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Sunday, 7 November 2004  
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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

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The cave temples of Dambulla

The Rangiri Dambulu Vihara is famous for being the biggest and finest cave temple in Sri Lanka and for housing the most number of Buddha statues under one roof. The temple is found in a cave about 500 feet above ground level, close to the Dambulla town in the Matale district. The cave is spread over a 2000 feet area.

The history of the caves dates back to the first century BC when King Valagamba took refuge there after he was driven out of Anuradhapura by the Tamil invaders. After he regained his kingdom, he is said to have carved the interiors of the caves into magnificent rock temples. Latter day kings had made further improvements including King Nissanka Malla who had the interiors gilded (gold-painted), earning it the name Rangiri (Golden Rock). The temple is covered in paintings, most of which date from the 19th century. Over 150 Buddha images can be found in five separate caves in the vihara.

The first cave, Devaraja Lena has a 15 metre reclining Buddha statue; others are seated Buddhas, a statue of Ananda Thera, the Buddha's most loyal disciple, and statues of various gods including Vishnu.

Maharaja Lena, the most spectacular cave, is so named probably due to the statues of Kings Valagamba and Nissanka Malla which it houses. It measures 52 metres from east to west and 23 metres from the front to the back wall.

The ceiling is seven metres high at the highest point. This cave contains over 60 statues including the main Buddha statue which is under a makara thorana (ornamental archway). It is thought to have been once covered in gold. Water is said to drip from the ceiling even during droughts and is collected by a vessel inside the cave to be used for rituals. The walls of this cave are covered by paintings depicting the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and other activities of various kings.

The Maha Aluth Viharaya was said to have been a storeroom originally and converted during the 18th century by King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe of Kandy.

Many Buddha statues including a large reclining Buddha are found in this cave too. The relatively smaller western cave known as Pachima Viharaya has a seated Buddha figure in the meditative pose under a makara thorana. It also had a small dagoba which was later broken by thieves who believed it contained the jewels of Queen Somawathie.

The Devana Aluth Viharaya is a new cave which was once used as a storeroom. It contains a reclining Buddha statue as well as the statues of the gods Kataragama and Vishnu.

The Rangiri Dambulu Vihara has seen the construction of a 30 metre high Buddha statue in the Dharmachakra posture, which is said to be the largest Buddha statue in the world. A museum is also nearby.


The most venerated dagoba

The gleaming white Ruvanveliseya Dagoba at the Mahamevna Uyana, Anuradhapura is the most easily recognised and the most venerated dagoba in Sri Lanka. This could be due to the fact that it was built by King Dutugemunu, one of the most loved heroes of the country, around 140BC, and also due to it being the biggest dagoba in the country. The dagoba, which was thought to be the biggest in the world at that time, is known by many other names such as Maha Thupa, Ratnamali and Swarnamali.

Although this impressive, bubble-shaped dagoba is Dutugemunu's finest creation, he did not live to see its completion. However, the king's brother Saddhatissa is said to have covered the dagoba with white cloth and bamboo so the king, viewing it from his deathbed, would die a contented man, believing his creation to be complete.

The Ruvanveliseya is about 300 feet in diameter and was thought to have been around the same in height originally. Inside it, there is a bo tree, a Buddha statue and paintings depicting Jataka stories. It is also said to enshrine a large number of sacred relics. The courtyard around the dagoba is five acres in size.

A limestone statue built close to the Ruvanveliseya is believed to be of King Dutugemunu.

The dagoba has around it a wall known as the 'hasthi prakara'. It has 1,900 images of elephants standing shoulder to shoulder with 475 images on each side of the wall. Apart from a few originals remaining from the second century, most of these images are replacements which were constructed later. Each of the four important points of the dagoba has a vahalkada, which are believed to have been added later.

The Ruvanveliseya went into ruin with the jungle growing on and around it towards the 19th century. Ven. Naranvita Sumanasara Thera commenced the reconstruction of the dagoba around 1893 which was continued by the Sri Ratnamali Chaityawardhana Society. After reconstruction was completed, a crest-gem gifted by Burma was fitted to the dagoba's pinnacle.

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