Panavitiya - most beautiful Ambalama, traditional Sri Lankan rest hall
Sri Lanka's Ambalamas are small open halls that served many different puposes in historical times and are still in use as as tea break hut of farmers. Panavitiya’s Ambalama is the most beautiful one due to excellent woodcarvings. The protected archaeological site is almost never visited by foreigners.
The Ambalama of Panavitiya was built in the 18th century and is restored by the Archaeological Department, as this is actually the most important monument of its kind. This is to say: If you want to see a Sinhalese Ambalama, Panavitiya is the best choice. It’s a particularly beautiful example of the wooden architecture of the Kandy era and richly adorned with carvings. Actually, if you want to see Kandyan style woodcarvings outside the hillcountry, Panavitiya again is the best choice.
Structure of the Panavitiya Ambalama
The foundation is a 4m long and 3m wide. The base is made of stone. There are four granite chunks on the edges, in between the floor is filled with rubble.
Cross planks are drawn between the outer two rows of wooden pillars that support the roof. The cross planks also serve as benches, allowing people to be grouped around a the center of the hall.
The tiled roof of the Panavitiya Ambalama was constructed or reconstructed more recently, only some fragments of the original roof remained in situ. But all 26 wooden pillars of the Panavitiya Ambalama still originals. They are strikingly and extraordinarily richly decorated, considering that this was only a small rural refuge and not a sanctuary or a palace building. Actually, Panavitiya’s wood carvings are even more beautiful than those in Kandy. Archaeologists consider them second in quality only to those of Embekke, the temple having Sri Lanka’s most famous wood carvings.
The most lovely carvings of Panavitiya are those on the nine inner pillars. The capitals are among the best specimen in the Kandyan style found anywhere in Sri Lanka. Cubic extensions to all four directions show a lotos blossom on each of the undersides. The capitals of the outer corner pillars are the most intricately caved ones.
In addition to the common lotus motif, the panels at he columns show deer, two fighting snakes, dancers, acrobats, two women greeting each other and two men talking to each other. Find images further below.
What is an Ambalama?
Ambalamas are open pillared halls. Actually, they form a significant part of traditional folk Sinhalese culture in early modern times. In the Kandy period, they served as a resting places, refuges and free overnight accommodations along pilgrimage routes. Many pilgrimages were multi-day peregrinations requiring affordable overnight stays. To a certain extent, Ambalamas can be called the models of the – much more comfortable - British resthouses which provided accommodation for colonial officers at day-stages (for then horse-drawn carriages) along major roads on the island. Today, many Ambalamas are just bothies at bus stops.
Ambalamas were places of communication, they were meetings points of different groups of pilgrims, facilitating the interregional spread of news this way. Apart from serving as pilgrim rests, they also were used by local farmers for a midday snap protected from sun exposure.
Furthermore, Ambalamas served local community as a kind of courtroom for arbitral tribunals. Disputes between conflicting parties could be resolved in a civilized manner without a judge's decision. Tax collectors moving from village to village also settled down at Ambalamas to collect taxes from the local community in the respected wooden hall. All in all, an Ambalama formed a small cultural and administrative center just outside the village, being a more peaceful place than a market hall in the center.
Panavitiya is not far from the Negombo-Kurunegala road (B308) used by many guests when travelling from the airport to the Cultural Triangle. Panavitiya is just four kilometers northeast of Dambadeniya. The small but noteworthy Ambalama of Panavitiya is situated within paddy fields.