The rock of Dambulla is the center of a Buddhist cave-temple complex established in the 3rd century BC and occupied continuously until today. Its location has marked a transportation node between the Eastern and Western Dry Zones and between the Dry Zones and the central mountains throughout the history of Sri Lanka. The cave-temple complex is established on an inselberg or erosional remnant of importance in the study of the island's geological history. The site also includes evidence of human occupation going back to the prehistoric period, including the megalithic cemetery at Ibbankatuwa.
Dambulla is an outstanding example of the religious art and expression of Sri Lanka and South and South-East Asia. The excavated shrine-caves, their painted surfaces, and statuary are unique in scale and degree of preservation. The monastery includes significant masterpieces of 18th-century art, in the Sri Lankan school of Kandy.
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The site has been in continuous use for over 22 centuries when it was occupied by a Buddhist monastic establishment, following the arrival of Buddhism on the island. Remains of 80 rock-shelter residences established at that time on the site have been identified. Most probably in the 1st century BC, the uppermost group of shelters on Dambulla's south face was transformed into shrines. These transformations continued and were intensified between the 5th and 13th centuries: cave-temples were extended into the sheltering rock, and brick walls constructed to screen the caves. By the end of the 12th century, with the introduction by King Nissanka Malla of sculpture to the caves on the upper terrace, echoing the rock carving that had preceded it, the caves assumed their present general forms and layout.
The next major phase of development took place in the 18th century when, following a long-standing tradition, the upper terrace was restored and refurbished. All the painted surfaces within the caves were painted or overpainted in a style characteristic of the Kandy school of the late 18th century.
Buddhist figures in the caves were repainted, maintaining original details and iconography; the fronting screen walls were rebuilt and roofed to form an outer veranda. Throughout the 19th century, following the loss of royal patronage in 1815, periodic repainting of sculptures and deteriorating surfaces continued. In 1915, thanks to the efforts of a local donor, cave No 5 was entirely repainted. In the 1930s, the veranda was rebuilt incorporating a mixture of European and Asian detailing, and the complex's entrance porch was reconstructed in a conjectural 18th-century style.
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