Rock Cave Temples of Ancient Sri Lanka
Ancient Sinhalese had drawn to rock caves as ducks to the water; and they had hoarded river water and rainwater by way of vast irrigation reservoirs as if there was no tomorrow. But then, even today, those vast ancient irrigation reservoirs extend the life-line to the nation. Then again, while water thus collected, naturally has been for the physical sustenance of the people and self sufficiency of the nation, rock caves were solely for the ascetic Buddhist monks leading themselves to the higher spiritual stream of the faith. The nation, the Sinhalese and the faith, Buddhism has been interwoven into the fabric of Sinhalese civilization since the arrival of Arahat Mahinda, the great Buddhist missionary to Sri Lanka from India during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (307-267 BC).
Rock caves that had given shelter and shade to the ascetic monks, scattered throughout Sri Lanka run into many hundreds testifying to the existence of thousands of bhikkus, who chose those for their abodes for long years of meditation. The rock caves being isolated from the general mode of life and immersed in the profound silence in the wilderness, provided sanctuary to lead a life of sanctity and piety in search of higher levels of spiritual stream.
The villagers took upon themselves to cleanse and smoothen the rough rock caves into habitable dwellings in a process that required labor in no small measure. Scholar Buddhist monk Dr. Walpola Rahula narrates the preparation that was adopted as far as back in the 5th century AD, as follows:
First of all the cave was filled with firewood and the wood was then burnt; this helped to remove all loose splinters of rock as well as to dispel unpleasant odors. After the rock cave was cleaned, walls of brick were built on the exposed sides, and doors and windows fixed. Some-times walls were plastered and whitewashed. Then such simple articles of furniture as a bed and a chair necessary for a recluse were provided.
A cave thus appointed was a pleasant residence to live in for a person of unsophisticated aesthetic sense quiet temperament, besides it was an ideal place for deep meditation. The inside of a cave is pleasantly cool during the hot season. Unquote
Most often the walls and ceilings of the rock caves were painted with history of Buddhism, life of Gautama Buddha and episodes from the history of Sri Lanka. Furthermore, a multitude of Buddha statues of varying dimension from colossal to life size were carved of the granite rocks. The finest of such rock cave temple has been Golden Dambulla Rock Cave Temple (UNESCO World Heritage Site) at Dambulla. Among other popular rock cave temple that are visited today by the Sinhalese Buddhist pilgrims and Sri Lanka Holidays tourists are Mulkirigla Rock Cave Temple, more than 70 rock caves at Ritigala Monastery, rock caves at Mihintale Monastery, Dimbulagala rock Cave Temple and Sithulpawwa Rock cave monastery.
Following rapid spread of Buddhism during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (Sinhala: dear to the gods) (307-267 BC), the Buddhist monks according to Scholar Buddhist monk Dr. Walpola Rahula, “could not be allowed to live alone in lonely caves and huts on mountains and in jungles cut off from society, ignoring their obligations to the people who supported them and looked up to them for guidance.”
As a result of this necessity, village temples emerged within the prosperous villages; monasteries with royal patronage were built in the neighborhood of flourishing cities; the religious intercourse and social obligations between the Buddhist order of Sangha and the laity was elevated onto a higher level. The supreme fruit of this development was the concept of Sinhalese villages of Sri Lanka Holidays that consist on triple pillars: rainwater reservoir; Buddhist temple and dagaoba (stupa).