In 1995, Sri Lankan businessman Viren Perrera purchased a ruined manor house set deep within the tropical jungles of central Sri Lanka. A Canadian émigré, Viren was charmed by the provenance of the 9-acre estate, which he had read about in a book by a local teacher. Shortly afterwards, he met Muddiyanse Tennekoon, a farming expert who shared his passion for puranagama, the old Sri Lankan system of self-sustaining village life. London ex-pat Giles Scott came on board soon after and Ulpotha was born.
The Ulpotha Yoga & Ayurveda Retreat is considered one of the world’s finest. It takes its name from the Sinhalese word for “water-spring”, a reference to the vast manmade reservoir –or “tank” – built here perhaps two thousand years ago. The tank is located on a stretch of land where hot thermal waters bubble up from beneath the surface. By 2005, Scott and Perrera had converted the south-side of the tank into an upmarket yet highly discreet eco-village.
The village is centred upon the original manor or walauwa, the first part of the property to be restored. The colours fit flawlessly, soft and natural tones, coral, pale apricot, dark “galgamuwa” green, natural wood, beige. The occasional splash of red brings to mind the adventures of Lord Katarama whose disciples are reputed to have been the first to settle by Ulpotha’s tank. An internal courtyard flickers through jackwood window frames, its blue-washed walls recalling the Brahmin houses of Northern India. Yellow umbrellas wait patiently alongside walls, ready for use in rain or sun. Earthenware pots for making oils and medicinal concoctions lie carefully scattered about the place. Hanging reed baskets gently rock in the afternoon breeze. By night the warm glow of oil lamps and candles replaces the harsh light of electrics. Portuguese-style pitch tiling ripples handsomely over the roof.
An ambalama was subsequently built on to the walauwa; an enchanting open-air timber pavilion lined with vibrantly coloured cushions. Here guests gather for meals and drinks and sprawl out amongst books and guitars. Days are shaped by earth and water, invigorated by the invisible spirits of the wild, fed by the quality and quantity of the delicious organic meals.
Viren Perrera’s wish to create a self-sustaining village was welcomed by the small farming community who lived nearby. For centuries they had continued on in the spirit of their forebears, quietly celebrating the passing phases of the moon and uniting whenever their water-logged paddy fields beckoned. In recent years, however, the younger generation have tended to pack their belongings in a headscarf and make the long and deceitful trek to the suburbs of the island’s big cities. Since Ulpotha opened to visitors in 1999, many of these local farmers now earn a living through the innovative retreat’s 22-acre organic farm.
A dozen adobe mud huts lie scattered down avenues of arekanut palm trees. The huts are open to the elements, but guests sleep on beds of wood and reef, cocooned by mosquito nets and drop-down bamboo blinds. The roof consists of palm fronds carefully interwoven with jungle-wood beams. All one’s basic needs are catered for: a slender terracotta pot filled with fresh spring water and capped with a coconut shell; a marble bowl of floating lotus petals at the foot of the bed; the scent of incense in the night air; the gentle glow of an oil lamp, and maybe, far away, beyond the frogs and cicada, the distant rumble of the Maho train, a hint of civilization. There is something deeply sacred about Ulpotha. It enfolds you in its ambience.
Extracted from ‘Living in Sri Lanka’ (Thames & Hudson, 2006) by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell.