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Living in Sri Lanka – Introductory Remarks

Our grandparents knew it as Ceylon, the British colony famous for tea and cricket. Since 1972 it has been Sri Lanka, named for the ‘auspicious’ (Sri) island to which King Ravana eloped with Rama’s beautiful wife in the Ramayana, a 2000-year-old Hindu epic. Further legends hold that this magical island of gems once lured King Solomon to send emissaries to its shores to procure the ruby that won him the heart of the Queen of Sheba. On 28 January 1754, it was called Serendib, the Island of Serendipity.

Whatever its name, this tropical island off the south-east of India has always fired the world’s imagination as a land of enchantment and beauty. Despite the damage caused by the Tsunami of Christmas 2004 (and the economic woes of 2022), I am confident that Sri Lanka will reassert itself as one of the most spectacular visitor destinations on our planet. The island is simply too enigmatic for any world traveller to ignore. Almost everything about it instils the promise of paradise.

In 2006, Thames & Hudson published the book ‘Living in Sri Lanka,’ which photographer James Fennell and I had put together in the years before the tsunami. We felt that the houses, villas and hotels featured in the book reflected this spirit of optimism. They are all unique creations, some three centuries old, others extraordinarily new. Yet they have been constructed with the utmost respect for the environment and are infused with the style and panache of their owners. The Sri Lankan people are friendly and hard-working. It’s a contagious attitude that quickly transmits to anyone who visits. For the escalating number of foreigners who have decided to lay down roots on the island, the result is indeed serendipitous. Sri Lankan style has emerged, both architecturally and decoratively, into a captivating hybrid of cheerful elegance and common sense.

It is a relatively small island, about the size of Ireland, Tasmania or West Virginia. But its diversity is astounding. A thousand miles of coastline encompasses an endless curl of coconut-fringed beaches, plummeting cliffs and sumptuous bays. As one ventures inland, so the landscape starts to elevate and blossom, alluvial plains giving way to fertile plantations of exotic fruits, rubber trees and rice paddies. It is as if everything is designed to converge in the gorgeous Hill Country that runs down the centre of the island, towering over rolling jungle and lush tea plantations. The highlands mark the source of Sri Lanka’s sacred rivers – the Mahaweli, the Kumbukkan Oya, the Kelani and the Manik Ganga. Elephants, monkeys and wild birds inhabit over one hundred national parks and nature reserves across the island. Such natural beauty is complemented by a unique tropical climate. Sri Lanka experiences not one, but two distinctive monsoon seasons. The happy result is that it is always perfect weather somewhere on the island. If the humidity proves unbearable or the rainfall too tedious, one simply heads for the opposite coast.

Sri Lanka is blessed with a rich culture that embraces the multi-layered influences of its Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian inhabitants. From the 3rd century BC to the 11th century AD, the island was dominated by the Sinhalese kingdom of Anuradhapura, a Buddhist-led monarchy that spearheaded the spread of enlightened Buddhist thought as far east as Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). Buddhism remains an integral part of the Sinhalese identity today, despite challenges from the Hindus of Southern India and the Tamil dominated provinces in the north of the island. In the 11th century, persistent invasions by Hindu forces from southern India compelled the king to relocate the capital to Polonnaruwa.

Helga’s Folly. Photo: James Fennell.

However, by the 13th century, internal warfare ushered in an age of darkness in Sri Lankan history and both Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were abandoned. Rediscovered by British explorers in the 19th century, the two ruined cities are now listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Indeed Sri Lanka has seven such sites, the others being the Golden Temple of Dambulla, the city of Kandy, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, the 1,500-year-old mountain fortress of Sigiriya and the 17th-century Dutch fort at Galle.

In the 16th century, the Catholic armies of Portugal found it remarkably easy to subjugate both the Tamil kingdom of Jaffna in the north and the Sinhalese kingdom of Kotte in the south. The mercantile forces of Dutch Puritanism superseded the Portuguese in the mid-17th century, but it was not until 1815 that British Redcoats, riding high from their victory over the French at Waterloo, were able to conquer the kingdom of Kandy in the central highlands. The complete conquest of the island initiated over a hundred years of British rule, an era notable for sweeping developments in agriculture, infrastructure and economic prosperity.

In 1948, nearly 450 years of colonial administration came to an end when Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was then still known, became an independent member of the British Commonwealth. There were inevitable troubles in the decades that followed as Tamils and Sinhalese struggled to establish their own sovereign rights.

But the Sri Lankan people were not prepared to let factional differences destroy their homeland. The same defiant spirit commanded the national psyche in the wake of the tsunami. The moment the tidal waters began to recede, the Sri Lankan people – Tamil and Sinhalese alike – began to rebuild their coastline. Sri Lankans know that their island is a gem that dazzles every passer-by so that now more than ever before, tourism is a vital mainstay of the economy.

Defining Sri Lankan style is a necessarily complex process. The country’s history, location and multi-ethnic population has left it open to influences from across the world. The possibilities offered by the current age of travel can only enhance the varied and diverse nature of global design. And yet, in terms of both architecture and style, Sri Lanka still possesses a unique and enchanting character.

Sri Lanka’s vibrant history is, of course, one of the overriding influences on its architectural heritage. One need only visit the ruined cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa or Sigiriya to see the brilliance of the ancient stonemasons. The arrival of the Europeans brought new innovations. Under the Portuguese, the traditional open-air courtyards were complemented by covered verandahs and high-pitched terracotta roofs. With colonies as far apart as South Africa and Indonesia, the Dutch developed the technique still further, most notably in Galle Fort, incorporating new and often ingenious concepts of sanitation and ventilation. Six of the Galle villas, all restored in the past decade, are to found in this book. The British, buoyed by the industrial revolution in Europe, continued the tradition and brought their own ecclesiastical and secular styles to the island.

The climate has also been of pivotal importance. The island’s weather commands absolute respect. Natural ventilation remains essential not just for the circulation of fresh air, but also to prevent mould and bacteria infesting the structure. Hence, Sri Lankan houses are open to the elements. Colonnaded verandahs and elaborate balconies wander along brightly coloured latticed walls and cool floors of polished cement. Cobbled courtyards and tropical gardens rise through the very centre of buildings.

Water is an inherent part of modern living, a source of health and solace. Even in towns and cities, rock ponds bubble amid cobble-rimmed courtyards, rainwater trickles down metal drainage chains, power showers poke their heads from the gnarly boughs of jakfruit trees, sleek black taps deliver fresh water into huge bathtubs of polished terrazzo. Along the south-west coast, villas sprawl between wind-blown coconut groves and the Indian Ocean. North of the pilgrim city of Kataragama, a wandering gem merchant has built a hamlet of thatched huts along the banks of the Manik Ganga, the fabled River of Gems. On the west coast at Balapitiya, a restored cinnamon planter’s villa rolls down to the estuarine waters of the Madhu Ganga. In the jungles east of Colombo, tree houses overlook the mighty Kelani. North again at Ulpotha, a two-thousand-year-old reservoir provides the backdrop for a sumptuous 21st-century eco-village. Where water flows, abundance often verges on unruliness. In the highlands, the branches of the jungle require regular appointments with the garden shears as they persistently clamber over balconies and snake across the rooftops.

Sri Lanka’s impoverished status in the latter decades of the 20th century left some of its older buildings in a poor and paltry state. However, in the past decade, many of these structures have been restored, both by Sri Lankan and foreign owners. Their fundamental charm has been retained and indeed often enhanced by the addition of new features, from polished cement floors and staircases to custom-built furniture and colourful fabrics. It goes without saying that the trend for restoring more of Sri Lanka’s architectural treasures will be high on the agenda as the country increases its hold on the imagination of global tourism.

Aside from restorations, a number of new additions have sprung up since the late 1990s, most notably along the “Serendib Riviera” of the south-west coast. Some of Asia’s most exciting architects have been employed in these projects, most notably Sri Lanka’s Geoffrey Bawa. Mahawella, Bawa’s last private house, indicates a man still very much on the crest of his genius on the eve of his death in 2002. Regarded as Bawa’s spiritual heir, Channa Daswatta’s work has received global acclaim, and a spa complex (the Lighthouse Hotel) reflects his continued authority on the architectural landscape. Bruce Fell-Smith’s hand is in evidence at the villa, Kahanda Kanda, outside Galle, while Sonny Chan’s Apa Villa is also suggestive of an architect from whom much is yet to come.

In conjunction with the architectural boom, a new wave of interior designers, furniture-makers and artists arose in Sri Lanka in the early 21st century. Colombo’s boutique shops brought the island’s remarkable talent for handicrafts and fabrics to the fore. Behind the scenes, designers such as Niki Harrison, Shanth Fernando and Nayantara Fonseka were making their mark on the future of Sri Lankan style. Artists such as Saskia Pringers and Nuria Lamsdorff and craftsmen like Lucina Talib and the Bentota Workshop were likewise illustrative of an exciting new dawn for Sri Lankan art and design.

Sri Lanka’s rich history and excellent climate combine with bold confidence and a discerning aestheticism to create an unforgettable architectural landscape. This is an island that stands proud of the past, prepared for the future but, right now, content to sit back and enjoy the glory of the present

Turtle Bunbury
(Originally written in November 2005).