Dambula, Sri Lanka …….The sun was up, the wind was getting warmer by the minute and the car park was almost full. I was at Dambula, a UNESCO world heritage site and the place known to have the world’s largest statue of Buddha. I took a look at the awe inspiring, very impressive, golden gilded statue and took a few pictures while many people walked around doing the same .
Sensing that the weather was warming faster than expected I quickly got my tickets and rushed past the visitors to climb the rough stone stairs leading to the top of the hillock. The winding, steep climb of about 160 metres was arduous and I was forced to stop under the shade of every tree found along the trail. I thought of giving up half way through but the thought of having made this far and not completing the itinerary, forced me to trudge along with the many others. They were taking slower, smaller and surer steps towards the worlds most preserved, religious caves. A flat terrace on the hill welcomed the panting visitors who sat for a while to regain their breath. I was no exception.
I sat and removed my footwear. As was the norm I paid a small fee to leave it with a caretaker, before walking into the cave complex. Many visitors who were of Bhuddist faith folded their hands and bowed their heads in reverence, as they reached the first of the caves. To my surprise they were temples of Hindu Deities that of Vishnu, and the elephant God Ganesh. I noticed many people worshiping them before going into the 5 other caves.
Arched colonnades , walls and gabled entrances, of brick masonry, cemented and painted white built between the floor and the overhanging rock above the caves, obscured free access and visibility. It was said to be a later addition to the caves, probably made during the British era around 1938. I was told these caves were the abode of a Dravidian prehistoric tribe and the finds of graves a little further away down hill supports the theory. However the disused caves came into prominence when the later Sri Lankan monarchs helped the Bhuddist monks convert the caves into a temple complex around the 2nd century BC. The Hindu temples I was told were later additions made by the south Indian kings who too had a fair reign of many centuries in the history of Sri Lanka.
This Bhuddist temple complex as it is known, has five caves carved, under a vast overhanging rock. Each of the caves were carved by various Kings who practised Bhuddism,at different eras.On climbing the steps of the arcade and entering the caves I was once again breathless not out of tiredness but out of wonder. The caves were dark; a few electric bulbs and oil lamps illuminated it showing the many statues of Bhudda in various poses. The smoke emanating from the lit, incense sticks offered before the statues, by the visitors in prayer, lent a pleasant odour and spread the message of solemnity among the crowd of non Bhuddists and tourists.
Statues of Bhudda In a sitting posture, with uplifted hands giving blessings, with eyes closed and hands folded in meditation, standing in prayer or lying down in slumber were innumerable and all of them were painted or gilded in gold. There were a few statues of the king benefactors and a small stupa dedicated to a queen who offered all her wealth to Buddha.
I was more fascinated at the splendour of the side walls of the cave, which had many inscriptions, frescoes and intricate patterns painted sensibly following the contours of the cave. Designs and paintings about the life of Bhuddha adorned the ceiling as well as sides of the entire interior in the cave complex. The paint used were of natural dye extracts except for the Gold gilt and one needs to spend a lot of time to understand the nuance and difference in the sculptures, frescoes as well as paintings.
Outside of the cave, a small lotus pond lent beauty to the architecture. The refreshing breeze drifting uphill and a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside added another dimension to the peaceful religious atmosphere prevailing in the cave complex.
Having enjoyed every bit of the journey upon the hill and its caves; I rested a while under the shade of a Bo tree,also called as the Peepal tree, reminiscing upon the hard climb and the wonderful find. I did realise that had I walked back as I once felt, I would have sorely missed out a treasure trove of paintings and sculptures of the 2nd century onwards, as well as some similarities of religious beliefs evinced in their paintings and writings.
I had in this visit noticed many statues of Bhudda with a flame above his head. This I understand was that of the flame which symbolised enlightenment. It was similar to the christian pictures describing the holy spirit descending upon the disciples of Jesus on the day of Pentecost, enlightening them with knowledge in many languages. There was also an elaborate painting describing an event wherein Bhuddha was shown doing penance to overcome the temptations of the devil, which too was quite close to the verses describing the life of Jesus undergoing a penance for forty days on a mountain, to overcome the pleasures of the world and the temptations of the Devil. These made me wonder at the meaning of enlightenment and penance as portrayed by the two great contemporary religions, both of which preached non violence and peace, even though they were preached, poles apart, in the extreme corners of the Continent of Asia. Whatever said or believed these two religions had similarities, certainly trying to enlighten and lead us to peace in God.
Having rested well, I felt a little more relaxed and walked along with the many people but wondered as to what would have been their experience in the cave. As we all treaded down the slopes which had many ways leading to the beginning of our climb, a funny thought cropped up in my mind.
“Do all religions lead to heaven?
May be yes and may be not.
It may well depend on the path we chose to be the best, whatever be the religion we may believe in.”