Degaldoruva rock cave temple: The future of the past | Sunday Observer

Degaldoruva rock cave temple: The future of the past

12 March, 2017
The front view of the Degaldoruva temple which is a treasure trove of Kandyan style murals.
The front view of the Degaldoruva temple which is a treasure trove of Kandyan style murals.

I reached the Degaldoruva temple in a village called Amunugama around 11 in the morning, following a tumultuous journey on narrow roads, passing the dried up river bed of the Mahaweli Ganga in the outskirts of Lewelle, in the Dumbera valley, in a three-wheeler I had hired in Kandy, 20 minutes earlier.

The noise of the three-wheeler engine bounced back to me from the walls of the shuttered houses on either side of the desolate road. The three-wheeler turned into a sandy road and at the end of the road in the morning sunlight, I saw the outline of a whitewashed building with arched-doors and a tall and wide belfry standing alongside it. This marks the entrance to one of Sri Lanka’s finest examples of Kandyan murals, the Degaldoruva temple.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of children. Being a Sunday, the Dhamma School was being conducted in the temple. Children of many ages clad in white gathered around the chief incumbent under the trees, at the cave shrine and some children sat on the ground of Avasa Ge (Bhikkus’ living house). They do not have a proper place to hold Dhamma School at the temple.

Cave shrine

I removed my shoes and put them in the back of the three-wheeler and then entered the temple compound with the driver who is a resident of the village. We saw the white-washed stupa of the temple through the foliage in the hillock. Since the chief incumbent was busy with a Dana (almsgiving) ceremony, I met him briefly and obtained permission to take photographs of the murals in the cave shrine.

The shrine room of the Degaldoruva temple has been built into the base of a rock, which is cut into two chambers.

The first is a Hevisimandapaya (drumming hall) with several arched-entrances built with wooden pillars. There is a colourful Makara Thorana, intricately carved out of wood that stands at the entrance to the cave shrine.

Entering the image house of the shrine from another arched doorway adorned with beautifully illustrated flower motifs, I saw a large recumbent Buddha statue in the dimly lit shrine room and two small standing and seated Buddha statues on either side of the recumbent statue.

One of the seated Buddha statues had a number of cracks on its face, may be due to its exposure to the elements. The ceiling of the cave shrine was adorned with pictorial compositions.

The murals at Degaldoruva temple are considered as some of the finest art examples of the Kandyan Kingdom.

Religion is the theme of Kandyan murals and the method adopted is continuous narration of the subject for the education of the devotees. These murals date back to the 18th Century.

The most famous topic of narratives in mural art, stick to re-telling epics, such as, the Vessanthara Jathakaya, Sattubhatta Jatakaya, Maha Seelava Jathakaya and Suthasoma Jathakaya. (A Jathaka story tells about the previous life of the Buddha as a Bodhisatva and there is always a moral lesson in each story). Other themes include various incidents of Buddha’s life.

At the left corner of the wall of the cave shrine I saw a mural depicting the Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) where a footprint of the Buddha has been drawn on the top of the peak with God Sumana Saman with a white elephant on the side.

When I visited the cave shrine, a group of university students who are engaged in aesthetic subjects at university had come to explore the murals of Degaldoruva temple. Art lovers, researchers, students and devotees throng here to examine these murals.

The Degaldoruva rock cave temple was built under the patronage of King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha in 1771. The murals can be considered the most magnificent examples of Kandyan style art- they are priceless historical documents which cannot be reproduced under modern conditions.


The origin of the Degaldoruva temple is rooted deeply in legend. The two large rock boulders fused together at the cave temple had been opened in the past with a gap in between. One day, a villager had gone through the gap to see what lies between them, to find a heap of golden sickles lying hidden in the gap. He had taken one of the sickles and gone to his paddy-field. He used it and replaced it in the evening on his way home. This continued for some time with him replacing the golden sickle after work each day.

On the last day of the harvesting he took two sickles and replaced only one on his way home. The guardian of this treasure noticed it and appeared in front of the villager and demanded that he return the other sickle. The frightened villager ran back to the field and brought the other sickle and placed it in the gap. Thereafter, the gap was sealed by fusing the two rock boulders together.

Other villagers too came to know of this event and informed King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha who instructed to clean the cave and construct a temple on the instructions of the elders. While the Degaldoruva murals were started by King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha, the king died before they were completed. It was during the reign of his brother, King Rajadhi Rajasingha, who succeeded him, that they were completed. After the task was accomplished, the king had handed it over to Moratota Dhammarakkitha Nayaka Thera, who was his teacher. Popularly known as Moratota Hamuduruwo, he was a scholarly Bhikku.

Prominent art critics such as, Manju Sri and Ananda Coomaraswamy noted that the Degaldoruva murals possess great beauty and charm. The decorative paintings also indicate the customs, manners and social conditions of the time. These murals are thus important in studying the social conditions in the 18th century.

Mara Yuddaya

An un-ordained Bhikku, Devaragampola Silvattenne was regarded as the best painter of that time and he had been commissioned to paint the murals at Degaldoruva between1771-1786. He was assisted by other artists, such as, Nilagama Patabendi and Koswatte Hittaranayide who come from a generation of artists.

The biggest and probably the most interesting mural in the rock ceiling is the one depicting the Mara Yuddaya (demons in battle). The most striking feature in this mural is the Maraya with five faces leading the battle with elephants and the Mara warriors with guns and arrows in their hands.

Mara Yuddaya is one of the most prominent paintings at the Degaldoruva temple. There are several features of the Mara depicted here. The forces of Mara carry guns similar to the ones used by the Sinhalese and considered superior to those used by the Portuguese, who occupied the coastal belt in the country in the 16th century.

Also impressive is the beautiful figure of the Polomahikanthava (Earth Woman) holding a pot painted just below the painting of the huge Buddha’s figure. The whole ceiling of the cave is dedicated to this scene of Mara Yuddaya.

Today, some murals on the ceiling and the walls of the main chamber are dilapidated and ruined. Some have faded. However, a section of the ceiling murals seem to be well preserved. At present, most of the murals and the buildings of the temple are being conserved under a program implemented by the Central Cultural Fund since the temple lies within the area belonging to the Cultural Triangle.

The Degaldoruva rock cave temple is testimony to yet another treasure trove of the Kandyan Kingdom. The murals are however, in dire need of restoration due to their antiquity. There is a strong need for bodies, such as, the CCF and Archaeological Department to step in and conserve the remainder before all is lost.