The forgotten Pitakotte Ambalama
Our Ambalam are noble edifices built out of compassion for foot weary
travelers. Later they underwent certain modifications and one would even
find in them seeds of wayside inns that the west claim as their
invention. The Pitakotte Ambalama though now in a sorry state has its
own spectacular history as royal visitors and Ministers rested there
waiting for summons from the palace.
As children's orbit of awareness widens they tend to ask some strange
"How is it that at one corner of Colombo there is a Kotuwa and a
Pitakotuwa and at the other end again a Kotte and a Pita Kotte?". That
was what my grandchild wanted to know. At least on one point he seemed
to be clear, that is that Kotte and Kotuwa have more or less the same
meaning. I remember the late Mr Ananda Tissa De Alwis getting into hot
water after stating at a public meeting that Kotte is a Tamil word.
Scholars buzzed over this and many opined that it is a Sinhala word. I
have no intention of getting entangled in that issue.
However I had to answer my grandson. And did it as simply as I could
or may be the simplicity was a cover for a complicated set up.
"It is simple. About 500 years back when the Sinhala people
threatened from the North were looking for a secure place to put up
their capital a Minister named Alagakkonara located a place by the
Diyawanna where it branched off and built a Kotuwa or Kotte or Fort
there and the king's Palace was built there.
In due time an outer Fort or Kotte grew around it and that was called
Pita Kotte. You know that the Westerners or the Suddhas came over here
from across the seas and they put up a Fort close to the Colombo Harbour
which expanded later. That was called Kotuwa and as years passed the
area around it came to be known as Pita Kotuwa."
Of course I had made it too simple, even inaccurate for there are in
the first instance not two but three Kottes today ie. Kotte, Pitakotte
and Etulkotte. Kotte proper today is known as Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte
and is made famous by the siting of the Parliament, but locals contest
They say that the Parliament is actually sited not in Kotte but in
what was once a forsaken island in the large village of Madiwela or
Mahadiya Wela (Torrent of water) that brought down waters from an outer
hilly area to palins below. In the particular island called Duwa, today
the location of our grand Parliament had been a grove of coconut trees
that attracted men seeking bliss from a beverage fermented in sheathes
of the coconut flower. They sailed in boats cruising along Diyawanna
waters to climb the trees to manufacture the Sura that made men dizzy
and act strange. That is how times and climes change.
Our topic however is the Pitakotte Ambalama, today a sorry sight but
500 years back the Southern entry point to the Great Kingdom of Kotte.
The book "Ambalama, buildings of Sri Lanka" put out by the Faculty of
Architecture, Moratuwa has this into on this Ambalama.
It refers to Kotte Ambalama also called Galambalama different from
Matiambalama or clay Ambalama now totally extinct and unknown except by
bus conductors who howl the name. Galambalama's earliest written
evidence is found in a map of the Kotte Kingdom (1413-1565) indicating
the present site. It had been placed at the junction of three main
roads, ie. The roads from the four gravats or Kadavath, three gravats
and Kalutara. So the time gap of 500 years simply fades away for even
today it serves as a junction of three main roads ie. Colombo - Nugegoda
road (going on to coastal town), Battaramulla Dehiwala road (again going
on to t he coast) and Borella Thalawathugoda road also named the New
This Ambalama had been built here as a location for people to rest
before entering Etul Kotte from Pitakotte.
Unauthorized people had to wait at the Ambalama till permission was
given to enter for the royal Palace was within. How time seems to stand
still! Even noblemen had to wait in this place till signals for entry
were given. It was a time pregnant with threats of invasion from the
North. Hence the precautions probably.
Looking at the Ambalama today one can wonder how it put up a crowd
and the above book has this explanation.
"The length of this Ambalama is unusually long"!
The section protruding on to the tarred road has been destroyed.
One gazes at the pathetic looking ambalama and wonders on this. Not
more than ten people can move about there while stray dogs and cats find
it a paradise. What has happened to the old Ambalama? Doesn't it need a
resurrection? Elongation is impossible. Ambalamas are themselves a
significant component of the Lankan architectural tradition. They can be
even described as noble edifices since compassion for way - weary
travelers has usually been the motivating factor in building them. Rich
philanthropists have been the main builders of them, kings rarely
intervening. They are the earliest community centres too.
Later men gathered in them to discuss important public issues.
Travellers on long journeys sat there, sometimes overnight and exchanged
information. Even the State later used them for judicial matters and
such like. These Ambalamas dot the island in many places. Some are of
high architectural vintage flaunting decorated Pekadas etc.
They exude a comfort since they are built in open airy spaces,
usually where roads intersect or at famous entrances like the one near
Aluthnuwara Devale. Absence of high walls and convenient and low seating
arrangements beckon the traveler. Some Ambalamas seem to have had
sections for dressing and cooking. (Genesis of wayside inns and a local
hotel concept?) Preserving these are almost a bounden duty primarily
because they are an epitome of our folk architecture.
The day after I read the above book I passed the Pitakotte Ambalama
as I live in the vicinity. A dog reigning there barked at me and a cat
protested with a noisy purr. They seem to own the place sharing it with
cheap posters advertising a hundred odd things in the chaos of which sat
a half naked man smoking and grinning to glory.... Perhaps he sat just
where an Amathi (Minister) from the South reclined after having
travelled weary miles perhaps on horseback with a Sandhesha to the
Chakravarthi reigning at Kotte. All that splendour has now been
relegated to the past. A welcome sight would be this Ambalama
resurrected to its original form. Just about 2 kms away from the
Parliament and in very close proximity to the ancient Palace now marked
only by a cemetery along Maligawa road, this Ambalama certainly deserves
a better deal. As for the Palace shedding a sheen of blue crystal, let
us forget the whole tragic episode as it lies buried under a maze of
modern houses.... "Buried city of Kotte" they say but an edifice not yet
buried is the Pita Kotte Ambalama, just now turned into an eye sore.