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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Lankan Fantasy

Endless white seashores edged by groves of coconut trees ran for miles, parallel to the road we were driving down, from Colombo to Bentota. Sri Lanka is the ‘Emerald Isle’ of South Asia and with good reason. For me, as an Indian, Sri Lanka is a two hour flight to the south and because this country features prominently in one of our epics – the Ramayana, as the kingdom of the demon-king Ravana. But in Sri Lanka itself, there is no sign of him. He is neither feared or revered; he could as well be declared absconding!

The real reason being, the Sri Lankans do not consider their country to be the abode of Ravana that the Ramayana describes and calls ‘Lanka’. Hence, there is no acknowledgement of Ravana having interfered in India’s domestic policy even back then! But as we fly over the north of Sri Lanka, the pilot urges us to look out of the windows to our right and points out the remains of the ancient bridge connecting the two countries. The same bridge, over which Lord Ram led an army into Lanka to rescue his wife, Sita, who was abducted by subterfuge by Ravana.

Besides myths and legends, Sri Lanka and India sport lots of similarities, while the dissimilarities are stark and obvious. We seem to share an abundant coastline, a rich culture, love of scrumptious seafood and people with happy, sunny dispositions. But there the similarities end.

Another interesting facet is the hundreds of statues of Buddha which dot the country. These ranged from small statues encased in glass to monoliths placed in strategic places. They were made of a bewildering range of metals – bronze, copper, gold-plated ones to marble, terracotta and plaster of Paris.

The bigger ones were enclosed in open verandah like structures, so visitors could step up for a closer look. The walls were usually painted with stories that illustrated Lord Buddha’s life in pictures. No inch of free space was wasted. Beautiful murals instead of bare walls give Colombo and many parts of Sri Lanka, a very chic and bohemian look. With intelligent use of space, Sri Lankans have etched the life and times of their presiding deity for the contemplation of all. Thus, keeping at bay, graffiti and ugly paint jobs.

Even with Lord Buddha peering over everyone and everything, secularism in architecture is really the order of the day. Shopping malls have an eclectic, ‘anything-goes’ style. Odell, the premier shopping mall is actually a refurbished Dutch mansion, with the façade painted a chaste white while inside is fusion of designs. Well-appointed rooms lead off from one to another with wood finished parquet floors with palm trees lined up in the middle of the building that opens up to a high skylight. A French patisserie that is all homely wood serves delicious, freshly baked croissants, coffee and smoothies. The display area showed Scandinavian influences – with sleek steel, open-faced display racks that have been well spaced out, showing off clothes and books to advantage. Shoppers could move around the display area instead of being hemmed in by a counter or other shoppers. Some recessed, well lit niches held handbags, books and CDs. Everything seemed to belong and fit seamlessly into one another, despite the difference in style.

After we land in Colombo and drive across the city, I realize this just could not be Mumbai. The architecture differs by far. Both cities are commercial capitals of their respective countries, but the British influence is felt in our Mumbai's Gothic buildings that we inherited after Independence. In Colombo, the architecture is Art Deco and sometimes Classical or just plain whimsical. Dutch influences are everywhere, but so are British names, which live to this day. I drove through Colombo's exclusive Cinnamon Gardens enclave, where the foreign embassies are located and saw plaques with names like Barnes Road, Kinsey Road and Norton Road. This was an absolutely delightful, quiet and verdant section of the city – more along the lines of Colaba than Breach Candy.

The city’s skyline has not been cluttered with skyscrapers. But the buildings compete to outdo each other with grandiose spires, temples on the terrace, or elevators on the outside façade of the buildings. Only on one occasion did I see a staircase in front of a shopping mall that extended perpendicularly from the second floor and dropped from there in a sinuous twist – it was designed to look like a curvy coconut tree trunk!

Across the entire city, buildings did not go beyond the third floor. Each section had a very distinctive look. The Cinnamon Gardens area was all white stone and tiled roof with intricately carved lintel and lovely wrought iron balconies and gates. Most shopping malls were two-storey glass affairs that blazed a vivid yellow, airy blue or electric red, depending on the colour of the reflective films they were coated with and imparted that crazy-fun atmosphere.

I even saw buildings painted in eclectic shades of blue, red and yellow or a three-tone colour scheme of just kaleidoscopic purple. I’m referring to only one building here which was painted three shades or three different colours! It did make for a visual feast that remains in one’s memory. Apart from the splash of colours, the Sri Lankans are good at clever and innovative use of space. I passed by a little cottage abutting the main road in Kalutara, a small village on the way to Bentota (which is their premium beach area). I saw a man standing in a giant oval shaped photo frame! When I took a closer look, I realized that was his door. It had been cut into the stone exterior of his cottage in a perfect oval and the doorway was framed by wood trim that was painted a green colour.

In Galle, the southern-most point of Sri Lanka, a mansion called the Historical Mansion/ Museum that belonged to a Dutch officer has been renovated and is maintained by the Sri Lankan Tourism Department. Here, the high wood ceilings and floors have been saved from termites and vandalism. The museum does have a good collection of ancient telephones, cameras, utensils, lamps and jewellery used in earlier eras. Behind the mansion, a courtyard that seems inundated with lush vegetation is hemmed in by wooden galleries on the remaining three sides.

These are living quarters for the artisans who craft exquisite jewellery for the export market and work from here. I did not see any hint of unseemly extensions or deletions in the décor. The artisans seemed to be aware of the importance of the place they called home.

In Sri Lanka, transport is mostly by SUVs and MUVs (multi-utility vehicles) of foreign makes like Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Honda and Mazda. That is one reason why Sri Lanka looks and feels richer than India. Having much cleaner streets and completely paved pavements, than India, also adds to the country’s appeal. Sri Lanka has taken the effort to go all out to impress tourists and make it idyllic and as safe as possible.

I passed by gardens that overflowed with foliage. Lush bougainvillaea, exotic orchids and frangipani that grows wild in the fertile Sri Lankan soil. Hibiscus in an unusual cream colour peeked out over most people’s garden walls and gulmohars bloomed everywhere. In one garden, I saw a unique installation. The family had knocked out all the windows of their redundant SUV, stripped it off seats, engine, chassis and tyres and kept only the shell in their garden and had put clothes out to dry, where earlier the windows had been. It was such a eye-poppingly different garden ornament. Though, at first glance, it also looked like the van had just been abandoned by its occupants who had left their clothes behind in a hurry!

Homes have their own striking individuality seeping from their core. Apart from funky garden installations and photo-frame doors, there was another home which caught my eye. This one was innocuous enough in its design; just that the patch of grass in front of the house looked like the owner had a private zoo on his premises! He had carved life-like elephants, leopards and put them up in his garden. I later learnt, that he used this great marketing ploy to get people to notice his property, stop by and shop there for those pieces of wonderful, carved wildlife. Ingenuity combined with business acumen makes for a very enlivening landscape, that is called Sri Lanka.

Written for Architecture magazine (Belonging to the Council of Architecture, India)

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