Dambulla Cave Temple, Sri Lanka
Dambulla Cave Temple, Photo - Juergen Schreiber
Dambulla is located 148 kms east of Colombo in Sri Lanka and a World Heritage Site. Apart from its well-preserved state, it reflects an important stage in the development of Buddhism, when even before the development of Mahayana, Buddha images had begun to be combined with the Stupa, which was the main cultic object at this time. Such evidences are found from other South Asian sites as well. Ajanta, Bagh, and the Gandhara region are some striking examples of this. Dambulla is more or less coeval with the sites in Afghanistan, which had begun to influences of divinisation of the Buddha even before the beginning of the Common Era.
Not only is the Buddha image combined with the Stupa here, but there are more than a hundred Buddha images painted in and around the caves. Besides, there is a huge image of the Buddha in the Mahaparinirvana pose. There are also Buddha images in the niches, obviously meant for veneration.
Looking at these images, it is obvious that Dambulla had come a long way from the Theravada which was normally prevalent in Sri Lanka. Considering that this site is datable to the 3rd-2nd centuries BCE, it is even more remarkable that it should have accommodated the image worship prevalent in the North West and Central and Western parts of India.
In the latter part of its existence, it even accommodated other concepts such as the divinisation of kings and inclusion of Hindu gods within its pantheons. These phases are much later at this site.
Thus, Dambulla presents an interesting archaeological site, where man diverse phases of developments in Buddhism can be studied together in one place. There is a need to study this site more deeply.