The rock of Dambulla is the centre of a Buddhist cave-temple complex established in the 3rd century B.C. and occupied continuously to this day. 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 25 hectare site proposed for inscription also includes evidence of human occupation going back to the prehistoric period, including the recently excavated megalithic cemetery at Ibbankatuwa.
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. Likely in the 1st century B.C., the uppermost group of shelters on Dambulla's South face were transformed into shrines. These transformations continued and were intensified between the 5th and 13th centuries: cave-temples were extended into the sheltering rock, and brickwalls 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 of the painted surfaces within the caves were painted or overpainted in a style characteristic of the Kandy school of the late 18th century. At that time, the modest 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 no5 was entirely repainted. And in the 1930's, the veranda was rebuilt incorporating a mixture of European and Asian detailing, and the complex's entrance porch was reconstructed in a conjectural 18th c. style.