Several centuries ago, only footpaths connected Sri Lanka’s villages, so there was a need for wayside shelters where wayfarers could rest on long journeys. The solution was a classic example of indigenous architecture: the ambalama.
In the days when travel by foot was the custom (unless you were privileged enough to be transported in the box-like palanquin), different types of people frequented the paths that traversed the plains, pierced the jungle and climbed into the mountains. There were people going to and from the capital of Kandy; officials on tour accompanied by an entourage; king’s messengers; traders of various descriptions; mendicants; and pilgrims, mainly travelling to Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak). Men and women were able to walk long distances but required a wayside shelter to rest, eat, wash in a local stream, and possibly stay overnight. Thus the mellifluous-sounding ambalama evolved and became a classic of Sri Lanka’s architecture alongside, for example, the pirivena (monastic college) and the padhanaghara (meditation unit).
In Medieval Sinhalese Art (1908), Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, perhaps the most brilliant scholar Sri Lanka has produced, gives a thorough description of the ambalama: “Of these there were many at no great distance apart on the frequented paths, and better ones in each village, erected by all its villagers, or by one man or even a woman, anxious to perform so meritorious an act.” Coomaraswamy continues: “The smallest ambalama consisted of a foundation of four beams to sit upon, with four posts at the corners and a thatched or tiled roof; the better ones had more pillars and were sometimes divided into compartments for the convenience of those desirous of spending the night there. But a single-roomed ambalama could be sub-divided for the sake of privacy by means of a pili-vela [clothes line], consisting of two cords passed through a central block; the four ends of the cords being fastened in the four corners of the room, and clothes hung over the cords themselves, the room was divided into four compartments.”
Although architecturally simple, the wooden pillars sometimes displayed elaborate carvings typical of the period – dancers, scenes of everyday life, animals (erect cobras carved out of the pillar are impressive), mythical beings, leaf designs, and much more.
Wayfarers had to fend for themselves where food was concerned; they usually carried their own provisions and cooking utensils. Drinking water was another matter. “There is one custom here which I have not seen elsewhere, which struck me as remarkably humane,” wrote Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta, in 1825. “At certain distances along the road, large pots of water, with ladles attached to them, are placed for the use of travellers.”
Coomaraswamy remarks: “The ambalama served not only as a halting place for strangers, but was generally resorted to for exchange of news and a quiet chew.” This was noted by Robert Knox, the first to describe the ambalama in English, in An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681): “At their leisure, they commonly meet at places built for strangers and wayfaring men to lodge in, in their language called amblomb, where they sit chewing betel, discoursing concerning the affairs at court between the King and the great men; and what employment the people of the city [Kandy] are busied about.
“Also they talk of their own affairs, about cattle and husbandry. And when they meet with outlandish-men they inquire about the laws and government of their country, and if it be like theirs. This manner of passing their leisure time they account the greatest recreation.
“In addition, the ambalama served as a meeting place for the gamsabhava (village tribunal consisting of the principal inhabitants of the village), and was therefore closely associated with the life of the community. For example, in a case of assault the gamsabhava assembled at an ambalama, held an inquiry and, if necessary, would order the offender to be taken to Kandy for trial.
The ambalama is embedded in the Island’s culture. There is a Sinhalese proverb: “Although the ambalama be unroofed, will it shorten the journey?” A good reputation survives poverty. There is a fine description of an ambalama in a 15th Century poem: “People gather from diverse ways to rest here. Some recite poetry, and vie with each other; one challenges another at riddles. Foreigners learn and repeat the Buddha’s teaching.”
In contrast, the giant Maha Sohana (the second of a trio of demons of Sri Lankan superstition) was believed to frequent graveyards and to haunt ambalamas.
During the 19th Century, British colonists began to describe the ambalama. Major Forbes writes in Eleven Years in Ceylon (1840): “Wherever a path crossed or diverged from the road, an ambalama existed. An ambalama is generally a strong shed of small size, raised on a foundation eight or ten feet in height: under its shade travellers rested during the heat of the day; or, if benighted, its elevated position offered them security against elephants.”
In Adam’s Peak (1870), William Skeen describes a two-storey ambalama at Heramitipana: “This ambalama, a building about 60ft by 30ft [18m by 9m], with lean-tos at each end, is unwalled on three sides; the roof is supported by six rows of pillars, on the four inner rows of which is laid the planking that forms the upstairs apartment; the staircase leading to the cock-loft is the notched trunk of a tree.”
My favourite reference is by Booker Prize-winner Michael Ondaatje from his novel Anil’s Ghost (2000): “The wooden ambalama felt like a raft or four-poster bed drifting in the black clearing.” Today, the most astounding example of an ambalama is at Panavitiya, located on an ancient route between Dambadeniya and Kurunegala. It is constructed on four large stone slabs to prevent damage from termites. Herbert Keuneman enthuses in Sri Lanka: Insight Guide (1983): “It is a mere pavilion with a roof supported by wooden columns and stout beams, artless but for the delightful carving. This ambalama, as others, is genuine Sinhala architecture stripped of pretension and sophistication. Only its charm and taste remain.”
The most likely ambalama to be encountered is at Kadugannawa, on the A1 route’s ascent to Kandy “This little building looks like a small house from the outside, but it is an ambalama containing one room, which has a masonry seat on three sides,” Ronald Lewcock, Barbara Sansoni and Laki Senanayake remark in The Architecture of an Island (1998). “The recently added portico welcomes the traveller, and provides a cool, though small, terrace in hot weather. The portico has a roof, which incorporates a change in pitch halfway up its height.”
If you are fortunate enough to come across an ambalama, stop and imagine you are a hot, foot-sore wayfarer rather than an air-conditioned occupant of a vehicle. Sit on a beam, marvel at the simple architecture and any carvings, and picture wayfarers from the past enjoying a well-deserved rest.
ADDENDUM by Michael Roberts
Also see the excellent image of the Mangamuwa Ambalama taken by Luxshmanan Nadaraja of Studio Times and reprinted as Fig. 3 in Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period (2004). Supplement this with reference to the text pp. 27-28, 113, 138, 157. For other information go to R. Dassanayake, Ambalama saha Samaajaya, Colombo, 2000, pp. 115-74.
and then there is this image