The very name is redolent with culture, history, festivals, dances, caparisoned elephants, historic rituals, and ancient temples nestling in remote corners of what used to be the Kandyan Kingdom the Cande Udarata their frescoes and wood carvings and architecture a veritable feast for the eyes, vying for attention with the surrounding vistas of cloud capped mountains, rivers, waterfalls and verdant plateaus.
Kandyan Architecture has a sublime beauty all its own, adroitly captured into words by the savant Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy who in 1905, in his famous ‘Open Letter to the Kandyan Chiefs’, wrote, "Architecture needs for its complete expression, the reasonable intelligent co operation of all the arts; and in the days I speak of it did not lack this amongst the Kandyans; the stonemason and carpenter, the blacksmith and silversmith, the painter and potter, even the weaver combined to produce buildings of a lovely and harmonious character, part as it were of the very soil they grew from.”
Dr. Coomaraswamy was alarmed at the deterioration of the historic buildings in the Kandyan provinces and lamented that in "the repairs and alterations which have been made in ancient buildings in modern times...the incompetency attained is nothing short of appalling". Ninety years after the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom, not only were no new buildings of aesthetic value being put up, but the existing ones too were being ruined.
Eighteen years after Dr.Coomaraswamy’s sad lament, one visionary at Trinity College Kandy decided to make a difference. In the year 1923, on the slopes of a hill having glorious views of the Kandyan peaks, work began on the construction of a building that would take more than fifty years to complete, and was designed and built for 'eternity', using materials and techniques from Lanka’s ancient and long forgotten era of great lithic monuments. This was to be the Chapel of Trinity College Kandy, a Public School for boys run by the Church Missionary Society and styled in the manner and traditions of the great Public Schools of England. The school was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 1923. Its centenary would pass before the chapel was fully completed. No building of this scale and artistic grandeur, made of massive hand-carved granite columns, had been attempted in Sri Lanka for the better part of a thousand years, and none have been attempted since.
At the beginning, when Trinity College decided to build a chapel, there was much discussion on the design and various preferences were discussed - Byzantine, Classical, and even Gothic. But there was one man, the Rev L. J. Gaster, the then Vice principal of the school, who had the breadth of vision and the architectural background to conceive of a building that would, in his words, "express in stone the ideas and aspirations that were in the air and set out to build a thing of beauty, to build for posterity and to build, so to speak, in the vernacular".
Rev. Gaster had been to Polonnaruwa and had returned awe inspired. Not enough survived in that historic city to show what the buildings looked like in their entirety, but there was a wealth of detail, graceful pillars, massive and deeply moulded plinths and platforms, richly carved moonstones and balustrades, and majestic shells to show the scale on which the ancients had built and the skill with which they had decorated their buildings. It had made a deep impression on him. It was said at the time that, "As he stood amidst those remarkable ruins in all their grandeur, their massiveness and their loveliness, his thoughts went back through the centuries and saw these wonderful buildings in their former completeness with the citizens of that remarkable city gazing with pride and pleasure on those wonderful achievements in stone.". Though these achievements of Sri Lanka's ancient civilization had been allowed to go to ruin, he was convinced that no effort should be spared to inculcate in the young minds of generations of schoolboys to come, the appreciation of what is lasting, what is beautiful, and what inspires the mind to strive for greatness. He wanted to raise the most beautiful of buildings on the most beautiful of sites in the school. When arguments were made as to the impracticability of his dream and the costs of the venture he would say that the traditions of Lanka demonstrated that the Palaces of the Kings had always been subsidiary to the Temples, and that it was on the Temples that all the resources of art and architecture had been lavished in the past.
When work commenced on the chapel there were no contractors willing to tender for the contract, and no estimates could be prepared either. There were no written specifications for the kind of work that had to be done, nor were there any living souls with the requisite building experience. The material to be used was the same old granite, hewn in blocks as gigantic as in the olden days. A forest of stone pillars, fifty-four in number, each sixteen feet high and two feet square, intricately decorated and capped with bell like carved wooden "pekadas", were to stand on a stone platform four feet high "high enough for shelter, but not too high to look across, whether seated or standing, through the avenue of columns, to the sunset glow on the hills beyond". This was the Rev. Gaster’s vision.
Today you see the complex work completed, each monolith of a pillar square based and square capped, with the main, gently tapering stem, octagonal in shape. There are mouldings on the square faces at 9 inches and 3'6" and an elaborate leaf and tendril design called ''Liya Patha" at a height of four feet. A "pineapple" design is carved on the eight faces at the base of the octagonal stem. A cobra hood design tops off this section at 13' 6". The final 2' 6" is carved with elaborate designs of large flowers, animals, birds, crests and other traditional motifs with decorative margins. Altogether, nearly a thousand granite faces had to be carved. The intricate corbel like pekadas made of gammalu hardwood, hand carved into inverted lotuses, give solidity and support to the whole structure. The lofty Kandyan hipped roof commences at a height of 20 feet and tops off at 55 feet above the aisle, as high as a five-story building. The Capitals on ten of the pillars looking down on the nave are carved with the Coats of Arms of British educational institutes, which in the 1920s and 1930s contributed the then princely sum of Rs. 1000 each towards the cost of one pillar. Some of these institutes are Balliol College and New College at Oxford, Eton, Repton, Marlborough, and Winchester Colleges.