Known for its diverse landscapes and breathtaking views, this small island country boasts 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In addition to being an eye-pleasing holiday destination with dreamy beaches, vibrant rainforests, and lush tea plantations, Sri Lanka is quite an enriching experience for an architect. With an assorted collection of historical architecture and strong modern designs, Sri Lanka can take you on a breathtaking trail through the ancient cities of the Buddhist era, colonial settlements and forts, gruesome remnants of the brutal civil war, and in conclusion, the modern architectural marvels of Geoffrey Bawa and other contemporaries.
200m above ground, atop the Lion Rock of Sigiriya, stood the monumental palace of King Kashyap that made its place in the UNESCO World Heritage list. The 1600-year-old fortress sits in the middle of a beautifully landscaped garden protected by two moats and three ramparts. Known as ‘The Mount of Remembrance’, Sigiriya is considered a surviving example of the city planning techniques of the era. Apart from the architectural feat of carving out a palace from a massive rock monolith, what keeps you baffled is the sheer absurdity of the construction. The walls of the palace have been decorated with colorful frescoes and intricate carvings giving the place a sculptural quality.
2. DAMBULLA CAVES
The Dambulla cave temples, also known as ‘The Golden Rock Temple’ is a major cultural hotspot of Sri Lanka that dates back to the first century BCE. The temple complex was carved out of a massive granite outcrop and is a cluster of more than 80 caves. The major attractions are spread across 5 cave temples built under a vast overhanging rock that has a drip line carved to prevent the rainwater from flowing in. The UNESCO World Heritage City houses an array of statues and paintings and is a major pilgrimage spot for Sri Lankan Buddhists.
Kandy was the last capital of the Kings’ era in Sri Lanka. It is named after the Kandyan Kingdom and lies amid the hills on the Kandy plateau. The Sacred Temple of Tooth Relic that houses the tooth of Lord Buddha is located in Kandy making it a sacred religious spot for Buddhists, but that is not all. Kandy is home to the 14th century Royal Palace of the Kandyan kingdom, the International Buddhist Museum, the Ceylon Tea Museum, botanical gardens, and many more architectural masterpieces, placing Kandy in the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The ancient capital city of Sri Lanka is a UNESCO World Heritage Site today with a sprawling archeological site of the Sinhala civilization, stupas, temples, and ruins of royal baths. The place gained religious significance after a cutting of the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree was brought down and planted here by Sanghamitra. Ever since, the place has become a religious hotspot and a sprawling city that has undergone several transformations with the changing times. Today the religious and administrative structures, most of which are more than 2000 years old, act as markers of the period they were built in. The 92-meter-high Ruwanwelisaya stupa, Abhayagiri monastery, and Mihintale temple complex are among the major attractions of the place.
Polonnaruwa along with Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Kandy, and Dambulla complete the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. Polonnaruwa is another ancient city ruins enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Hundreds of temples, stupas, tombs, and other archeological relics strewn across the place, speak of the glorious past of the capital city that had once ruled the land. The Royal Palace, the four Buddhas of Gal Vihara, and the impressive Vatadage stupa are some of the well-preserved structures of the place. The city is one that is meant to be explored on a bicycle for every nook and corner of the city has little hidden treasures.
Located on the south coast of Sri Lanka, Galle is an ancient port town teeming with Dutch-colonial buildings. Galle presents an excellent example of a fortified city built by the Portuguese showing an intermingling of the Asian and Portuguese cultures in terms of architecture, language, or traditions. The Galle fort which is the largest fortress in Asia built by Europeans was built by the Dutch in the 17th century and is a World Heritage Site identified by UNESCO. Galle is a thriving heritage town with little churches, eateries, book stores, boutiques, amazing beaches, and a car-free fort that is open to being explored on foot.
Known as ‘The garden city of the East’, the administrative capital of Sri Lanka is truly a worthy destination in its own right. From the modern amenities and the colonial influences to the native cultures and indigenous rawness of the land, the capital city is a blend of cultures that reflects in its art and architecture. The Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, Viharamahadevi Park, Colombo fort, World Trade Centre, and the Independence Memorial Hall are must-visit places in Colombo. Colombo is also a high-priority destination for any architect visiting Sri Lanka as it houses most of Geoffrey Bawa’s architectural marvels including his own house, now Colombo’s beloved Gallery café, and the Seema Malaka.
8. NEW PARLIAMENT COMPLEX
Architect Geoffrey Bawa was commissioned to design the new Sri Lankan Parliament in 1979. The building was designed atop an artificial lake in Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, the administrative capital of Sri Lanka, and is inspired by the traditional audience halls in Polonnaruwa and Kandy. Bawa designed the building in a style of modern regionalism that makes the building modern yet respecting the vernacular Sri Lankan architecture. The structure was conceptualized as a public-friendly monument dotted around by the landscaped lakeside gardens, and the great open-sided hall.
Bentota is popular among tourists for its mesmerizing beaches. However, for an architect, the place is relevant for another reason. Bentota is home to Geoffrey Bawa’s cinnamon estate converted country retreat, the Lunuganga, along with several other of his projects. Elements of Italian Renaissance gardens, English landscaping, Japanese garden art, & the water gardens of ancient Sri Lanka are all blended into the overwhelming aesthetic of its landscape. The house has been converted into a boutique hotel and the rest of the estate has been preserved.
Ella is a small town surrounded by lush green hills, waterfalls, and viewpoints. However, it is often said that the journey is better than the destination, similarly, Ella is known for the 7-hour train journey from Ella to Kandy on the picturesque blue train. Known to be one of the most beautiful train journey experiences in the world, it offers panoramic views of waterfalls, tea plantations, small towns, and the famous Nine Arch Bridge. Also known as ‘The Bridge in the Sky’, the Nine Arch Bridge in Demodara is a viaduct bridge designed in the colonial era and is one of the highlights of the journey.
Flagged by two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Kandalama is a village with some of the best views in Sri Lanka. Kandalama hotel was the first individual project carried out by Geoffrey Bawa. The hotel stands on a ridge against the north-facing cliff overlooking the Lion Rock in Sigiriya across the horizon of the Kandalama Lake. The building is stark and downplayed as it was designed keeping in mind the need to look out from it rather than looking at it. The building is almost hidden behind the heavy vegetation plated on and around it, however is still marveled as one of the most iconic projects of Bawa.
Jaffna is a colonial port town established by the Portuguese, taken over by the Dutch which was later taken over by the British. Jaffna was occupied by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and exhibits several traces of the brutal civil war that raged through Sri Lanka from 1986 to 1995 until it was taken over by the Sri Lankan Army. Today Jaffna is inhabited by ethnic groups that moved in after the civil war and showcases the Tamil culture complete with their traditional cuisine, language, and culture. The town has colorful temples, churches, and traditional settlement types.
Trincomalee along with its adjoining towns of Uppuveli and Nilaveli are known for their beautiful beaches. Trincomalee had faced multiple attacks during the civil war and was later hit by the 2004 tsunami. The port of ‘Trinco’ is regarded as the most beautiful port in all of Asia. The 17th century Fort Frederick was built by the Portuguese over the Koneswaram Temple and was later rebuilt by the Dutch. Trincomalee also houses the Velgam Vehera that consists of ruins of temples, dagobas, stone inscriptions, and has been declared as an archaeological protected site by The Sri Lanka Archaeological Department.
14. VEDDA VILLAGE
Veddha village is the last remaining settlement of the Sri Lankan aborigines in Dambana. Veddhas, meaning “people of the forest”, had their neolithic ancestors inhabiting this island as far back as 10,000 BC and are believed to be the descendants of the first King of Sri Lanka, King Vijaya. Today, the Veddhas are much more modernized, but their lives are intertwined with nature and hence do still stick to certain age-old practices such as hunting, fishing, honey collection, etc. The town of Mahiyangana showcases their unique ways of life, their delightful communities, and sustainable settlements.
15. NUWARA ELIYA
Known as the Little England of Sri Lanka, Nuwara Eliya has a different climate, landscape, and architecture as compared to the other parts of the country. The place has tea plantations, waterfalls, hills and overlooks the Pidurutalagala, the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka. Nuwara Eliya is a colonial town and most of its buildings retain their colonial character with English style lawns and gardens. The settlement planning also follows the typical colonial hill station typology to some extent.