The history of the Dambulla cave temple complex is thought to date back to the 3rd century BC when this area became the location for the largest Buddhist monastic settlements on the island of Sri Lanka. King Valagamba (89 – 77 BC) took refuge here when he was driven out of Anuradhapura by the South Indian invaders. When he regained his throne, he had the interior of the caves carved into magnificent rock temples. The site also includes archeological evidence of human occupation going back to the prehistoric period, including the megalithic cemetery at Ibbankatuwa.
The cave temple complex, rock paintings in five caves and 157 statues of various sizes bear testimony to the extraordinary cultural artifacts of ancient Sri Lanka. This is the largest, best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka. It is a magnificent artistic tribute to the Kandyan artists of the 18th century who brought the walls to vibrant life. There are 5 caves with the Maharaja Vihara (Vihara means the dwelling of Buddhist monks) or the Cave II being the oldest and architecturally significant. It was built in the 1st century BC along with Cave I and IV and the 3rd Cave dates back to the Kandyan period in the 18th century. The 5th Cave belongs to subsequent period and was repainted in 1915. However, the paint in this Cave has proven to be less resilient due to the use of chemicals rather than natural paint pigments that were applied to the paintings of other caves.
The Buddhist rock paintings, covering an area of 2,100 sq meters are of particular importance. These paintings which belong to the Kandy period display a unique tradition and deviation from the classical Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa style. The picturesque paintings have a great appeal with its dynamic and structural properties. The special feature of these art works is the limited number of colours used; red, black, yellow and white were the only colours used for the murals. The well-preserved murals depict the events and past lives of Lord Buddha while signifying the Kandyan art of the 18th century.