily academic because the excavation is still underway – the Menikdena Archaeological Reserve is quite the spectacle.
The site has ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery and shrine combined with an arboretum, and for the adventurous, there is a bit of a climb to Menikdena peak. And it is definitely a good idea to carry a bottle of water with you, as it is a little strenuous, but the effort is worth it.
Menikdena Temple was once used by the monks of Mahayana Buddhism and it had been one of the several places where the tooth relic of Buddha was safeguarded.
It is said that the last monk of Sri Lanka, who attained the Arahathood-Maliyadewa Thero (මලියදේව රහතන් වහන්සේ), lived here. When the monk passed away, the body was put into a specially decorated container with gemstones and buried. The present name “Menikdena” is directly attributed to this incident.

Popham Arboretum
In addition to the excavation sites along Dambulla-Kurunegala road, if you have some time to drive towards Kandalama road about 4 km from the cave temples, you will come across the famed Popham Arboretum.
Sri Lanka’s only dry zone arboretum, Popham Arboretum was established over five decades ago on 7.5 acres of thorny scrub jungle and abandoned “chena” land in Dambulla.
We spoke to Jayantha Amarasinghe, the arboretum Curator since 1994, who said: “I worked with Sam Popham during his time,” adding that, “the arboretum is not only about trees; there are many species of birds, insects, and mammals that can be seen within the premises.”
Additionally, the arboretum provides guides who are naturalists and are well-versed in the fauna, flora, and animal life in the site. There’s also a visitor centre and museum, which is housed in Sam Popham’s cottage designed by Geoffrey Bawa, which could be a bonus treat for those who are Bawa enthusiasts and happen to be in Dambulla during his 100th birth anniversary in 2019.
There is also a choice of rooms if you prefer not to stay in a tent, which comes in handy if you choose to take part in the night safari, where, depending on your luck, you could get to see mouse deer, pangolin, false vampire bat, spotted deer, rusty-spotted cat, and the famed loris.

By Dimithri Wijesinghe