What is so special about Sri Lanka?

Post Written : Feb 15th 2017

Known as Serendipity, it is impossible not to be uplifted in Sri Lanka and it isn’t just the light or heat. It’s an amazing island steeped in history and diverse influences from across the globe which have all seeped into the fabric of the country, but it is still the Sri Lanka I remember from my young childhood.

On a recent trip there, I was astounded by the riot of colour and diversity I encountered – tradition and modernity colliding happily together. Sri Lankans are very religious with all types rubbing along together – Bhuddism being the largest religion, it is common to see dignified monks going about their business and bringing the most amazing colour to a street – although I couldn’t resist the photo when I saw these two young trainees taking a selfie by the sea – clearly technology will stop at no man.

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I could not stop looking at the colour in this monk’s clothing, so beautiful against that deep blue-green sea.

Newly married couples also come to the town to have photographs taken – the intricacy of the bridal saris is really quite something – the details in this beautiful girl’s clothes show how much craftsmanship is an important design feature in Sri Lankan life.

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Because of it’s important position in Asia from a trading standpoint, Sri Lanka (the size of Ireland) has always had outside influences.

Historic Galle Fort in the southern part of the island was built by the Portuguese in the 1500’s and then extended by the Dutch a century later. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and attracts hundreds of visitors each year. Walking through the town you will hear not just Sri Lankans but Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Brits, French, Dutch, Russians…and the list goes on.

A few from these nations have decided to make Sri Lanka their home and as such, there is a great deal of demand on the design scene here. The design elements I noticed mostly seem to respect the integrity and style of the old buildings, so whilst you can feel how thoughtfully a place has been put together, there are no jarring or outlandish features. It is very tastefully achieved, letting the landscape and colour outside remain the star attraction.

The famous Galle Fort Hotel is one such example of a successful renovation. Originally built as a residential villa in the Dutch era in the 1600’s, it was bought and sensitively renovated by an Australian c 1999, when the tax rules on foreign ownership changed.

The front facade…

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…veranda dining area, lobby and one of the beautiful temple pieces now adorning throughout as ornaments…

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Whilst in Galle recently, I was keen to live as normal a week as possible. I wanted to keep up my usual yoga routine so I hopped into a tuk-tuk and headed a few miles up the road to “the jungle” to the Sri Yoga Shala so I could follow a couple of early morning classes. It was worth getting up early and I found a building with architecture indigenous to the area that nestles amongst dense yet manicured, lush greenery – I have never had such a wonderful yoga experience.

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This single delicately carved Hindu statue in the corner of the open yoga studio was the only simple decoration needed to define the space. Wood in Sri Lanka is expensive, teak or jackwood being the two main materials used in construction of doors, shutters, bannisters and floors etc. The effect is stunning and natural.

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Back In Galle, I stayed at the Prince of Galle – a new renovation by Australian owners who have moved to Sri Lanka permanently. Originally a house, the building has been converted into a boutique hotel to stunning effect.

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Polished concrete is a staple in Sri Lankan renovations and whilst tiles are readily available, they can be more expensive to install. With a 100% duty on all imports, polished concrete is ubiquitous – it is hugely practical and cooling and a finish I love as it can be installed in an array of colours. Adding a few colourful tiles to complement the scheme is a way of re-instating some Sri Lankan style into an interior.

Being a door lover (as many of my friends can attest to), these old jackwood doors are all that is needed in an otherwise simple area. Enjoying my iced coffee out on this balcony each day was a major treat watching life sashay by after a long day’s work.

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The architecture in Sri Lanka varies, sadly not much Portuguese influence remains but Dutch and British styles can be seen alot. This house within Galle fort, facing the sea, displays colonial architecture widely seen in the area and is a gorgeous example of simple design with stately looks. These old roof tiles on this house are actually just laid ontop of a more solid roof structure and they preserve the history of the building. The bright red tiles to the right on the next building along are used in some modern renovations but they lose the visual impact if not used well. Getting hold of old roof tiles and original doors and shutters is a mission in itself but worth the effort.

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As I wandered around the Fort I found countless beautiful visual moments that transported me back to a time of living here with my grandparents. The classic car below sits outside The Pedlars Inn Cafe known well locally for it’s delicious food and ice cream (which people travel for miles to enjoy).

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…wooden carvings and incense sticks burn at every corner filling the streets with an intoxicating fragrance…

…yet modernity is everywhere in amongst these historic buildings…

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Outside of Galle in nearby Weligama Bay, a 5* luxury hotel has been built alongside a cluster of super luxe villas. I had the opportunity to look around and I was shown gorgeous fret work installed by specialist artisans within the large open interiors. The interiors are tasteful and breathtaking and these new villas are an example of the investment in the Island. It is great to see money coming into Sri Lanka, but I was more excited that despite all this building work, locals go about their business un-disturbed and un-phased.

Weligama Bay…

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I spotted this amazing fisherman in the bay one morning. It’s impossible to tell his age, but fit as a flea and skilled beyond words, he was pulling in fish easily using minimal props.

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Elsewhere, colourful fishermen clamber up on to precarious stilts to do their work or pull out vibrant boats to sea twice a day. The colours all around had a profound effect on me, and are an inspiration to me as a designer.

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As I travel back and forth this year, I know I will continue to find fresh inspiration with each visit. One of the hardest things will be to harness what I find and distill it into a few well chosen components for the project. It is also really important to me to use local sources and suppliers as much as possible, the challenge being to root them out in a short space of time – it will challenge my skills to the limit as I juggle the difficulties thrown in by geography, language barriers and sheer availability of resources.

In the meantime, back at home in London, I will refer back to the simplicity of materials and vibrancy of colours that I find in Sri Lanka whilst driving around in a tuk-tuk that can influence my designs for my clients here.

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