Homes of Our Past

Old Sri Lankan Houses
Image: Domus Sri Lanka

Simple, yet cool and charming, Sri Lankan mud houses are a thing of the past, but still appear in some remote villages.

The dwellings from the ancient times were mostly made of mud and straw. They were called a Mati Geya (clay house) in Sinhala. When building this kind of houses, a framework of poles is sunk into the ground, with reeds placed horizontally between the poles to make mat-like screens. The spaces between the exterior and interior walls are then filled with mud. Both sides of these walls are then plastered with a wet mud mixture.

Old Houses of Sri Lanka
Source: Booking.com

The use of natural clay and thatched roof perfectly fit to the hot tropical climate of Sri Lanka. When the weather is cool and humid, especially at night, the sponginess of the clay absorbs moisture and during the day, when it is warm, the moisture is pushed out. So the walls of these houses act as a natural “air conditioner”, which prevents heat from crossing the walls.

A single room and small verandah are the most common in these houses. The surrounding walls of this verandah was usually built to form seats or beds. The inner room was usually reserved for the women and children, while the pilla or verandah was used by the men for sleeping as well as for entertaining visitors.

Mostly the kitchen is built as an additional space outside or adjoining the house, sometimes a separate structure with half walls on three sides. The interior of most of these houses is cool and dark. It is also believed that larger openings increased the heat and glare. The roof covering was usually Cadjan (woven coconut palms), Palmyrah, straw, grass such as Illuk or sometimes a combination of all these materials.

Houses of Sri Lanka
Source: Explore Sri Lanka

Once the roof was completed, or while work on it was still ongoing, the natural clay or mud was brought mixed with water and trampled until it formed an even mass. This clay mixture was left in the open for three days, to mature before being used.

There is no foundation, but there exists a plinth of about two to three feet above ground, to protect from the rain water. The walls were made combined with the base so that there is no need for a separate foundation. This base is built as a perimeter wall, using mud balls on top of each other till they reach the necessary height. This is then left to dry for a week, and thereafter the centre is filled with earth, dampened with water and trampled and flattened.

Next comes the building of walls, with mud balls being put into the wood and vine framework. The mud balls are hit with slight force and extreme skill, called “katu mati gehima”. The wall is built in stages, usually about three feet, left to dry and the balance done as the second half.

Clay Houses of Sri Lanka
Source: Explore Sri Lanka

Once the walls are filled in this manner, the second coat of coarse sand and clay is applied. The floor is usually completed using a mixture of ant-hill red clay (humbas mati) and sand. This is topped with a mixture of more ant-hill clay and cow dung. To finish off, a thin mixture of cow dung and water is applied. This top layer is usually replaced twice a year, and the old dung paste is removed and a new paste applied. Research has shown that cow dung is a very practical disinfectant, leaving no discernible smell once it is dry.

These simple and charming house are rapidly dispersing but some hotels in Sri Lanka include modern clay houses among their accommodation type.