The Great Hall of Independence

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Though many of the leaders who fought for our independence might now be no more, with the remnants of colonial times fast dwindling, there are only but a few tangible elements which are left to remind us of that monumental struggle, the sacrifice of many and the final triumph. The Independence monument at Colombo 7 is today the best symbol of that moment in time when the course of Sri Lankan history was changed. Though it is only once a year that the accountable authorities remember to mow the lawns, prune the bushes and clean the columns of this historic edifice, it still remains the most recognisable monument related to our Independence.


The project was commissioned by the Prime Minister of Ceylon –D.S Senanayake and the work was entrusted to Sir John Kothalawala who was the Minister for Transport and Works. Their ambition was to build a memorial “worthy of this country’s long and impressive history.”

Sir John Kothalawala assembled a team comprising the best Architects and town planners of that era including Mr. Wynne-Jones, the Chief Architect, Mr. Shirley D’Alwis, the University Architect and Mr Olivier Weerasinghe who acted as the Town planner. Venerable Mapalagama Vipulasara, the designer of the shrine room and the Buddha Statue at Ananda College which is considered the best statue of the kind in Sri Lanka acted as the designer of the sculptures. Even with such experts behind him, Sir John had to make several trips to D.S. Senanayake’s office to present a sketch that won the premier’s approval.

The Great Hall of Independence in Colombo 7, Sri Lanka
Independence Hall
Original Photo by ImageBang
released under a CC license

“The memorial should be worthy of this country’s long and impressive history” that was the goal that the designers had to strive for. It was finally decided that the best way to achieve this objective was to incorporate the features of the Audience Hall of the Kandyan Dynasty because it was considered the best architectural model on which the Independence Memorial should be designed. But features from more ancient times were also present to make it a true symbol of the “country’s long and impressive history.” Four lions, distinctively of the Yapahuwa tradition, stand guard at the foot of this commanding statue. Going further back in time, the Polonnaruwa traditions are visible in the balustrades and the sculptures around the hall.

The main purpose of the memorial hall was to hold joint sittings of the two houses of Parliament on ceremonious occasions and therefore it was designed to seat 432 people. It was also possible to hold levies, Durbars, Investitures, and official receptions for distinguished visitors and delegates from abroad. Another idea was to provide a focal centre to commemorate the annual independence celebrations, to act as a rostrum for public addresses to large assemblies and as a flagstaff for the continuous display of the national flag on ceremonial occasions. The men in charge of the operation wanted it to be pointed out with admiration not only by Sri Lankans but also by visitors to the country.

Statue of DS Senanayake at Independence Square
Statue of DS Senanayake at Independence Square
Original Photo by ImageBang
released under a CC license

Therefore it was a building of monumental proportions. It was designed in such a manner so that it was possible for a gathering of 25,000 seated on the Assembly Ground to have a clear view of any ceremony taking place in the Audience Hall while the maximum standing accommodation was calculated at 100,000. A permanent loudspeaker arrangement that was a part of the plan made the proceedings audible to all present. The design made it possible for the attendees to have a clear view of the ceremonies held within the Hall, the arrival of all dignitaries and their ascent by the main steps and of course their departure through the same route. The final objective was to have a place that will allow the greatest possible number of the public to participate in functions which hitherto had been reserved for a fortunate few, who could afford to pay huge amounts to procure tickets.

The ideal material suited for this construction was dressed stone masonry, but the high cost and the extremely slow rate of work associated with that material forced the authorities to make the building by using “reconstructed stone” and reinforced concrete so that it would closely resemble natural stone.

A dream not realized

In a letter sent to the Premier, Sir John expressed his desire to reserve “the ground normally reserved for public assemblies, parades or displays on ceremonial occasions to be laid out to provide a Sports Stadium.” In a time when there was no proper Sports arena in Sri Lanka, this idea was a generation ahead of his time.

The Great Hall of Independence
The Great Hall of Independence
Original Photo by ImageBang
released under a CC license

Sir John goes on to express his dissatisfaction with the level of support provided for sports and recreation of this country. “Sports should not lag behind the other amenities provided in different spheres of national life”. He planned to build a sporting arena comprising a running track for eight lanes of slandered width four feet wide for a 400 metre course, to accommodate cricket, rugger, soccer and hockey. The original blueprints show a grandstand for special guests, for the teams participating and the press.

A special area was reserved for kids and orchestral music could be played from the tiers of the building on days of the week for the benefit of those who were to use the space for rest and relaxation.

It is a pity that apart from acting as a space for rendezvous for kids and adults the other grand objectives of Sir John were never realised. It is perhaps a nation’s misfortune.

For many, Independence Square has acquired a character of its own. Even though the authorities forget to maintain the monument, hundreds of ordinary citizens patronise it on a daily basis. Lovers shelter under its magnificent roof and stroll the lawns hand in hand, young children ride their bicycles and play around while a reasonable number of fitness enthusiasts jog and walk around the main hall, in somewhat of a ritualistic homage. In a way, this freedom of the common people is more of a tribute to Independence Square than any state patronage. It is indeed very ironic that, since the venue of Independence Day celebrations was transferred to the Galle Face Green last year, common people now can freely access the Independence Square even on February 4 rather than being denied entry on Independence Day itself, due to security reasons.

However disturbing developments are occurring in the vicinity of Independence Square, mainly because of the blatant disregard for this national monument. Hoardings with mug shots of various local and national politicians have come up in the vicinity of the square. In what was earlier a “no advertising zone” now cutouts of various individuals have been put up disregarding the sanctity of the square. Even the new traffic plan does not seem to have considered the dignity of the Independence Hall and the statue of the first leader of Independent Ceylon. Today the uniflow system of traffic ensures that a vehicle cannot enter the Independence Square getting a frontal view of the monument.

Yes, it is a place of fun and enjoyment for us all. But next time you jog or go for a walk or race your vehicle through Independence Avenue have your fun but don’t forget what this place was meant to be. It is above all, a place to celebrate and remember those who sacrificed their lives to make freedom a reality.

By Gihan Indragupha and Rathindra Kuruwitta
The Nation, February 04th, 2007

Also See

Map of Independence Hall

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Traveling Directions to Independence Hall

Route from Galle Face
distance from Galle Face Courts, Colombo : 5 km
Travel time : 15 min
Driving directions : see on google map


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