A series by Gaveshaka in association with Studio Times
The ‘ambalama’ was the resting place
Ambalame Pina
Valan kadak gena
Eka bindapi gona
Ekata mata hina
It is unlikely that there is anyone who had not sung this popular verse. It’s the thoughts of a boy who watched the scene of how a bull broke the pots of Pina, the pingo-bearer. Obviously Pina stayed in an ‘ambalama’ on his rounds selling the pots.

Just as we have resthouses in the outstations today, the ‘ambalama’ was the resting place in the old days. It was a convenient spot for traders to rest since most of the time they carried their wares and walked from house to house. Those were the days when there were no vehicles. The only mode of transport was the cart. Short distances were always covered on foot. Using the cart for long distance trips took days. It was in the ‘ambalama’ that they rested, not necessarily for the night but whenever the bulls were tired and needed rest.

The ‘ambalama’ or wayside shelter is equivalent to the inn in the western countries. The inns were constructed for the benefit of pilgrims and other travelers. These date back to the days of the Roman Empire. In our own country, the resting places were referred to in various names, the most common ones being ‘mavat madu’ (sheds by the roadside), ‘madam’ and ‘ambalam’.

The ‘ambalama’ was erected along roadways which were used frequently by people. Sometimes it was situated in the middle of a roadway when people had to walk round it, or near a junction. The ‘ambalama’ served as a halting place for strangers. When they met at the ‘ambalama’ in the evening they would exchange news in the countryside and share a chew of betel.

The villagers would get together and build an ‘ambalama’ for the benefit of passers-by or a wealthy person in the village would erect one to earn merit. As the Buddha has preached “the householder should dig tanks, plant trees, and erect rest-houses on the roads, and make bridges over rivers, by such great works he can conquer the three worlds.”

The ‘ambalama’ was very often a simple structure – an open hall with pillars supporting the roof. The smallest ‘ambalama’ consisted of a foundation of four beams to sit upon, with four posts at the corners and a thatched roof.

The better ones had more pillars like the Panavita ambalama seen in the picture. Situated in the Kurunegala district close to Narammala, it is built on a stone platform and the timber pillars are raised with solid timber supporters. Carved wooden brackets support the timbered roof. A bigger and more elaborate ‘ambalama’, as the one at Kadugannawa on the Kandy road (picture 2), would have a room in addition to the hall. A half wall is erected round the hall. A tiled roof adorns the ‘ambalama’. There was also the provision for a single roomed ‘ambalama’ to be divided into compartments for those who spent the night and sought a little privacy. A cloth drawn across the hall divided it. Some had provision to cook the meals. There were many who carried their own food and cooking utensils. Often an ‘ambalama’ was built near a place where water was available. Generally drinking water was made available on stone or clay pots which were covered with a lid and provided with a coconut shell cop tied to a handle.

This was a common sight along the roadway, provided by neighbours so that those who walked could quench their thirst. The ‘Sandesa’ poems, which describe a route from one point to the other with a bird taking a message, refer to wayside resting places along the route.

Village names like Andiambalama, Walambalama, Ambalangoda possibly were derived due to the presence of ‘ambalamas’. With transport facilities improving and with better places to stay, the ‘ambalama’ has disappeared. A few have been conserved but hardly any are being used. Waiting halls have been erected at major temples for the benefit of pilgrims.

Bus loads of pilgrims are a common sight at popular sites and a temple nearby always provides a convenient place to stay. The parties would take their provisions and cooking utensils along with firewood and cook their meals.

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