In the ancient times, when there were no proper roadways or transport facilities other than narrow footpaths through dense jungles. Infested with wild animals and for transport only bullock carts were available, the villagers very seldom opt to leave their villages for Pilgrimages or to visit their friends and relatives who stayed in other areas. With greatest difficulties and hundred and one risks, one journey, they dared to take was to go to Sri Pada once a year to worship. It is said that since this was a very dangerous journey, the villagers, were in the habit of transferring their belongings and properties to next of kin as they were doubtful of their safe return.
Since this journey takes a number of days, they had to spend the nights in some safe place and relax. Main purpose of building ambalams was to help these travelers to rest their weary limbs, prepare meals and to spend the night. Very often these ambalams were erected near a stream. Also by the side of it they placed a big pitcher of water called “pinthaaliya” moulded either in clay or stone.
The Sri Lankan-born art-historian and philosopher Ananda K Coomaraswamy in an open letter to the Kandyan chiefs published in the Ceylon Observer on 17th February 1905, referring to ambalams says “Of the latter I know but few really fine and ancient example; of these, one is at Mangalama near Kegalle; this Ambalama was rebuilt so late as the middle of the last century from the materials of the earlier one, and is, even so, a very fine specimen of Kandyan architecture specially as regards the timbering of the roof and the beautiful gones or drooping lotus capitals, so different from careless modern copies that are sometimes seen, as for example in the new ambalama at Ratnapura, which is indeed built in a real Kandyan style, but much degraded in the details of its wood-work”.
In addition to using ambalams as resting places for the weary travellers, they were used as centres to exchange news and to chew betel in leisure. Also it was the place where village committees met. Robert Knox in his book on Ceylon says: “At their leisure when their affairs will permit, they commonly meet at places built for strangers and way-faring men to lodge in, in their language called Amblomb, where they sit chewing betel and looking one upon the other very gravely and solidly, discoursing concerning the affairs of court between the king and the great men; and what employment the people of the city are busied about. For as it is the chief of their business to serve the King, so the chief of their discourse is concerning such matters. Also they talk of their own affairs, about cattle and husbandry. And when they meet with outlandish men they inquire about the laws and government of their country, and if it be like theirs; and what taxes and duties we are bound to pay, and perform to our king, &c” Thus we could see, the ambalams had played a very intimate and vital role in the lives of the villagers.
Davy in his book on Ceylon says that at Rambukwella, in Teldeniya, there was a small ambalama in close proximity to a beautiful temple custody of which was under four Buddhist monks.
In the Sinhalese encyclopedia (Volume 1, Page 696-1963 First Edition) ambalama is defined as a kind of hall erected by the side of the road for the benefit of wayfarers to relax on the way, as vehicles were rare in ancient times.
It was believed that to build these Ambalamas for the use of travelers is a meritorious deed and to pollute them is an unpardonable sin. On this belief people of means did not hesitate to construct these resting places on suitable locations and. They tried. Their best to keep- them spick and span.
In some of these ambalams there had been planks erected as seats on different levels. It was said, specially when there were discussions on matters relating to the village with the elders and the chiefs of the village, those who gather there are expected to occupy the seats according to their age, status and sometimes according to their castes as well.
Even in our Sandeesha poems (Messenger Poems) reference had been made to ambalams. For example verse number 110 of Selalihini Sandeeshaya and verse number 166 of Gira Sandeeshaya request their ‘Messengers’ to enjoy the beautiful vista of the surrounding and to rest at the ambalama before proceeding.
Due to carelessness, ignorance or lack of patriotism most of these Ambalams are no more and what is left are in a dilapidated condition which need early attention for the benefit of our descendents.
In addition to the famous ambalama at Kadugannawa which was recently renovated by the archeological department at a cost of Rs. 300,000.00, some of the ambalams in the central province are at Siridigana, close proximity to Teldeniya-Rangala road, at Teldeniya close to the police station by the side of Kandy-Mahiyangana road, at Kengalle on the Kandy-Digana road via Kundasale, at Makuldeniya close to the Sub Post Office, Makuldeniya, on Teldeniya-Rangala road and at Dunhinna on Teldeniya-Werapitiya road close to Dunhinna Rural Hospital. On the Old Victoria road about 1 1/2 km. from Digana Junction there are remnants of a Gal Ambalama. It is revealed that most of the stone pillars and slabs have been removed by unscrupulous people to construct houses or to beautify their gardens.
Other than above, there are several ambalams and remnants of ambalams strewn in most parts of the country. Just a few of them are at Daulugala and Embekke in Kandy district, Panavitiya on Dambadeniya-Anuradhapura road, Walawala – along Beliatte-Hakmana road, Werahera, Pita Kotte and on the Bellanwila road.
Before long, since there’s a possibility of these buildings of archeological value to disappear, for the sake of posterity it’s the bounden duty of those in authority to take immediate precautionary measures to protect and maintain these Ambalams – our architectural heritage.
AMBALAMA’S IN SRI LANKA
Alapatwewa Ancient Ambalama
Archeologists mapping the ancient road network from Anuradhapura found remains of ambalamas at Vijayarama and Alapatwewa . At Alapatwewa the ambalama was placed at a junction where several roads met. It was about 48 feet long, rectangular and constructed on a natural bed rock.
Only remains of this Ambalama today is the name of the junction where the ambalama once stood, Ambalama Handiya. The location of the building is not identifiable.