In medieval Ceylon when a man takes a bride and walks with her to his village, its customary for the woman to walk in front and the man behind her, said Robert Knox, who chronicled the life and times during his capture here. The reason for this tradition, he says is that once a man walked ahead of his bride and she was stolen from behind and the groom didn’t have a clue that his brand new wife had disappeared. In any case both men and women walked plenty of miles then, especially if you didn’t have a bullock cart or a retinue of slaves to carry you in a palanquin, On their journeys their wayside rest places would be the ambalamas.
Recently I had an opportunity to see two such ambalamas in the Kurunegala District. The first was the Panavitiya Ambalama is situated close to Matiyangana near Narammala in the Kurunegala district. This served as a wayside shelter for travellers on the ancient foot path from Dambadeniya to Kurunegala and Yapahuwa.
Not sure who erected the Panavitiya one, but it has been repaired and reconstructed over the years. The large timber columns are carved in the Kandyan tradition and floor beams rest on rock boulders planted on the ground. The structure is designed to achieve stability and raising it above ground level keeps the beams dry and away from white ants. The roof has the small Kandyan peti-ulu tiles.
The second was the Karagahagedera Ambalama, similar in structure to the Panavitiya one but without the carvings on the timber columns that Panavitiya is known for.
The four corners of both rest on solid rock boulders.
Coomaraswamy’s description of the Kandyan wooden pillars (kappa) fits the Panavitiya ones to T. The beams holding the roof of the Panavitiya ambalama are carved with a great variety of designs, elephants, dancers, birds, flowers, garlands of pearls (mutu dela), and the Goddess Lakshmi is centred on a cross ceiling beam.
One column at Panavitiya Ambalam had entwined cobras with the cobra hoods (naga bandhu).
There were many of these ambalamas at no great distance apart on frequent paths, says Ananda Coomaraswamy. There were better ones in each village, erected by all villagers, or by one man (or even a woman), anxious to perform a meritorious act.
It was easy to imagine the weary wayfarers resting at Karagahagedera ambalama located near a lush paddy field. Most travellers carried their own food “Bath mula” a rice packet, probably wrapped in a banana or a lotus leaf. Often they would carry their own cooking utensils. Drinking water was supplied by the nearby villagers in stone or earthen pots, covered with a lid and provided with a dipper (kinissa).
There were a few more pretentious rest-houses, called madama or idama, where food and firewood etc were provided free to strangers, being kept by a madama-rala or idama-rala who held land for the performance of this duty. Such would appear to have been the Governor’s house where Knox made a stay (on his escape) about six miles south of Anuradhapura; “having reached his house,”says Knox, “according to the Country manner we went and sat down in the open house; which kind of Houses are built for the reception of strangers.
Coomaraswamy lists the wayfarers as mostly persons going to Kandy to perform their services or take their produce-rent;officials on tour, who travelled with a great retinue; King’s messengers; a few traders; and parties of pilgrims on their way to Adam’s Peak or other shrines.
The ambalama served not only as a halting place for strangers, but was also generally resorted to for exchange of news and a quiet chew (of betel) says Coomaraswamy pointing out that it served as the meeting place for the village or gam-sabhava, and was intimately associated with the life of the village community.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. Medieval Sinhalese Art 3rd ed. 1979.
Knox, Robert An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies 1984