Bawa Gardens Sri Lanka

Dominic has co authored (no doubt gloriously photographed) “The Bawa gardens of Sri Lanka” – a new book about two legendary Sri Lankan gardens. Namely Geofry Bawa’s Lunuganga and his Brother Bevis’s “Brief” garden. The book will no doubt fill a long standing void in documenting the common aesthetic sensibility that links the two Bawa brothers. Most likely this is the first time the “Brief” gardens are fully documented.

The link between them is apparent in their gardens. My visits to Geoffrey’s Lunuganga and Bevis’s “Brief” gave me the feeling that both places were creations of a single person – executed at different scales for different purposes. Brief being a low key private world. Lunuganga a laboratory and country palace of an artist king.

The two gardens have familiar themes and motifs. However their uniting guiding principle is to create sublime serendipitous encounters with “nature” by well disguised plastic surgery on the landscape. The universality and single mindedness of this goal makes the gardens seem timeless – despite their decades long  evolution.

The most common visual themes are the use of human “artifacts” in the landscape. Bells are a popular Bawa signature. So are discreetly placed ancient religious sculptures, prominently positioned male nudes, and seeming ancient vases awaiting discovery in the foliage around the bend of a mysterious path. Or forming a secondary focal point of another meticulously evolved vista. Geoffry Bawa referred to the use of artifacts as the “hand of man” in the Lunuganga book. Another Bawa trade mark is the “pavilion” – usually a open sided shelter strategically positioned to enjoy a view. Typically these have a familiar weathered Bawa look indicating centuries of history.

The secret of both gardens is a sly manipulation of attention. The seemingly wild landscapes designed to seduce visitor’s the eye down pre-meditated paths. It is a choreography of concealment and visual emphasis puts your visual perception in to the “gardener’s” leash. Your sense of distance, space and light becomes a puppet of benign horticultural sorcery. It is all very subtle and subconscious. The results are delicious. You would not complain about it even if you knew.

You are led through paths where your view of the landscape is blocked by carefully placed hedges and trees. Just when you think you are lost in the middle of the jungle, you enter a wide manicured spaces that frames everything up to the horizon in element compositions. Prominent landmarks suddenly vanish from the view or commandeered to enhance the view. All due to the stealthily use of repetition, contrast, framing and concealment – the details of which are well codified in Japanese garden design principles. The Bawas seem to have either studied or grasped these concepts intuitively and deployed them with distinctively Sri Lankan sensibility. Even at Lunuganga where the most dominant motifs are European. Perhaps it is the whole tropical setting. Most likely it is the overall subtly of these places.

Both Bawas were masters of concealment and camouflage. Their gardens are refuges to refresh the soul, keep out the horrors of the third world and cling to sanity. Consequently Lunuganga and Breif used to be hard to locate. According to The Bawa gardens of Sri Lanka page on, the book has directions on how to get to both gardens. Furture visitors will get to spend time in the foliage and not on the road getting lost. It will be interesting to see how my sketchy directions to Brief stacks up along side that of the book’s.

I am not a horticultural type. Only one plant (“Wentsworth”) ever survived in my “care”. But I’m buying this book (currently sold at Barefoot). Not just because I have yet to use up the year’s book budget. It is the healing powers of these gardens that draws people. Not their displays of landscaping genious or the personalities of there creator (though such things do play their part).  When you are constrained by the bounds of life, space and time from being in them you need something to resuscitate the memories. My ludicrous photos won’t do and I’m not loaded enough to commision anything suitable. But good things do come to those who wait.

5 thoughts on “Bawa Gardens Sri Lanka

  1. N It is more or less a rule of thumb than a “formal” thing. I avoid splurging on expensive book (and lately on any book at all) unless its a long term “reference” book.


  2. Beautiful articulate description of the place! I’m studying it for a thesis and this post was really helpful. 🙂


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