From the ancient historic kingdom of Kandy to the Victorian tea planter’s capital of Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s central highlands have long stirred the soul with their immense beauty. Mountains tumble interminably towards every horizon, some curvaceous and lush, others austere and rugged. Dominating the region is Adam’s Peak, a staggering 2224 metre mountain revered by Buddhist, Hindu and Christians alike. The fragrant aroma of tea and spices scents the cool, crisp air. Vast mist-shrouded rivers thunder through wild jungle and carefully controlled plantations of rubber and coconut. Exotic waterfalls cascade down deep ravines and mountain slopes. In the City of Kandy, the last stronghold of the Singhalese kings, huge crowds gather at the golden roofed "Dalada Maligawa" to behold the sacred Tooth of Lord Buddha, Sri Lanka's most important religious relic. On the hills around Nuwara Eliya, colourful figures pepper the verdant slopes, planting, pruning and harvesting the omnipresent tea bushes, the source of Sri Lanka’s foremost export.
With such a fertile climate, Sri Lanka has long been known for its abundance of rice, fruit, vegetable, herbs and spices. From the 16th century onwards, Portuguese and Dutch merchants secured a powerful monopoly on the island’s spice and cinnamon trade. After the fall of Kandy in 1815, the British settled the land with Scottish, Irish and English farmers who cleared the highland jungles and planted vast swathes of coffee, cinnamon and coconut. A devastating coffee blight in 1870 brought on a new age as the plantations were converted to lucrative cash crops such as tea and rubber. These crops still grow in impressive quantities, alongside colourful plantations of mango, papaya, banana and pineapple. Over the centuries, recipes from India to England have found their way to the Sri Lankan kitchen, often combined with traditional dishes of rice, seafood and fish.
The insatiable jungle reclaimed many of the colonial plantation villas in the latter decades of the 20th century. Restoration of such structures has now become of prime importance to Sri Lanka’s ongoing pledge to preserve its heritage. In Kandy, an art deco chalet (see Helga’s Folly) from the 1930s has been sumptuously converted into one of the most outrageous guesthouses in the world. On the south and west coasts, four plantation villas have been stunningly renovated as both boutique hotels and private homes by some of the island’s leading designers and artists.
Sri Lanka’s commitment to ecological values is also to be found in the following pages with three distinctive jungle communes. In each instance, the simple, time-honoured resources of wood, mud and thatch are woven to create bedrooms, dining rooms, kitchens and drawing rooms. The permanence of these structures is inevitably subject to weather but diligent maintenance will ensure they have every chance of surviving as long as their bricks and mortar counterparts.
From cluttered mayhem to sheer simplicity, these buildings suggest a unique and charming future for the architectural landscape of Sri Lanka’s heartland.
1. Helga’s Folly.
4. Illuketia Estate.
8. The River House.
Click here to view James Fennell's Sri Lanka photographs.