02 Jan 2023

The Architectural Marvels of Sri Lanka: Exploring a Fascinating Design Grammar


While we are all pretty bowled over by the fantastic natural heritage and botanical wealth of Sri Lanka, there’s no denying the great appeal of its built up heritage. From fortified palaces to dagobas, from cave temples to Buddhist and Hindu shrines and ancient city ruins there are a plethora wonderments which offer a window to Sri Lanka’s architectural heritage dating back from historical times to the present day. Let’s take a small peek into the marvels of Sri Lanka’s architectural grammar with its rich influences of Buddhist, European and Asian styles.


The beautifully preserved ruins of Sri Lanka’s capital from the 3rd century BCE offer us some delightful insights into the island-nation’s architectural grammar. Unmissable here are three prominent dagobas–Mirisavatiya, Ruvanweliya and Jetavanaya, that were built between 161 BCE and 331 CE as repositories of sacred Buddhist relics. The earthen structure would be clad in brick and then covered with a mantle of lime plaster. The tallest, Jetavanaramaya Dagoba, now about 70 m high was originally 98 m in height with a diameter of 370 feet at its base. Thuparama Dagoba, just 19m in height, is the oldest dagoba in Anuradhapura. Mirisavatiya Dagoba, located close to the Tissa Wewa Tank and Royal Pleasure Garden, is a massive structure sited over 50 acres of land. The Abhayagiri Dagoba lies in the heart of the old city.


A cycling tour comes well recommended for explorations of the second capital of the second most ancient kingdom of Sri Lanka. While the ruins are overrun by three varieties of primates, linger awhile at the ruins of the Royal Palace also known as Vijayotpaya, which was commissioned by King Parakramabahu I to be built as a cool haven from the blistering heat. Though it was burnt down by a south Indian invader, the remnants of the first three floors are still around to give you some idea of this fabulous structure said to have had 1000 rooms originally.


Worthy of exploring here is the vatadage or ‘circular relic house’, which is an example of the distinctively Sri Lankan stupa design. After the 4th century, CE stupas in smaller sizes replaced the massive structures from earlier times. The shape of the vatadage had also transformed from a square to a circular form. The small stupa would typically be encircled by a ring of columns and flanked by statues of the Buddha.


While visiting the elegant city of Colombo, make it a point to sample Sri Lanka’s modern architectural pursuits. Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa’s post-Independence and world sustainable contributions to world architecture have long been legend. The years between 1960s and 1980s are famed as the tropical modernism period and Bawa was not only the father but also its most prolific exponent. Bawa created buildings and homes that harmonized seamlessly with their Asian landscapes and were the designed and customized for the needs of the users. As succinctly put by a citation: “He has broken down the artificial segregation of inside and outside, building and landscape; he has drawn on tradition to create an architecture that is fitting to its place, and he has also used his vast knowledge of the of the modern world to create an architecture that is of its time.”

Take a journey through Bawa’s life via his work and works of his notable friends on the art, architecture and textile scene. Kick off your explorations at Number 11, the hub of Bawa’s city life and hear some interesting stories about his work and life. The next stop is Gallery Cafe, another of Bawa’s exemplary works where one can linger in these lovely surroundings over a drink. Then proceed to the Seema Malaka Temple on Beira Lake, a temple redesigned in the 1970s by Bawa. Amongst his most notable works is The Heritance Kandalama, a hotel constructed in the early 1990s, which was built into a rocky outcrop in Dambulla, covered by verdant tropical forests; the house for Osmun and Ena de Silva in Alfred Place, Colombo; the Lighthouse in Galle, Bentota Beach Hotel, and Parliament building at Sri Jayawardanapura.

There are many exemplars of Sri Lanka’s amazing architectural vocabulary that demand your attention each time you return to this gorgeous country. Re-set and engage your mind and heart to relish anew its creative spirit.

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