By Aysha Maryam Cassim
If you grew up in Sri Lanka, you must have heard about the much-fabled character, Ambalame Pina. It’s a Sinhala folk song, which revolves around a man named Pina.
A misadventure befalls upon him when a bull breaks his yoke load of clay pots while he was whiling away his day at the Ambalama. An Ambalama is a wayside rest house for wayfarers.
Centuries ago, merchants, pilgrims, horsemen and travellers would stop over by an Ambalama to take a respite from their long journey. Ambalama was built and designed as an architecturally simple structure with the purpose of providing shelter for the travellers. It’s free of charge.
This is where the Gam Sabhava (village tribunal) assembled. Village headmen, aristocrats on palanquins, traders on bullock carts, travellers, mendicants and people from all walks of life, used to frequent the Ambalama.
It also served as a meeting place for the village folk, where they exchanged gossip, pleasantries, and discussed politics. Some would recite poetry in a contest with each other or challenge each other in solving riddles. Then there were those who would gather at the Ambalama to praise the manifold mighty deeds of the reigning king.
Robert Knox was the first to describe the Ambalama in English, in ‘A 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 great men; what employment the people of the city (Kandy) are busied about.
Life in Ambalama
Ambalama was closely associated with the culture of Sri Lankan community. It was also a great necessity, which was embedded in their day-to-day life. On a long haul journey, people pull over at roadside hotels and rest houses to freshen up and have some tea. Those days, the weary traveller needed a place of refuge as he traversed various footpaths, which went through long stretches of fields and forests, connecting to his destination.
Most of the Ambalama we see today are located on a rocky boulder, near rivers or streams in order that the fatigued wayfarer could find an easy supply of water to quench his thirst, wash his face and do the laundry.
Over the years, the usefulness of these buildings diminished with the advancements in modern transport methods and accommodation facilities. Today, this simple structure stands as a unique monument of our ancient transport system, reminding us of the countless journeys of an old Ceylonese traveller.
“The building of an Ambalama was a cooperative effort by the villagers. The Sinhalese Buddhists believed that it was a meritorious act to erect an edifice like a dagoba or an image house. Similarly, it was a pious deed to provide shelter for the weary traveller and the homeless. The size and grandeur of an Ambalama depended on the ability of those who took part in the erection” – (‘Panavitiya Ambalama Carvings’ - C.E. Godakumbura)
The Tamil word “Ambalam” means an open space for use of the public, “abode,” “dwelling place” or a “village revenue office,” etc. The Sinhalese word Ambalama is used to refer to a building that is meant to provide a resting place for travellers.
Ambalama is a modest building. The principle of construction of such a structure is to raise a platform about a foot from the ground, then place four logs, transversely on blocks of stone, raise wooden pillars on top of the logs, and construct a simple roof. The roof is usually thatched, covered with straw or tiled. The logs on the pillars serve as benches to sit on.
Panavitiya Ambalama – How to get there?
Today, you will find a few wayside shelters across Sri Lanka that have architectural and archaeological value. The Panavitiya Ambalama is a classic example of Sri Lankan indigenous architecture. Even though most of the ancient rest-halls went into a state of neglect and disrepair, the renovations and restorations of the Ambalama in Panavitiya was undertaken by the Archaeological Department and successfully completed with funds provided by the Department of Cultural Affairs.
If you are travelling on the Negombo-Kurunegala route, before reaching Narammala town on the road, turn to your left to the lane that leads to the Matiyagane School. You need to travel about four km on this road to reach the Ambalama. From Kurunegala city, it’s only a half-hour drive. The Ambalama is situated next to Lankathilakarama Viharaya on a flat land at the border of a stretch of picturesque paddy fields.
Carvings of Panavitiya Ambalama
Panavitiya belongs to Mayuravati Korale of the Dambadeni Hatpattuwa of the District of Kurunegala. It is believed that the Ambalama in Panavitiya may have stood as a rest-hall en route to an ancient footpath leading from Dambadeniya to Kurunegala and Yapahuwa.
Panavitiya Ambalama stands on a platform 12 feet 4 inches by 9 feet 6 inches raised about a foot from the ground with rubble. The fragments of the tiles found at the site indicate that originally the roof was tiled. During an inspection in 1960, the top of the roof frame was found to have been broken and the rafters dislodged by a coconut tree falling on it. (Report of the Archaeological Commissioner for 1960, p. G. 90)
An Ambalama is supported by four wooden pillars. They sometimes displayed ornate carvings and motifs that symbolise the prominent cultural feature of that period. The value of the Panavitiya Ambalama lies in its elaborate woodwork of beams and posts. Some of these carvings bear resemblance to the ones at Embekke Temple. Among these carvings which date back to the 18th century are scenes and sights of everyday village life, floral creepers, figurines, wrestlers, dancers, musicians and mythical creatures. The members of the woodwork of the roof consist of beams, posts, rafters and reepers.
Carvings at the Ambalama
Wrestlers – A composition of two figures.
Two females greeting each other – An everyday occurrence.
Snakes in twister combat – A circular arch with two snakes in twister combat.
Dancing girl and drummer – The dancing girl dressed in a traditional costume dances to the beat of a short drum.
A lotus rosette – Made up of cobra head shaped petals. There are Bo leaves at the four corners of the square.
A Garuda – The eagle bird is a mythical creature that is used as a decorative motif.
Deer and doe, peacock and peahen: The doe is shown in the front whilst the deer looks back. The peacock has captured a cobra in its beak, the peahen looks back seeking protection.
Procession – Two men blowing the conch shell and a horanava are followed by a lion. In the lower panel, an elephant-keeper and his assistant are shown with the elephant.