Dambadeniya – ancient high security zone day trip


Dambadeniya is the least mentioned one of ancient Sri Lanka’s many transient “capitals”. Yet its mix of proximity, ancient art and some glorious scenery along the way makes Dambadeniya an interestingly inexpensive day trip escape from the seething Colombo cauldron. It is hidden in the lushness of rural Sri Lanka, a sedate half morning’s drive north-east of Colombo towards Kurunegala (map at the end of this post).

Despite a phase of Sinhala literature that bears its name, Dambadeniya  was a fall back citadel. A high security zone to stash the tooth relic, a military HQ and an unglamorous seat of government when things were grim. The US government’s cold war era fall out shelter is a good modern equivalent.

Consequently Dambadeniya has no grand ruins as nearby Yapahuwa or not too distant Polonaruwa. The site consists of the Dambadeniya temple and the remains of a no frills mountain top citadel (the high security part). The most accessible part of the site is the temple –Wijayasundararamaya.

It is a “working” temple serving the local community — not an archeological dig. As with the Ridi Vihare, it could pass off as yet another rural temple. Yet it’s two story image house, roofed gate house, and the covered stupa have seen quiet use over the centuries. It is a place of unpretentious living history. The kind of place I find more uplifting to visit than historically spectacular ruins.

The lack of grandeur is emphasised  by the tiny one room museum beside the temple. It’s two most significant artefacts are standardised plumbing components and systems of sturdy door frames. Our ancestors were practical types. Despite being chased into the boonies by an invading foreign empire, they were still meticulous about the plumbing. The pipe system seemed quite sophisticated. With components slightly tapered to build up water pressure and “pump” water uphill.

The details were pointed out to us in eloquent Sinhala by the sole museum attendant / curator. Neatly dressed, polite and the very model of good customer service. You can’t help but admire his dedication.

We eventually ambled up to the temple. The entrance from the museum side is through an ancient roofed gateway.

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Directly ahead the two storied relic house awaits at the centre of the compound. Its proportions and Kandian architectural flourishes are pleasingly friendly. The highlight of its architecture is the joint that holds up the lower story roof. It looks mystifyingly elaborate, and elegantly simple. The joints seem oddly precise for what initially seems to be a rustic set of rafters. By contrast the paintings and the statuary in the ground floor shrine room are surprisingly mundane.

The interesting stuff is on the outer walls. Specially the white on black post Polonaruwa era wall paintings.

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These were at one time covered over in a “modernisation” effort during the 1600s.

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The upper story of the image house was used to store the tooth relic during special occasions. The rest of the time it was housed on the mountain top citadel.

For those willing to climb ancient stairs, the citadel offers, some unusual ruins of military engineering and panoramic views. But that will be another post.

Map to Dambadeniya

Colombo - Kurunegala via Dambadeniya

The route to Dambadeniya marked on the map above is described in an earlier blog post.

Look out for the sign to the temple when you get to Dambadeniya “town”. If you are heading up from Colombo on Route B27 it is on the right hand side. Keep an eye out for the temple signpost.

Good rule of thumb — if reach Narammala (site of this funky painted building) you have over shot. If in doubt ask the locals. The place was not crowded when we dropped in. But there was a herd of  local school kids being corralled into a bus at the end of their visit. If you leave Colombo early enough you could get back in time for lunch.

Updated: 2016: I finally put up my photos on Flickr.

11 comments

  1. I visited Dambadeniya a while back. Must make a trip there again. Have you been to Kalu Diya Pokuna? And Ritigala is also a place you must visit. Beautiful.

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  2. Super post, makes me want to go back again. I have not been there for many, many years. Sach, Kaludiya Pokuna is a must and may I also suggest Vessagiri in Anuradhapura for sunrise?
    Thanks CERNO.

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  3. Dominic, yeah Kaludiya Pokuna is beautiful. And yes Vessagiri was the other place I wanted to suggest but couldn’t remember the name. Caves and boulder garden. There’s a temple near Sigiriya which I vaguely recall. Another name I just can’t remember.

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  4. sach: Haven’t been to Kalu Diya Pokuna (Black water pond) or to Ritigala YET😉 But will look it up. The temple near Sigiriya – I think that is Pidurangala temple ? Went there with Mrs C once. A beautiful tranquil place.

    Dominic: Thank you🙂 Hope you got some pics on the web😀

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  5. Lovely article. Need more of these on Kottu. Especially when you’re thousands of miles away from home living in a desert land such as Kuwait…..

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  6. kalusudda: Interesting question. I’m tempted to think that there’s a more lucrative opening in providing Physics tuition classes to A’level kids😉 From the little I’ve heard getting a teaching job at an university is Sri Lanka is the preserve of people who have struggled through the system. But I’m definitely not the person to answer the question. Perhaps the cynical one might have some insight. Or one of the other bloggers on Kottu.

    Curious as to why you ask.

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  7. […] in tastefully human proportioned palaces. Even when their backs we against the wall (such as in Dambadeniya), they cared about the plumbing and standardised water pipes. Some might grumble that the Kings of […]

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