Flying into Colombo and travelling through its commercial district into the heart of the city, there’s a niggling sense of disbelief. While Sri Lanka is moving on after a violent civil war, its Capital looks like a European metropolis.

Fast food chains, large-scale construction, a multitude of banks, open green spaces and hotels trying to outdo each other, all dot the coastal Galle Road; a gleaming spectacle fast becoming unrecognisable, even to residents who have lived here for generations.

Of the few things that have remained untouched by the war and the tsunami in 2004, is the legacy of the country’s most renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003). Bawa designed the Sri Lankan Parliament as well as a number of houses and hotels. A man who seemingly embraced architecture on a whim and — armed with his style of Tropical Modernism — went on to create spaces that were ‘modern’ yet incorporated local and natural elements that complemented the culture and landscape of his sites.

Bawa’s Colombo residence, Number 11, situated in the noticeably upmarket Bagatalle Road, for instance, is often the first stop in the pilgrimage that his admirers often undertake.

Away from the din of the Capital, the house is now maintained by a trust, and visitors can participate in a tour of the residence, which has an almost museum-like quality to it. Red oxide tiles and stark white walls form a generous canvas strung across a grid of wooden columns and painted doors. Earthy hues dominate the paintings, furniture, tapestry, statues and curios; all left intact from Bawa’s time, imprinted by his elegance and style. Although the interiors appear to be somewhat removed from what one might consider Sri Lanka’s true architectural vernacular, the sloping, tiled roofs, skylights and the frangipani trees are all rooted in the local soil, leaving you in no doubt about its coordinates.

The two rooms upstairs, where Bawa once hosted friends, now comprise a guest suite. But it is clear that those who wish to stay at Number 11 must appreciate the space they inhabit, and allow its leisurely magic to work on them, rather than expect world-class amenities and room service.

Pick up a kaleidoscope of your choice, settle down with a book, or spend hours marvelling at the unique lamps, paintings, record players, cassettes and art deco pieces that surround you. Live a life well-lived by Bawa.

Barely 60km south of Colombo lies another of Bawa’s projects — arguably, also his most ambitious — the Lunuganga Estate in Bentota; its rambling gardens, spread over 15 acres of an abandoned rubber plantation. At this country retreat of his, Bawa supervised the planting of trees and plants, the creation of water bodies and the sourcing and placement of sculptures and paintings. He also designed a few rooms (now open to guests), all of which come together to form breathtaking vistas no matter which direction you look.

The gardens are open to visitors in the day, and on request, a traditional Sri Lankan lunch is served at a table overlooking the placid lake Dedduwa, which surrounds Lunuganga. The sticky-sweet brinjal moju and ambulpolos (sour baby jackfruit) curry that could at a pinch pass for chicken, are unforgettable, making you want to run into the kitchen to demand more, the minute the veshti-clad server takes your dishes away. It’s a fitting meal before you begin the guided walk through Lunuganga, weaving through various levels of verdure, lichen-covered stone and cement.

Bawa’s love for metal sculptures and painting is immediately evident to anyone who walks in his gardens.

The fading yellow, blue and green natural dye mural by artist Laki Senanayake —depicting bows, arrows and sword-wielding warriors — is just one example of the art around the gardens that urge you to stop and stare. It is not unusual to spot langurs, monitor lizards, deer and birds that have embraced this tranquil eco-system.

Bawa’s Lunuganga Estate and his Colombo residence are no place for a ‘holiday’. They are not places with WiFi, televisions and swimming pools, or the kind that would tolerate drunken debauchery or a child’s tantrums. They do offer, however, an invitation to explore the spaces that inspired one of Sri Lanka’s best minds.


Get there: Sri Lankan Airlines and Air India have regular flights between Colombo and Chennai (with connections to all major metros). A round trip costs around ₹10,000.

Currency: The exchange rate is about SLR 2 = ₹ 1 and SLR 130 = $1.

Stay: To soak in the charms of Number 11 in Colombo or Lunuganga in Bentota, be prepared to pay a king’s ransom ( — one night’s stay can cost up to SLR 25,000 (inclusive of breakfast). You can also take a day tour of Number 11 (10am-5pm; SLR1,000 per person) and Lunuganga (9am-5pm; SLR1,500 per person; lunch SLR3,000).

Eat: If you have the time to spare, stop by at the Cafe on the 5th (near Number 11) in Colombo for good food and a great ambience. Or try Upali’s at Cinnamon Grand (CWW Kannangara Mawatha).

Tip: In Colombo, visit the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple by the Beira Lake — the Simamalaka section of the temple complex was also designed by Bawa.

( Tara Rachel Thomas is a Bangalore-based writer )