Living in Sri Lanka

THE MEDIEVAL ARABS were the first to come to Sri Lanka (they called it Serendib) to trade, and settled around the ports. They were followed by the Portuguese, the Dutch and British colonials, who built grand plantation houses, diplomats' residences and naval outposts. Today a new wave of immigrants from the UK and Australia are moving to the island formerly known as Ceylon, and setting up home.

Since the arrival of Buddhist pilgrims in the third century, all of the island's inhabitants have left their architectural and artistic footprint on the land. Yet despite the eclectic mix of styles there is still something distinctly Sri Lankan about them all. Living In Sri Lanka, published later this month, showcases the best of the country's town and city houses, coastal villas and hill-country dwellings.

Although there is a definite Sri Lankan "look", it's difficult to sum up. "Sri Lanka's vibrant history is, of course, one of the overriding influences on its architectural heritage," says travel writer and interiors specialist Turtle Bunbury, who teamed up with Irish photographer James Fennell to capture this melting pot of styles. "One need only visit the ruined cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa or Sigiriya to see the brilliance of the ancient stonemasons," says Bunbury. "The arrival of the Europeans brought new innovations. Under the Portuguese, the traditional open-air courtyards were complemented by covered verandahs and high- pitched terracotta roofs. The British, buoyed by the industrial revolution in Europe, continued the tradition and brought their own ecclesiastical and secular styles to the island."

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Although Sri Lanka's poor economic state has seen many of its buildings fall into disrepair, a surge of foreign interest in the country means that many are being restored. And, as the book shows, the people in charge of these projects have managed to create modern-day homes that pay homage to the past.

While much of the money generating the revival of these homes is foreign, some of it is coming from Sri Lankan entrepreneurs such as businessman Rohan Jayakody. The book documents the refurbishment of No 50 Lighthouse Street - a 300-year-old house in the coastal city of Galle Fort. Jayakody bought the villa, which was built by descendents of Muslim traders, in 2003 and transformed it into a lavish seaside abode.

It's an interesting mix of traditional Sri Lankan materials, Arabic design and colonial furnishings. The original terracotta tiling and flagstone flooring are prevalent throughout. The timber staircase that rises from the dining area to the guest bedroom on the mezzanine floor, is part of the original design, but it is framed by a wrought iron staircase that was purchased from a nearby British colonial hotel. The rooms, like so many houses in this area, open out on to an inner courtyard garden that is indicative of a typical Moroccan Riad.

Further inland, Colombo House in the plush suburb of Cinnamon Gardens just outside Sri Lanka's commercial centre, Colombo, is another home that caught Bunbury's eye. Built in the 1920s for a wealthy Sinhalese family, it is now owned by British designer Nikki Harrison, who has renovated the interior of the house and added a beautiful ambalama - a traditional Sri Lankan open-air pavilion - at the rear.

Here the traditional flagstone floors, and the small statue of the Buddha statue that sits atop a dark wood cabinet, blend with the colonial-style sofa and bamboo chaise longues. Blending well with the floor, Bunbury says, the polished grey cement cubes which bookend these are a clever injection of the modern.

"The Sri Lankans are currently making everything out of cement, from beds to tables such as these, but as with the rest of the house it blends well with the old," he says.

The properties featured in the book are so varied that it's impossible to say how the Sri Lankan look could be recreated but, Bunbury ventures, perhaps the quintessential Sri Lankan home has more of a feeling than a look. It's a feeling that is palpable whether the reader is looking at the photographs of ambalama, the rooftop terrace of Lighthouse Street or the frangipani-filled tropical garden of the Dutch colonial house in Parrawa Street, also in Galle.

"The houses tend to be cool, relaxed and fresh," says Bunbury, recalling the months he spent travelling around the country visiting the places that feature in the book.

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"The Sri Lankans like to leave their homes open and bring the elements in so the air blows through and nature's scents circulate around the houses. This is a unique ambience that should be experienced in person."

• Living in Sri Lanka is published by Thames & Hudson (RRP 24.95) and is available at the special price of 22.50, including postage & packaging, in the UK only (all overseas rates quoted on request). Tel: 08450 585878, quoting "Scotsman offer", with credit card details. Offer ends 31 March 2006 and is subject to availability. Please allow up to 14 days for delivery.