Ambalamas were built in Sri Lanka from ancient times. Geiger said that the words ‘mahavata vatussala’ found in the marble slab inscription of King Mahasen (274-301AD) meant a resting place along a major street. Archeologists mapping the ancient road network from Anuradhapura found remains of ambalamas at Vijayarama and Alapatvave. At Alaptavava the ambalama was placed at a junction where several roads met. It was about 48 feet long, rectangular and constructed on a natural bed rock.

Ambalamas are mentioned in the sandesas and other writings. ‘Salalihini’ (15 century) speaks of an ambalama on the road from Kotte to Kelaniya. In ‘Gira’ the people gathered at Valitota ambalama, related stories, recited hitivana kavi and told theravili. Elders recited kavi praising the king. Nilakobo sandesa (18 century) speaks of an ambalama in a stretch of paddy field in ‘Palonnaruwa’ village, southern province. There were painted figures of lions and leopards on the walls. Diyasavul sandesa (1813) refers to one at Uduwela and ‘Astanari’ (1833) to one built in the middle of a stretch of paddy field by the Deduru oya in Kurunegala district. Knox (1681) reported that the Sinhalese, when at leisure, would meet in the ‘amblom’, where they sat chewing betel and discussing politics, ‘looking upon each other very gravely’. Davy (1821) remembered a small ambalama seen at Rambukwelle.

Ambalamas were built by the side of paddy fields, on rocky sites where there was access to water. Today they are found in the middle of paddy fields, because routes have changed. Panavitiya ambalama was possibly on the foot path from Dambadeniya to Kurunegala and Yapahuwa. The ambalama was built communally by villagers, or funded by individuals. It was considered a pious deed to provide shelter for the traveler and the homeless.

Coomaraswamy (1907) observed that ambalamas were placed ‘at no great distance on frequented paths’ and in the 1990s Seneviratne found seven ambalamas in a six square mile area. A traveler was expected to walk about 15 miles a day and ambalamas were therefore built 12 -16 miles apart. This was the ‘meal distance’ as well. Travelers carried their own food and cooking utensils. A pin thaliya with drinking water and dipper were provided at the ambalama and replenished by the villagers. The ambalama could be divided into compartments for privacy at night by stretching niyande fibre ropes (pilivela) and hanging cloths over them.

The ambalama design consisted of four timbers joined at seat height, with four posts at the corners holding up a thatched roof, the whole structure balancing neatly on four big boulders set on a stone platform. The boulders prevented the wood from decaying through damp and termites. The timber beams were halved by deep notches and fitted together. They were joined at outer points in such a manner that instead of terminating at the four points they seemed to continue. Ambalamas in the villages were larger and better built since they also functioned as meeting places. Some ambalamas were decorated with carvings and paintings. Panavitiya, (probably 18th century), has ornately carved beams and posts, which depict wrestlers, musicians, dancers, acrobats, animals, birds and floral patterns. The roof, also ornate, has three types of tiles, one laid diagonally.

Ananda Coomaraswamy (1907) considered the ambalama to be an outstanding piece of Kandyan architecture. He particularly admired the ambalama at Mangalagama. Architect Eleperuma noted that many of the fundamental principles of the Sinhala building tradition are condensed in the structure of the ambalama. Ambalamas were ‘in a class of their own,’ agreed Danish architect Ulrik Plesner. They provided shelter from sun and rain while accommodating the breeze, he said. They were ideal for a humid climate and had a sensible, occasionally beautiful construction with ‘elegant cartwheels of carved rafters’. Architect Anjalendran spoke of the unpretentious and often unnoticed peasant vernacular, excellently displayed in the ambalama at Karagahagedera, Kurunegala. ‘This ambalama supported on four boulders perched on a large shallow rock at the edge of paddy field, epitomizes my architectural ideal.’

In 2009 artist Vasantha Perera published sketches of ambalamas seen off the beaten track. They included a beautiful, small one seen in Rukulagama on his way to Aluthnuwara.

He observed that the kenimadala on the roof of the ambalama at Naranwela village, Peradeniya-Daulagala road, was in a lotus pattern. The ambalama at the entrance to Aluthnuwara Nuwara devale, Kegalle district, is on 16 pillars. In Embekke ambalama only the pillars are left. Thirteen of the old posts could be seen at Sirimalvatta ambalama. In the Marassana ambalama, there is an outer Attala around the inner Attala, raised on four large stone pillars.

Many fine ambalamas are still in use, though over a hundred years old. They belong to the oldest wood structures in Sri Lanka. Mangalagama ambalama, admired by Coomaraswamy is still there, on the old Kandy-Rambukkana road. It has ornate wood work on the column heads. Marassana Gama meda ambalama has 16 carved wooden pillars with decorative pethikada. Konakalagala with elaborately carved pillars was the first resting place on the old Kandy- Trincomalee road. It is now used by villagers as meeting and resting place.

Ambalamas continued to be built in the 19th and 20th century. Konhange with traditional carvings was built by a villager in 1800 for those travelling from Kadugannawa to Kurukuththala. Kadugannawa ambalama on the Colombo-Kandy road is also 19th century. The brick and stone Makadawara ambalama, Ganetenna was built in 1850, Karagahadegedara, built in 1853 is used as a bus halt and meeting place. It is the most photographed ambalama today. Deevilla ambalama was built in 1902. Daulagala ambalama in Daulagala town (1914) was built by Nugawela Manamperi Chandrasekera Wasala Mudiyanselage Kudu Banda, Diyawadena nilame. Appalagoda (1915) complete with pan thaliya, was funded by Kiri Hamy, Menik Hamy, Punchi Banda and Jamis Appuhamy and built by Panikkigedera Ududeniya Balasuriya Kuda Naide. His name is carved in a pillar. This ambalama has seats at different levels for different castes. Galkotha (1928) was constructed by one Seneviratne. His name is etched in the main rafter. These ambalamas are today maintained by the villagers and are used as meeting places, community halls and bus stands.

The writings of D.P. Chandrasekera, A. Coomaraswamy, J. Davy, Nimal de Silva, N. Eleperuma, C.E. Godakumbura, R. Knox, Vasantha Perera, U. Plesner, B. Sansoni, Anuradha Seneviratne, D.M.K.D. Silva and P Vidanapathirana were used for this essay.

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