Tracing the lineage of religious architecture in Kandy

The year is 1825. The second Bishop of Calcutta, Rt. Rev. Reginald Heber is visiting Kandy, the hill capital of British Ceylon, accompanied by Governor Edward Barnes for a Confirmation Service. The event takes place at the Royal Audience Hall besides the Temple of the Tooth Relic. It is the same location where, 10 years ago, the Kandyan aristocracy sided with the British, signing the infamous Kandyan Convention of 1815. An outright coup, craftily manoeuvred over time by John D’Oyly, the chief translator to the British Government. It conveniently dethroned the ‘Malabari’ monarch for the Kandyan chieftains, ceding the Kingdom with the British Crown while retaining their own rights as nobility and upholding the inviolability of Buddhism. It is a well-known historic moment that ended 2358 years of self-rule in the island.

A decade since, a small but confidently growing community of Christians still held their Sunday worship and church festivities at the ancient audience hall of the exiled kings. Rev. Heber mentions to Governor Barnes that ‘it is out of taste’. The grim faces of the Buddhist Clergy in the Temple and the Trustees of the Devales were hard to miss.  

Indeed, no act could be innocent in Kandy, a city that hid long-held rivalries, political scheming, and domination, under its calm misty mornings. And no other building reeked of political intrigue than the royal audience hall, or ‘magul maduwa’, which now served also as a church, among other things, to the British garrison in Kandy. Perhaps this was what Rev. Heber referred to when he observed “the great need for a church of their own, more appropriately sited and more suitably designed.” Maybe it had nothing at all to do with the architecture of the Magul Maduwa, which obviously was a far cry from the Gothic churches of Europe. The idea for what is today St. Paul’s Church, Kandy thus took root, though it was many years later in 1843 that the British Colonial Office gave its crown land adjacent to the Temple of the Tooth relic for the construction to begin.

St. Paul’s, Kandy opened its doors for worship as a garrison church in 1846, though the construction took much longer to complete, serving the many British regiments stationed in Kandy. It was to this church that His Majesty King George III presented a silver-gilt communion set, to serve the spiritual needs of the British military garrison. This gift continues to be in use at St. Paul’s to date, especially at the services for Easter and Christmas.

Since it was built from public subscriptions, the limitation of funds dictated the plain, unadorned building. Nonetheless, in its architecture, it was unmistakably reminiscent of the Gothic Revival cathedrals of Victorian England. Built entirely in brick, the church is today a bright ochre red, magnificently Anglican down to the beautiful painted glass windows. It was perhaps one of the earliest buildings to spring up in Kandy, of completely foreign architecture. Over time, many colonial buildings sprang up within Kandy, though not limited to religious buildings, such as the Kandy Postal Office building from 1867. Local buildings were converted and remodelled into neoclassical colonial glamour, the famous Queen’s Hotel being one of the best examples. The building was originally built as an aristocratic residence, ‘Dullewe Walawwa’, by Devendra Moolachariya, the royal architect to Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, and was taken over to be the Governor’s residence soon after 1815.

Since it was built from public subscriptions, the limitation of funds dictated the plain, unadorned building. Nonetheless, in its architecture, it was unmistakably reminiscent of the Gothic Revival cathedrals of Victorian England. Built entirely in brick, the church is today a bright ochre red, magnificently Anglican down to the beautiful painted glass windows. It was perhaps one of the earliest buildings to spring up in Kandy, of completely foreign architecture. Over time, many colonial buildings sprang up within Kandy, though not limited to religious buildings, such as the Kandy Postal Office building from 1867. Local buildings were converted and remodelled into neoclassical colonial glamour, the famous Queen’s Hotel being one of the best examples. The building was originally built as an aristocratic residence, ‘Dullewe Walawwa’, by Devendra Moolachariya, the royal architect to Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, and was taken over to be the Governor’s residence soon after 1815.

Fast forward roughly 80 years to the 1920s, and we find a most unusual chapel, tucked away in a pretty little corner below the principal’s bungalow of Trinity College Kandy. The Holy Trinity Church, more commonly known as the Trinity College Chapel is so distinctive in its architecture that it startles those who know the politics of Kandyan architecture. Gone are the rib vaults and the flying buttresses of the Gothic church architecture of the High and Late Middle Ages in Europe, still practised at the period of its construction in the 1920s.  Nor are there any stained-glass windows of the St Paul’s Church. The colonial tune has changed from dominating the conquered to understanding the masses they ruled, and baptized. In fact, Trinity Chapel is one of the first and finest examples of adopting indigenous, vernacular architecture in the design of an Anglican church found in Sri Lanka.

What other building would this chapel be modelled after, but the Royal Audience Hall of Kandy! An irony that can only be understood in hindsight. One must imagine and relish the reaction of Rt. Rev. Reginald Heber had he ever seen it (“Out of taste, Governor Barnes!”?), even if only for amusement. 

Nonetheless, the chapel borrows gracefully from Buddhist architecture of the island’s ancient civilization. A myriad carved stone pillars rise, lifting up a lofty Kandy-style double pitched roof and creating an open house of prayer. Designed by no other than the school’s Vice Principal at the time, Rev. Lewis John Gaster, a qualified architect and draughtsman, the chapel took over 12 years and 100 labourers to complete. Carved by local craftsmen, these 16-foot pillars are adorned with pekeda designs and their capitals carry coats of arms of British Schools that donated funds for the chapel.

In 1929, David Paynter, a pioneering painter of his age, who was also a staff member at Trinity, painted the four murals, equally revolutionary in their conception. The murals depict biblical scenes in a local setting. The landscape is familiar. Jesus is no longer light-skinned and blonde but native brown.

Painted in 1933, Paynter has set the crucifixion, with a beardless Christ on a cross, in a mangrove swamp, such as to be found on the east coast of Sri Lanka.

“Are Ye Able” located in the side chapel was painted in 1928, shortly after Paynter had returned from studying art in Europe. It conveys something of a lush vegetation characteristic of parts of Sri Lanka which so impressed him on his return from Italy. In it, the mother of James and John kneels before Jesus of Nazareth, who is clothed in a yellow robe, and asks him to give her two sons, standing on either side of Jesus, the chief places in his kingdom.

What the Trinity College chapel does so wonderfully, is to become one with the architectural traditions of the island. An assimilation of sorts that works both ways. It makes us reconsider the Royal Audience Hall itself and question its own origins.

The Royal Audience Hall was originally built as part of the Palace Complex in Kandy. Though today referred to as the Temple of the Tooth Relic, it was in fact far from a temple, but a King’s Court. Similar to the nexus of Church and Kingdom in Europe, the Lankan Kings clutched the Tooth Relic, a potent symbol of Kingship, to their bosom. It stayed where they stayed, moved when they moved. And the Royal Audience Hall, the place for public engagements, was where the Tooth Relic was displayed occasionally to the public.

The building we see today is in fact an extended building, enlarged for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1872. The original was modelled after an older place of worship from the 14th century – the Embekke Devale.

Dedicated to the Hindu God Murugan who is worshipped among the Buddhists as Kataragama Deiyo, Embekke Devale makes a modest first impression. However, its most prominent feature the Drummers’ Hall, is replete with some of the best wood carvings in the island. Some of the woodwork found there came from an abandoned “Royal Audience Hall” at Gampola. With 514 wondrous wooden pillars, each with its own narrative, Embekke is for those who revel in the details.

The wooden pillars are adorned with mythical beasts one only encounters in dreams: a double- headed eagle, a bull and an elephant morphed into one, a lion in the form of an elephant, swans entwined, mermaids, and so forth. Some depict day-to-day scenes, folk dances and other delicately carved patterns. The archetype of a Kandyan roof is found here, with 26 wooden rafters pinned together in what’s known as ‘madol karupawa’.

Not unlike the hybrid spirituality it embodies, Embekke carries a sense of mysticism one can only be comfortable with when one gives up strictly defined boundaries. Legend has it that Embekke was built, following a dream simultaneously seen by Queen Henakanda Biso Bandara, consort of King Wickramabahu, and a poor village drummer. Though originally dedicated to the Hindu/Buddhist god Murugan/Kataragama, upon her death the Queen too became a deity at Embekke. A poetic tribute to Embekke exists, as ‘Embekke Varnanaawa’, beautifully detailing, entwining fact and fiction, myth and reality.

One can trace back the architectural lineage of Embekke Devale, to an abandoned royal audience hall from a past kingdom, or perhaps even to the glory days in Polonnaruwa. The Drummers’ Hall unmistakably influenced the later Royal Audience Hall in Kandy, the Trinity College Chapel and even the Independence Memorial Hall in Colombo. In a yet another dramatic turning point, in 1948, the ceremony marking the start of the country’s self-rule after gaining independence from the British, took place in the Independence Memorial Hall, fashioned after the structure of Magul Maduwa within which we had lost it 150 years ago.

Only history can treat you to such nuances.