In ancient times the ambalama was a traditional resting place for the weary traveler. Then, the ordinary folk of Sri Lanka traveled by foot. Long distance traveling was exhausting and the traveler was compelled to rest and wait awhile before he continued on his journey. The ambalama was the ideal resting place, or a small "rest-house" where the weary traveler could take shelter, rest and sleep awhile.
In certain places elaborate ornamental carvings and sculpture adorn these ambalamas, which were constructed according to typical Sri Lankan architectural techniques of excellence. Hence, the humble ambalama has become one of Sri Lanka 's most artistic, elegant structures of historical value.
This shelter for rest and relaxation between travels of ordinary folk was obviously very closely related to them. Since it was open to anyone who cared to rest between travels and take shelter beneath its roof, people from all parts of the country used the ambalama. So, it also became a communication Centrex where people could exchange information about each other and the various areas they came from.
The ambalama also served as a simple court of law, where disputes of the people were solved and justice was maintained.
It was also used as a Centrex to collect tax. The "Rest-House" that emerged under the British Administration in Sri Lanka , can be considered as evolved from the humble ambalama. Hence this ambalama of the past was not only a place for rest and shelter but it also contributed to the social, financial, political, and cultural aspects of the country. Therefore the ambalama was a multi-dimensional center of the country.
Although modernization makes the modern traveler use the modern vehicles as a means of transport, the ambalama is still in our midst, reminding us of our heritage and this structure has become one of the monuments of Sri Lanka's antiquity.
Text @ Walk With Jith
Panavitiya Ambalama- a wealth of wooden wonder
Story by Kishanie S. Fernando
Photo-Priyanjan De Silva
@ DM / 07Nov2005
Two and a half hours of travelling and we reached our destination the Panavitiya Ambalama. As we stopped our vehicle and peered out at the modest wooden structure standing in a clearing of flat land bordering a stretch of paddy fields, I was disappointed. In fact for a minute I wondered if we had come to the correct site. From where we stood we could see nothing of the wood carvings that this ambalama was so famous for.
But it didn't take long for us to discover its wealth of wooden wonder. As we carefully entered its inside the carvings seemed to overwhelm us, covering almost every available space - unique concepts and combinations of art themes as varied as its numbers.
The pillars that held the humble roof of this abode were abundantly decorated. The nine inner pillars some 6' in height were so profusely carved that I almost held my breath. Exquisitely carved rectangular squares half way on the pillars showed off mythical creatures, floral designs and scenes from every day life including wrestlers, musicians, dancers, acrobats, persons greeting each other, persons chatting etc. The corner pillars had grandiose capitals - almost out of place in this humble ambalama. The nineteen pillars that formed the outer posts were less elaborately carved. But displayed an elegance beyond compare.
The woodwork of the roof consisted of beams, posts, rafters and reepers of exceptional wooden ornamentation. There were processions of animals, mythical creatures, peraheras with musicians, snakes in twisted combat, demigods. Fancy flowery and leafy designs filling in and giving the finishing touches
The structure of the ambalama itself stood on platform 12' 4" and 9' 6" and raised about a foot from the ground with rubble, its log base resting on four rounded boulders.
The Panapitiya ambalama has been dated to the 18th century. The Department of Archeology has renovated and restored it. It is believed that the ambalama may have stood as a rest hall enroute to an ancient foot path leading from Dambadeniya to Kurunegala and Yapahuwa. Today it stands as a unique monument of our ancient transport system. - a witness to maybe a million passers-by. And we sat down to enjoy a meal of imbul-kiribath sharing with its sole occupant a brown dog with sad eyes.
Aambalamas of Panapitiya and Karagahagethera
An ambalama for the weary of foot
By Kishanie Fernando
It was definitely going to be a rainy day. So with rain coats, umbrellas, and the like packed into our jeep we set out as usual before the light of day. The route we took was through Jaela, Ekala, Minuvangoda, Divulapitiya, Giriulla, Dambadeniya, Narammala. Destination the ambalamas of Panapitiya and Karagahagethera.
All along the way a slight drizzle accompanied us. A sign board for breakfast stopped us and to our surprise treated us with a choice of imbul-kiribath, lavariya,. roti, idiyappa etc. Back on route, not forgetting to pack some extra imbul-kiribath, and still accompanied by the same drizzle not more not less.
Finding the Panapitiya Ambalama was not difficult although there was no sign board on the main road. The turn-off was before reaching Narammala town on the road leading to the Matiyagana school.
The Karagahagedara Ambalama was a different story. The turn-off from the main road was after the Narammala town at Kalugamuwa on the Kurunegala road. .
Karagahagedara Ambalama was celebrated for its scenic setting amongst the local paddy fields. The narrow unsealed road that led to this gem of old world charm hugely compensated for minor discomforts. From the turn-off at Kalugamuwa the road ran through coconut estates, rubber, paddy fields and bountiful home gardens. The coconut estates with their under crops, their comfortable brick built homes set in little gardens splashing colorful anthuriams, orchids and bougainvillea, and their the little cadjan sheds at the back for the storing of coconuts, husks, and other by-products, pictured pretty contented living.
The paddy fields somewhat flooded with the night’s rain seemed to be in the process of being readied for the next season. Chocolate brown mud fields spread endlessly on either side of the road and were different from the luminous green paddy fields that artists love to paint and poets love to praise. But this was the beginning…. And it possessed its own artistic quality. A goviya (farmer) with his mamoty was hard at work repairing the water canals that fed his field. The rains had churned the narrow water ways which were a mess of maddened muddy water tossing and tumbling from field to field. If you did stop the engine of the vehicle you could hear the sound of its frenzied gush. But these very same would peter out into placid and sometimes slovenly flows when the rains ceased and the sun-parched crops thirsted for more. In an adjoining field storks were taking full advantage of the exposed mud and guzzling worms .
If you are keen on visiting the Karagahagedera ambalama it is best to keep asking the way. That is what we did and ultimately after about a half a dozen turn- offs reached the site.
The amablama balancing on four rock boulders was as quaint and well positioned as it could ever have been. It stood by the side of the road adjoining the paddy fields on a sheet of rock that dipped into a small waterhole on one side,. A single Kohomba tree towered on one side while a peculiar mixture of a bo and kohomba made up the scrub on the other side. When we stopped at its side there were some people inside The two older men were goviyas taking a well earned break after working the adjoining fields. The young girl and boy had brought them a kettle of tea and betel. The ambalama provided a pleasant rest for them to relax in between work.
Historically the Ambalama of old was an important landmark and a resting place along a travel route. It played a key role and was very much a part of the social structure of our ancients. It was a convenience and comfort to people traveling far; going on pilgrimages or visiting relatives by foot or cart. On such a journey the traveller would be only too glad to see an ambalama where he could rest. In most cases it would be situated in a chosen spot by the side of a paddy field or stream with shade trees overhanging. A pin thaliya or a pot of water or a well in the close vicinity would provide him with a drink of water to quench his thirst. And so refreshed, he would undertake the rest of the journey.
As such it is believed that the building of an ambalama was undertaken by villagers on a co-operative basis mostly on the orders of a king or minister. Many believed that it was a meritorious act to provide shelter to the weary traveller and the homeless.
It is said that the ambalama also served as a meeting place for the village folk, village elders, gam sabhas, and tax gathering. Or a place where they simply exchanged gossip and talked politics.
In Sinhalese literature particularly Sandesa poems like the Gira Sandesaya, Salalihini Sandesaya, Nilakobo Sandesaya which contain descriptions of journeys, make mention of ambalama rests. The Gira Sandesaya, a poem of the mid 15th century describes an ambalama which was situated in the village of Valitota, south of Bentota as such;-
" People gather from various directions and rest here. some of them relate the stories of Rama and Sita.. Some recite poetry in contest with each other. Amongst them are those who commit to memory songs of praise produced in honor of the reigning king. The old people recite quatrains which were composed to praise the virtues of former sovereigns. Foreigners coming from countries such as Cola, Pandya, Gujarat, Tulu coutry, Maharastra, Andhra and Vanga learn the teachings of the Buddha in Sinhalese and recite it. Some challenge each other in solving riddles. There are those who relate the manifold mighty deeds of the king Patrakramabahu VI (AD 1410 -1467)." The above description amply demonstrates the unique purpose of an ambalama of old.