Lunuganga Garden: Exploring The Geoffrey Bawa Estate
Written by Jaillan Yehia
As I wait outside the firmly locked gates of Lunuganga Garden and Estate, along with a smattering of other curious visitors to this leafy corner of Sri Lanka, I feel like Charlie waiting to be let inside the chocolate factory.
And just like Willy Wonka’s factory, the architectural fantasy world at Lunuganga is full of little curiosities, making it completely unlike anything else you’ll see in Sri Lanka.
Lunuganga was the self-styled weekend country house retreat of Sri Lanka’s most famous architect, and one of the country’s most celebrated sons: the founder of Tropical Modernism, Geoffrey Bawa.
Now the former cinnamon estate welcomes the public for visits, and the gates are briefly opened at 9.30 am and 2 pm sharp, before being snapped shut again, meaning latecomers are out of luck.
This is why a small and eager group of architecture fans have gathered outside in readiness, keen to get a glimpse at the architect’s private playground.
When a guide finally ushers us into the legendary estate for our tour it’s with some sense of ceremony that we all shuffle forward to get our first look inside.
So come along and explore Lunuganga garden and estate for yourself.
About Geoffrey Bawa
Geoffrey Bawa is considered to be one of the leading architects of his generation, whose signature style, Tropical Modernism, changed the face of architecture in Sri Lanka and across Southern Asia.
If you haven’t visited Sri Lanka or aren’t an architecture fan you can be forgiven for not having heard of Bawa, but you will soon discover that his work has a very special quality and style.
You can see Bawa creations across the island, particularly in Colombo where he designed the iconic parliament building. There are also Bawa designs in nations such as Bali and Mauritius, but there’s nothing quite like Bawa’s own pet project, his personal weekend home at Lunuganga.
Bawa purchased the estate in 1948, and spent the next 50 years turning a once derelict area set around Dedduwa Lake, into a paradise of his own making.
Geoffrey Bawa studied and lived in England where he attended Cambridge before becoming a lawyer. He also loved travel and Italy in particular, but returned to Sri Lanka in 1948 to take on Lunuganga, then an ambitious project.
You can see the influences of both of these countries in the landscaping and the details throughout the gardens.
Touring The Lunuganga Garden
The tour guides us slowly, in a small group, through the entire estate, and we learn the story behind Lunuganga in detail.
The name Lunuganga translates to ‘salt river’ in Sinhala, and the gardens now total 15 acres bookended by the Dedduwa lake, and include pavilions and buildings, as well as beautiful vistas of the surrounding landscape, statues and sculptures. There are many types of foliage too – including balsa wood trees and ebony trees and Bawa planted mangroves to work as natural barriers.
Having been on a package holiday to Sri Lanka in the past, and now exploring the island under my own steam too, I’m already familiar with Bawa, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to spend an afternoon in Sri Lanka touring a vast country estate, house and garden that looks like something I might find at home in England – or on the Italian Riviera.
It is only by chance while staying nearby that I have discovered Lunuganga Garden and Estate is open for these tours, but I’m very happy that I took the time to see another side of the island, beyond the beaches, Buddhas and tea plantations. The backdrops are also perfect for playing around with selfie photography (or in more modern parlance, it’s all very instagramable).
Bawa or ‘Mr Geoffrey’ as the guide always referred to him, liked to be alone and the seclusion of Lunuganga must have been a joy after the hustle and bustle of life in Colombo.
While working on his designs from different spots dotted around the former rubber plantation, Bawa devised an ingenious way of enjoying his meals and drinks without the need for any unnecessary communication or disturbance.
He had 14 ornate metal bells installed, each with a different sound, to identify to his staff exactly where he was on the property at any given moment.
But he took his gin and tonic at the same time and in the same spot in the gardens each evening – meaning no bell was required.
One final unexpected detail I enjoyed in the gardens of Lunuganga was the up-close sight of this King Cobra in the wild. The world’s longest venomous snake is halfway through his meal of a big frog when I spotted him. You wouldn’t get that in a garden in England or Italy.
If you’re a fan of touring botanical gardens in general as I am, and those in South and Southeast Asia especially, I also recommend Mount Kinabalu Botanical Gardens in jungle-covered island of Borneo as well as the stunning Singapore Botanical Gardens, but I do think Lunuganga which is located near Bentota on the East Coast of Sri Lanka, has something special to offer.
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