The Lunuganga Garden by Geoffrey Bawa
The first time I arrived at Geoffrey Bawa’s country estate of Lunuganga I had rushed up the old coast road from Galle Fort amid the monsoon. I had gotten waylaid languishing around the fort during a lull in the storms, unrealistically hoping to avoid the slow local traffic (which of course I didn’t) and was therefore 10 minutes late for the 2 pm garden tour.
“I am sorry madam but the tour starts strictly on time and so you cannot come in,” said a stone-faced groundkeeper. What?? But I don’t live in Sri Lanka and I’ve travelled all this way … but … but.
My protestations fell on deaf ears as the heavens opened again, dampening me and my mood. I slowly turned back, trying to convince myself in vain that there probably wasn’t much to see anyway.
It would be another 6 months before I got the opportunity to go on that garden tour again and, this time, I wasn’t just on time but almost first at the gate (beaten only by a group of Malaysian architecture students who were already busily sketching the shut gate)! As luck would have it, the garden tour started a little late due to the tour guide being delayed on a poya public holiday. Staring intently at the gate, I was beside myself with expectation.
Finally the moment came and we were let in. Lunuganga did not disappoint. On what turned out to be the perfect day for meandering and taking photographs, the garden was the showstopper it had always promised to be and that I had always hoped it would be. It just goes to show that every cloud, and indeed every monsoonal cloud, has a silver lining.
It’s taken me a while to digest it all but no matter which way I look at it, Lunuganga is nothing short of grand. Even calling Lunuganga a garden is a bit of a misnomer and an understatement. Shanti Jayewardene possibly best describes it as possessing “an ambiguous landscape of forest, field, garden and park that resists classification”.
What struck me as I deliberately lagged the tour group to inhale the atmosphere was that Geoffrey Bawa also seemed to regard his garden as a kind of theatre. It’s a finely crafted theatre at that, designed to surprise and beguile.
As architect of the Lunuganga theatre, Bawa created a series of human-scale settings with each one unravelling into the other as you progressed through the narrative landscape. In fact, the route of the garden tour is the perfect plot to discover the stories which Bawa is seeking to tell. Particularly lovely was the stairways and forested avenues guiding you through the settings and at times, doubling back in case you missed it.
He sets those vignettes against the backdrop of his grand panoramas which are carefully fashioned to frame the river and the Sri Lankan jungle in the wild yonder. It’s this heady mix of tropical sensibilities punctuated by an almost European style which makes this experience so cinematic.
As director of the Lunuganga theatre, Bawa is the past master of creating drama. There are a whole host of objects from ornamental pots to sculptures, follies and carefully pruned frangipani trees which draw your eye and guide your perspective in the ever-changing narrative.
He also enjoyed playing with contrasts - this was where it seemed to me that Bawa was having a bit of fun with his drama. He set normally formal elements of European garden design alongside the untamed Sri Lankan flora or he allowed objects to become neatly weathered to give an appearance of decay, as if it too was slowly receding into the sprawling jungle. It sort-of messes with your head because gardens are supposed to give order to nature, right?
Probably my favourite thing is Bawa’s ability to commandeer shadows and filtered light to give the landscape mood and movement. We saw this on the garden tour as the sun passed through the clouds several times, changing the landscape highlights and our perception of it as it went. It was electrifying.
And then there are the hints of history to transport you – sometimes Ceylonese, sometimes English or even ancient Greek but always otherworldly.
My homage to Lunuganga as a landscape befitting a grand theatre probably does not do justice to the exquisite detail, the technical skill and creative genius which graces every nook and cranny of the estate. It also doesn’t do justice to the meditative nature of the grounds which I suspect would reveal itself more starkly with time spent and in the absence of tourists milling around. These metaphors ultimately only convey, in part, a feeling. And I think that’s the point.
No descriptions or photographs can adequately describe the magnificence of feeling and feelings which Geoffrey Bawa’s Lunuganga evokes as you wander through it. For that, you need to go and experience it for yourself.
Just remember to be on time. ۞