From the earliest times, Sri Lankan architects have built with nature, treating the interventions of topography, vegetation and water as both constraints and opportunities. Diyababula is one such parallel paradise, a mature forest and one man’s extraordinary vision.
Diyababula is visionary Sri Lankan artist and designer Laki Senanayake’s studio retreat. He is a versatile artist who has also distinguished himself as an architect, sculptor and landscape designer. He has played a sterling part in defining the contemporary architecture of Sri Lanka, as a friend and colleague of legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa.
Laki has substantially influenced the perception of aesthetics in Sri Lanka; his drafting technique, renderings, sketches and sculpture are a part of several public buildings in Sri Lanka, including the Sri Lankan Parliament.
Laki’s artistic haven is Diyababula, a 5 acre water garden in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, in the Dambulla region which is famed for its cultural heritage sites. The land on which Diyababula is located was originally owned by his brother. Laki’s brother undertook a series of whimsical agricultural experiments that even included chilli cultivation on the land. Never entirely successful as a commercial venture, Laki bought the land from his brother in the 70’s, planted a forest and built a pavilion on the site in the 80’s, thus Diyababula became his retreat, a place for rejuvenation away from Colombo; and it has been so for the last 20 years.
In recent years (since 2006), it has become Laki’s full time residence. The magic of a gurgling perennial spring or Diyababula (in Sinhala) is the reigning highlight of this space.
‘Water has been a central component of Sri Lankan culture and consciousness since the earliest times and is a key element of the landscape’ writes David Robson, (who has written extensively on Sri Lankan Architecture) in Bawa the Sri Lankan Gardens.
The design of Diyababula is based on a deep understanding of the ancient Sri Lanka garden heritage and has been built along the lines of the magnificent water gardens of Kaludiya Pokuna and the subliminal aesthetics of the secluded monastic retreats of Arankele and Ritigala.
Diyababula is a private garden, a patch of forest and a space for artistic experimentation all based on the orchestration of vegetation and water on site. In Diyababula, Laki has carved out an ecological retreat, for himself and for the numerous reptilian, amphibian, bird and mammal species that belong to the region.
The beauty of its landscapes is that they are ephemeral and ever evolving. In Diyababula, the wilderness has been painstakingly established over time, forming a riparian buffer that harbours and nurtures the rich wildlife species. A series of pools and check dams were created by Laki to hold water in the basins while directing their flow, to create a sequence of water features, still pools, expansive ponds and small cascades, all creating a constant auditory symphony.
A simple stilted pavilion acts as Laki’s living quarters. The pavilion is roofed but open to expansive views of the landscape as it is perched over the waters and has been based on the Sri Lankan vernacular; an ambalama that Laki himself has depicted beautifully in his book documenting the Sri Lankan vernacular architecture, Architecture of an Island.
It’s really a pavilion amidst wilderness, merely a roof for the rains, where the barriers between the built and landscape are minimal. Birds and monkeys are tantalisingly close to the artist and weave in and out of this garden pavilion whilst negotiating their way through the forest and into the paintings and sketches of this master artist.
Massive boulders discovered on site, have been deliberately overgrown with gnarled Ficus trees. The boulders being incorporated into the composition punctuate the arboreal views. While the minimal possessions within the pavilion contrast starkly with the rich textural quality of the surrounding landscape a series of garden structures which include Laki’s metal workshop, the care taker’s quarters and guest quarters made of living Palmyra trees occupy the rest of Diyababula.
Laki’s painting and sculpture derives inspiration from the vegetation and animal life of Sri Lanka. Diyababula acts as a beguiling setting for Laki’s sculptures. Warthogs, mystical unicorns, jaguars, owls, roosters, reinforce the experience of the natural world more intensely. Laki has carefully inserted a series of biomorphic sculptures into this composition. The landscape therefore never ceases to be an interesting contrast between the natural and constructed.
Diyababula is an oasis amidst a mosaic of paddy fields. It is contextually relevant, ecologically sound and aesthetically sublime. It is also a great example of a contemporary landscape and architectural project that has acted as a catalyst for an ecological change in the region.
Text and Photographs Varna Shashidhar