If you go on an extended pilgrimage to hotels in southern Sri Lanka designed by the great Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, it is hard not to be overcome by a heretical, ahistorical thought. Was Bawa, who died in May 2003, a reincarnation of the Mughals? Visit the Heritance Ahungalla and a pool in the driveway reflects the palm trees lined up to greet you. Step into its lobby and the series of vistas—of the dramatic entrance mirrored in the adjoining swimming pool that also refracts the colours of the sky—are akin to an optical illusion. Ahead, the Indian Ocean could be a hallucinatory mirage.
In a lecture in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1985, Bawa suggested this view had cast a spell even over its creator: “If the world were only flat, you’d see Africa on the horizon.” While the Heritance Ahungalla on Galle Road recalls the mirroring effects of the water bodies around the Taj Mahal and in Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Cinnamon Bentota Beach, a 20-minute drive down the same road, offers a different kind of Mughal enchantment.
The cupola of the reception features a shamiana-styled gigantic batik by Ena de Silva fit to welcome a medieval emperor. Every animal to walk the grass of this hallowed island is represented in 160 panels: wild boars, elephants, peacocks in the wild, luminous colours. This is Jungle Book reworked for Asia, except that even the snakes, against an iridescent blue backdrop, are rendered beautiful. De Silva throws in a few mythical animals too, a theme picked up by Ismeth Raheem in his paintings for the lobby. The lobby doubles as the setting for one of the most beautiful bars in the world, with views of waves crashing on the beach in front and the quieter, almost ascetic expanse of Bentota river to the side.
Along Sri Lanka’s southern coast, from Colombo to Galle, are hotels and villas designed by Bawa with the visual opulence of another time. Nowhere on earth, arguably, can one be a beach bum and an architectural aesthete so seamlessly. At The Villa Bentota by KK Collection, the garden consists of nothing but grass and giant coconut trees with a frangipani or two. At Club Villa next door, a checkerboard entrance with a small pond gives way to a similarly minimalist lawn. The scene is disturbed only by the exposed roots of another ancient frangipani in a slow-motion wrestling match with the ground beneath it, and the trains running by. A neighbouring villa is Boutique 87, where another docudrama of nature unfolds. Guests in just three rooms enjoy 17 acres set off against a paddy field, overgrown footpaths and a jewel of a narrow pool hidden in the foliage. As you walk towards the pool, a statue of Hanuman leaps out of the shadows. Are there animals around? I ask, as I make my way through an especially overgrown bit. “Sometimes snakes,” one of the hotel staff says casually. “Wild boar occasionally and lots of monkeys.” Boutique 87 is booked often by film crews and advertising directors. No wonder: It really is a movie set.
I usually skew towards small villa properties in Sri Lanka but the service at Cinnamon Bentota Beach, when I visited recently, was a standout and its design hard to beat. Not surprisingly, Bawa’s late 1960s design has been imitated time and again across Sri Lanka. The restoration, a few years ago, by Channa Daswatte, who worked closely with Bawa as a young man and is a leading architect in South Asia (with buildings in India ranging from a museum in Porbandar, Gujarat, to hotels in Bengal and Odisha), was meticulous. Many of the chairs and table lamps designed by Bawa and recreated for the renovation of the lobby give it the flavour of Scandinavian design, complete with textile genius Barbara Sansoni’s panels for the ceiling that mimic a Sri Lankan sunset. This is an unforgettable setting for a grand wedding or a quiet drink by the bar where bartenders skilfully adapt cocktails to cater to guests’ whims. The hotel even has an irrepressibly enthusiastic member of the staff, Yashika, deputed to take guests around to understand the different works of art. I learn that Laki Senanayake’s dinosaur-sized metal peacock was not moved from the lobby even during the renovation.
On a visit in January, I split a few days between Club Villa and Heritance Ahungalla. The latter was built in 1979 by a large Sri Lankan conglomerate as the country moved away from the excesses of a socialist state. With tourism suffering owing to the back-to-back calamities of the pandemic and last year’s economic crisis, parts of the hotel felt in need of a refresh. But the charm of the front office staff, with smiles that shimmer like the views around them, makes up for this, as does a complimentary all-day juice bar serving freshly made wood apple and pineapple juice. A singer with Rastafarian dreadlocks, who does covers of Bob Marley every evening on a stage with a Mughal hall of mirrors, had a nice turn of phrase: “Welcome to beautiful Sri Lanka, ladies and gentlemen, where the politicians are crazy.”
I have been visiting Club Villa (designed by Bawa in the mid- to late 1970s) since I stayed there two decades ago with my late parents on our last holiday together. Its elegant simplicity and monastery-like environs are not for everyone perhaps. I am often overcome with both a sense of gratitude and loss, what Orhan Pamuk identified as huzun, a nostalgia for another time. Memories of that holiday come back with near total recall but there’s also appreciation that the Japanese owner stayed religiously true to Bawa’s vision. One rarely sees the other guests except at mealtimes, making it easier to pretend to be lord of the manor.
The past couple of decades have made Sri Lanka a byword for sorrow and beauty. A tourist may not notice the severity of the economic crisis. The lawns and swimming pools of The Villa and Club Villa, however, are by the side of railway tracks. One contemplates all too closely this most unequal of economic recoveries: Commuters lean out of jammed third-class carriages while you daydream on a pool bed. Sri Lankan-born author Michael Ondaatje’s comic memoir, Running In The Family, captured this contradiction when he wrote that the 1929 crash on Wall Street had “a terrible effect: Many of the (race) horses had to be taken over by the military.”
Yet Sri Lanka boasts of an unusual esprit de corps even in crisis, evident in the storming of the presidential palace last September, which had the festive air of a picnic. Last month, awaiting sunset, I was walking along Bentota beach picking up plastic bottles when I realised two boys in their late teens had been swept out by the riptides. After a half-hour struggle against the rough sea, the first was pulled out by a shaven-headed lifeguard. The other required a team of four using small flotation devices that looked like Styrofoam gas cylinders. One watched, sick to the stomach but also in admiration at both the fragility of life and the strength of desire to sustain it. When I spoke with one of the lifeguards, where he had fallen to his knees, spent, he said he was 53. The two teenagers had to be hospitalised. The resort manager of Cinnamon Bentota Beach had come out to see if the hotel’s pool attendants were needed.
That evening also seemed like a morality play in which industrious, ingenious people somehow collectively overcome the epic challenges fate all too often sends their way.
Rahul Jacob is a former Hong Kong bureau chief for the Financial Times, a former travel, food and drink editor of FT Weekend, and the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.