Ambalama

Photo Credit- Sukumar Shan

The historic Kadugannawa Ambalama ( wayside rest ) Then and Now ! Kadugannawa Ambalama is a historic wayside rest that is found – on the left, when traveling from Colombo to Kandy, a few metres before the Kadugannawa Hairpin turn aka Kadugannawa pass. Built during the early 18th century which is about 200 years old now. This ambalama was built during the English colonial rule of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) About one and half centuries back this had been a popular stopover for horsemen, merchants etc. traveling from lowlands to the ancient hill capital Kandy.This structure resembles the Kandyan Era architecture and is of archaeological value. It was renovated by the Ministry of Tourism under the technical guidance of the Department of Archeology at a cost of Rs. 300,000.00 and now this structure is considered a national heritage item of Sri Lanka.

In the past, when the only means of transport for most people were their own feet, it often took several days—and sometimes even weeks—to travel from one place to another. Because of the time it took for such journeys, travellers were often in need of shelter to rest for the night. Thus the ambalama was born.It was a simple but convenient place for travellers to prepare their meals and sleep. Most often they were built near a stream, and a large pitcher made from clay or stone—called a pinthaliya—could also be found near the ambalam for the purpose of fetching clean water.According to the teachings of Buddhism, the construction of ambalam was considered a noble deed—therefore in the olden days, the entire village community came together to build these shelters. The size and style of the ambalama built in a village depended on the wealth of its residents—on some occasions, even the wealthy nobles used their wealth to build these wayside shelters.

9 thoughts on “Ambalama

  1. Thanks Sam, The Ambalamas were an important part of rural life in ancient Ceylon.It is said that Emperor Asoka was the first to build such travellers rests in India (3 B.C).The first English description was by Robert Knox in 1681, wherein he describes these and the function, apart from providing places of rest for overnight travellers it was also a place of gathering for the locals.He described the locals sitting around and chewing betel and discussing of all things, matters of the King and his subjects.Politics was alive and well even then.!
    I remember as a child growing up in Batticaloa town of an octagonal building in the heart of town with the name,” Freeman Taneer Pandal”(Taneer in Tamil is water and pandal is a shady building).This building was a mystery to me and I was never curious enough to find out more about this building..Later, I came to know that it was built in 1911 in memory of a Methodist missionary Batticaloa by the name of Rev Freeman.It was at a site where a previous primitive building which served the same purpose stood..This pandal served water for travellers and schoolchildren (There was no running tap water or plastic bottles then!)and also served sweet curd during the annual Hindu festival at “Mamaangam”, for the weary travellers who travelled across the lagoon by boat from afar.

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    • Thanks for the comment Eddie. There is a lot of history associated with these simple structures built 200 years ago. I used to pass the Gal Ambalama in Kotte very often. It was built with a special kind of stone, hence the name. It is now used as a bus stop and the walls are covered with advertisements.
      Sam

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  2. Thanks Sam and Eddie. There were many humane practices in the past.

    You would have heard of Bishop Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta, whose well known hymn appeared to describe the Lankans as “vile”.

    “What though the spicy breezes
    Blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
    Though every prospect pleases,
    And only man is vile:

    He wrote this hymn in 1819, before actually visiting Ceylon or meeting any Ceylonese people. After he and his wife did a short tour of Ceylon in September 1825, he said some nice things about the Ceylonese. “Our visit to Ceylon has afforded us very great pleasure and interest, from its agreeable society, the beauty of its scenery, its curiosities, and, far above all, from the religious state of the native inhabitants.” (From his published Journal). His visit included journeys to Galle and Kandy from Colombo (by palanquin) and he has this to say about the custom of providing water for travellers:

    “There is one custom here which I have not seen elsewhere, which struck me as remarkably humane; at certain distances along the road large pots of water, with ladles attached to them, are placed for the use of travellers, and I have frequently seen one of my bearers take a draught with great eagerness, and then run to join his comrades at my palanqueen.”

    Anoja

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  3. Thanks Anoja for your comment about the Rev Reginald Heber and the composition of the hymn at a day’s notice in 1819 long before he visited Calcutta or Ceylon. He wrote the hymn at the request of his F.I.L to be sung in church the following day in Wrexham on behalf of the society for the propagation of the gospel.The temporal history of this hymn is as follows.
    1819.Hymn. “From Greenlands Icy Mountain”,written by Heber at a days notice.
    1823 Appointed Bishop of Calcutta.
    1825.Visit to Ceylon.
    1826 Died
    1827.His wife publishes the hymns posthumously with Ceylon changed to Java.!The vile construct was deflected to the Javanese.!!
    What all this means is that the colonials at that time did not know much about the Orient.Their information was from Mandeville’s travels of exotic regions and Taprobane, where there were no Christians.These evangelicals were coming over to convert the heathens to Christianity.!! Thant was their mission.
    Bishop Heber equates Heathenism to Vileness, because of his lack of knowledge about the people of Taprobane and before his impending departure to parts unknown.!! and more importantly his wife changed Ceylon to Java, after their visit.
    After his visit, he did appreciate the people and customs of the Ceylonese with special mention of the Ambalamas.
    P.S. He should have read Robert Knox’s book before he wrote the hymn.

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    • Yes, Eddie. It’s amazing how they used their imagination.
      A few years ago (in 2013) I got fed up about people quoting Heber’s hymn out of context and wrote a Letter to the Editor (ISLAND) after one such article. It’s too long to include here. It’s available on the internet if anyone is interested. Google “Where only man is vile – A response”.

      Anoja

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