Tropical havens rooted in the past

Living in Sri Lanka
July 14, 2006

Do not be put off by the title of this book of houses and interiors on the island of old Ceylon, known as Sri Lanka since 1972.

Living in Sri Lanka , photographed by James Fennell with a text by Turtle Bunbury, is not a manual for living on the island. It is really a colourful and enticing high-class coffee-table book for those in search of a hidden paradise.

Ceylon, once one of the most prosperous of British colonies, famous for tea and cricket, was granted its independence in 1948. The conflict between the majority Sinhalese Government and certain minority Tamil communities in the north escalated after independence in 1948 and has reignited since this book was published. Nevertheless, and despite the horrific damage of the 2004 tsunami, this tropical Garden of Eden - dominated by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries, and finally the British in the 19th and 20th centuries - remains a spectacular destination for visitors.

The book has three main sections: "Town and City", "Coastal Villas" and "Jungle and Hill Country". More than 250 colour photographs display a luxuriant catalogue of some of the island's finest reconstructed houses, villas and hotels. All are unique creations, ranging in age from three centuries old to extraordinarily new. Nearly every one is the home of a foreigner or Sri Lankan expatriate who has decided to put down roots on the island. Thus, somehow, over the past two decades, writes Bunbury, a new "Sri Lankan style has emerged, both architecturally and decoratively, into a captivating hybrid of cheerful elegance and common sense".

The capital Colombo and the walled city of Galle boast some of the most interesting renovations. Of these, the Galle Face Court in Colombo, Norma Tennekoon's two-storey townhouse in Kollupitiya and Colombo House in Cinnamon Gardens are shown for the first time in an international publication. In Galle Fort, Olivia Richli's villa on Leyn Baan Street and Rohan Jayakody's house at 50 Lighthouse Street are classic examples of Western-influenced architectural renovations.

The section on coastal villas, devoted to the south and south-east coast only, includes Desmond de Silva's "Taprobane", an island now leased to the Hong Kong businessman Geoffrey Dobbs, at Weligama; the quaint "Palliyagurugewatte" (The Vicar's Garden) beach house, just east of Tangalle; and the late Geoffrey Bawa's "Last House" on Mahawella Beach, which was indeed the last construction of the great Sri Lankan architect before his death in 2003. It is perhaps one of his simplest and greatest works. The Lighthouse Hotel, another Bawa architectural triumph, is also featured, dominating a deep yawning cavern on the south side of the main Galle-Matara road.

In the final section, on the hill country, Helga de Silva Perera Blow's inimitable and astonishingly whimsical "Folly" in Kandy, and Channa Perera's walauwa (Sinhalese mansion) "Rafter's Retreat" on the Kelani River - only a stone's throw from where David Lean filmed The Bridge on the River Kwai - are prime examples of expatriate determination to create unique establishments in their homeland. Similarly the Englishman George Cooper, following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather (a tea planter), has restored a dilapidated hill-top estate walauwa six miles inland from Galle, surrounded by jungle and overlooking Koggala Lake. There are also fascinating examples of inland creations such as Hans Hoefer's "Illuketia", also near Galle, and the artist Saskia Pringiers' "Weeraman Walawa" north of Weligama. Her husband Pierre is the Belgian Consul in Sri Lanka.

This is a hypnotising book, featuring many people and houses I know intimately. The illustrations and commentary have openly explored the dreams of innovative people who have searched for and found a new haven on an old tropical frontier.

Sadly the book does not include such masterpieces as the Ena de Silva house in Colombo; "Lunuganga", Bawa's lush personal retreat in a backwater of the Bentota River; the government agent's bungalow in Hambantota - home to Leonard Woolf as a civil servant from 1908-11; or, understandably, any of the magnificent colonial houses of Jaffna or west-coast Negombo, which are mostly still in a state of disrepair. Also missing are the majestic Sinhalese mansions, some restored, dotted along the Galle Road on the south coast, with their intricately carved lattice-work awnings.

Christopher Ondaatje is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He was born in Sri Lanka and is the author of Woolf in Ceylon .

Living in Sri Lanka: James Fennell and Turtle Bunbury

Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 208
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 0 500 51287 6

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