The Rock Temple of Dambulla, called Jumbukola Vihara (Dambulla Cave Temple) in the (Mahavamsa)-the principal Pali Chronicle of Sri Lanka, is situated about forty seven miles north west of Kandy, the last capital of the Sinhalese kings, on the main road to Anuradhupura.
The shortest way, from Colombo to Dambulla lies via Kurunegala, one of the capitals of the medieval Sinhalese kings. The other rock temple of equal fame, Aluvihare, where, according to tradition, the Buddhist scriptures were first committed to writing about The first century B.C., list about twenty-six miles to the south on the Kandy Dambulla road. And the famous fortress of Sigiriya with its beautiful frescoes rises aloft like a gigantic cylinder at a distance of about twelve miles to the north-east of Dambulla. Dambulla is a scent of unique interest. Its rock temples are the most extensive in the Island, and one of the most ancient, and in the highest state of preservation and order.Dambulu – gala (the rock of Dambulla), in which these temples are situated, is almost insulated and of a vast size. Its perpendicular height above the plain is about six hundred feet. Very few parts of it are covered with wood, and in general its surface is bare and black.
The caves of Dambulla, like the Mihintale caves, were occupied in very early times by Budd¬hist hermits. The antiquity of this place has been authenticated by the presence of pre-Christian inscriptions in Brahmi character immediately below the drip-ledge of the central cave. One of these inscriptions records: “Damarakita teraha lene agata anagata catu disa sagas dine. Gamani abaya rajiyahi karite” (The cave of the Elder Dlmamma-rakkita, given to the Community of the four quarters, present or future. In the reign of Gamani Adhaya.) The shape of the letters of all the short inscriptions in Brahmi form at Dambulla is distinctly those of the first century B. C, At that time there was only one king known as Abhaya, also known as Vattagamani Abhaya (89-77B. C.). this leaves no doubt that the king Abhaya referred to in the above quoted inscription Vattagamani Abhaya. Dambulla became a popular place of residence of Buddhist monks at least from the reign of this king. Vattagamani Abhaya is one of the few kings of ancient Sri Lanka whose name and fame are not dependent on the written records. To him are credited by the common people of the country tile numerous caves with drip-ledges which were abodes of Buddhist monks in ancient days. As we have seen, one or two of these caves like Dambulla do, in fact, bear inscriptions with the royal name which is attributed to him.
According to tradition Vattagamani Abhaya, who fled from his kingdom, Anuradhapura, when it was invaded by south Indians, was helped by the monks residing in caves like Dambulla. The Mahavamsa records that the Buddhist scriptures were first committed to writing by Buddhist monks at Aluvihara in the reign of this king. This can be taken as substantial evidence to show that great caves like Dambulla and Aluvihare in the central part of the Island were residing places of Buddhist monks during this early period and were also patronized by the kings of Anuradhapura.
Tradition also has it that the five seated Buddha images including the principal one in Cave. No 4 of Dambulla temple were made of natural rock in the reign of Vattagamani Abhaya. It is also believed that some of the images in Cave No. 2 and the principal images in cave No. 1 were made during the reign of this king. As no Buddha images found in Sri Lanka can be ascribed to the period before the first century A.C., no credence can be attached to this tradition. But this does not bar the possibility that at least some of the images in these caves were made during the later Anuradhapura period, i.e. during and after the eighth century A.C. Unfortunately these cannot be identified because of the repairs and renovations, undertaken, in succeeding periods.
The successor of Vattagamani, Mahaculi Maha Tissa, following his uncle, spent much of his time on religious activities. One short Inscription of Dambulla refers to a king called Gemini Tissa who may be identified as Mahaculi Maha Tissa.
The historical records of the Island remain silent on Dambulla until the 11th century A.D.The Culavamsa (pt. ll of the great Chronicle) records that Vijayabahu, (1070-I110 4. C.) who liberated the country from the Cola occupation which ruled most of the northern parts of the country for about, half a century (1017-1070), restored and granted villages to this temple and its caves. It is apparent that by this time Dambulla had become a popular centre of Buddhist worship.
The next king to patronize Dambulla was Nissankamalla, who undertook regular tours all over the country, repeatedly mentioned in his various inscriptions. The king, being a foreigner, probably wanted his presence felt throughout Island, and also wished to win popular support by distributing alms during these tours. The king, seems to have been interested in visiting prominent places like Dambulla. Kelaniya and Anuradhapura during these, visits, and he left lithic record, at these places. According to the chronicle, Nissankamalla’s fourth tour (probably the last) was to Dambulla, where he spent lavishly on the cave temple and set up, seventy-there gilded statues of the Baddha. The inscription engraved by this king on the rock between No. I and gateway gives an account of himself and his pious acts. In The last two lines of the record we find the statement that he, caused the reclining, sitting, and standing statues (of the Buddha) in the cave of Dambulla to be gilt, celebrated a great puja at a cost of seven lacs of money, and gave (the cave) the name suvarnagiri – guha ‘the golden rock cave.’ It is clear that from this time onwards Dambulla (Jambukola-Vihara) come to be known as Suvarnagiriguha or Rangiri Dambulla.
Although it remained a famous religious centre, Dambulla does not seem to have received the attention of Sinhalese kings after the downfall of the Polonnaruva kingdom at the end of the twelfth century A. D. until the came into the political scene of the country in the seventeenth century. The most important factor which profoundly affected every aspect of the history of Sri Lanka during this period was the gradual decline and depopulation of the northern and southeastern regions of the Island, and shifting of population centers and kingdoms. As a result, ancient religious centers like Dambulla were relegated to the back-ground.
Dambulla again came into prominence as a religious centre in the XVIII the century. In the Dambulu Vihara Tudaputa (a palm-left manuscript) of A. D. 1726, it is stated that king Senaratna (Senarat) (1604-1635 A. C.) of Kandy restored and repaired the temple. The document adds, “At the completion of the repairs, which took three years, the king, on the festival of painting of the eyes of the images of the Buddha, proceeded to the temple accompanied by the three queens and three princes. After the festival was over, the king stood on the semicircular stepstone of Maharaja Viharaya (cave No. 2) and called on the monks there assembled to nominate a person fit to be appointed incumbent of this temple, sixty-five images of which including the one in residing posture, had been painted and finished.” The last great royal benefactor of the temple was King Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1782 A. C.) under whose patronage Buddhism revived in the Kandyan provinces. Cave No. 3, then used as a store room, was further excavated on the order of this king, and turned into another shrine roost. At the right of the entrance to this cave, there is well executed figure of this king, in his robes of state, which very much resemble those worn by the kings of the Nayakkar dynasty of Kandy.