A tale of two Sri Lankan brothers and their beautiful gardens

In the tamed jungle of Brief Garden – beyond the red blossoms of the flamboyant trees, the deep orange blooms of the ahoka trees, the frangipani and striking black bat flowers – the eye can't help but focus on the abundance of nude erotic sculptures strategically girded with foliage. Forget Tivoli or Vauxhall, this is the ultimate pleasure garden.

Bevis Bawa inherited the two hectares of Brief Garden – a former rubber plantation about two hours' drive south of Colombo – from his mother in 1929 and tended to them until his death in 1992. The former army major became a renowned landscape artist – designing the gardens of various embassies and well-heeled estate owners – and he was also a sculptor. He was renowned for his sharp wit and quick mind, and a tour of the house shows he was quite the bon vivant. A photograph in the hallway shows a celebration in the gardens, with Bawa entertaining Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Other famous names to have also gossiped over a gin and tonic at one of Bawa's garden parties, include Gregory Peck, Aldous Huxley and Agatha Christie.

The Australian artist Donald Friend stopped by for a short holiday en route to Europe, and wound up staying for five years, such was the lure of Bawa and his garden. A number of the artist's works, given as thanks for Bawa's hospitality, are on display in the house, the highlight being the giant Brief Mural (1958), Friend's colourful interpretation of Sri Lanka, depicting Hindu goddesses, elephants, jungles and peacocks. An original painting by Russell Drysdale – who was another visitor to Brief Garden – hangs in the dining room.

All these creative minds were enchanted by the larger-than-life Bawa – he was six foot seven inches tall (about two metres) – and his verdant garden in which squirrels and mongoose romp.

Brief Garden continues to flourish through the work of landscape designer Dooland de Silva to whom Bawa willed the estate. As we wander down winding pathways by cascading water steps that open onto incredible vistas, Dooland tells us Brief is home to more than 200 plant species. He explains that Bawa used a combination of art, architecture and sculptures to create a modern work of art. You come across doors that lead to different bowers of the garden accentuated by ponds, terracotta face carvings, and a wall of bottles.

Bawa, however, was also the older brother of the renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa, and it's Geoffrey who gets all the glory. A former lawyer, Geoffrey is known as the father of tropical modernism, and his buildings, from homes to hotels, schools to office towers and government structures are celebrated across Sri Lanka. His home, the six-hectare Lunuganga Estate in Bentota, where he lived until his death in 2003, is close to Brief Garden. Geoffrey utilised a modernist architectural style (less ornamental, more functional); with windowless open spaces with overhanging pitched roofs that allowed breezes to flow through but also protected from tropical rain. Landscaping with lush tropical foliage, with lake and forest vistas, was of equal importance. At Lunuganga Estate, the outdoors merges harmoniously with the indoors.

If the two Bawa gardens represent the brothers' personalities (they were said to be fiercely competitive), Bevis was more hedonistic and social (bright blue doors, risque sculptures, nooks and crannies for entertaining, an open-air bathing space), while the more solitary Geoffrey needed space. He would sit alone at different vantage points in his garden depending on the light, and enjoy the view.

Tours of the Bawa brothers' gardens are available with a driver from Anantara Kalutara Resort, a 45-minute drive away from Lunuganga and Brief Garden. It's a good combination, as the 141-room resort is based on a design Geoffrey Bawa began in 1995 which was completed after his death by one of his proteges, Channa Daswatte. At Anantara Kalutara, you can browse the on-site Geoffrey Bawa Library, where furnishings, either Bawa-designed or owned, have been put together to create a particularly Bawa-style space. Geoffrey, that is, not Bevis – there are no lichen-covered erotic statues hidden at this resort.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/sri-lanka

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briefgarden.com

geoffreybawa.com

STAY

Rooms at Anantara Kalutara cost from $231 a night. Book three consecutive nights and the third night is free. See kalutara.anantara.com

FLY

Singapore Airlines flies from major Australian cities to Colombo via Singapore. SriLankan Airlines operates direct flights between Melbourne and Colombo. See singaporeair.com; srilankan.com

Andrea Black travelled with assistance from Anantara.

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