By Yomal Senerath-Yapa

Continuing our series on the Bawa Awards shortlist, we feature Cafe UFO, a take on King Ravana’s vehicle in the backpackers’ paradise of Ella, the town with links to the Ramayana legend


You can’t miss it: The cafe by the roadside. Pix by Madhushan de Silva of MAD Factory

Ella has just as much mystique as it has mist. Lanka’s answer to Kathmandu, the town had a checkered history, beginning with legends of Ravana, whose name rings in great waterfalls and gaunt forested cliffs. Today, as a trekkers’ paradise, Ella is losing that touch with the ancient tales of the Ramayana. All the more reason to welcome a cafe there that perpetuates the Yakka king- albeit in cool, hipster style.

Christened Cafe UFO, this new place is a bit like a great plump-breasted bird about to soar and take to the skies. It is how two young architects- Kanishka Padmapani and Thilina Rathnayaka- reimagined the dandu monara yantra of Ravana- the peacock-shaped flying machine in which he flew to India and captured Sita.

Kanishka Padmapani

Kanishka and Thilina both graduated from the University of Moratuwa, and each have well over a decade’s experience. The founding partners of RAPA Chartered Architects, a name they formed using their surnames, they work on “projects from simple vernacular to high tech complex structures.” They have done a number of hotels and residences as well as offices and condominiums.

In their first foray to Ella, the two architects realised the new cafe would blend in- body and soul- if it connected with Ravana who has touched this ancient hill landscape so memorably.

Relaxed ambience: Soaring rafters above and cosy beanbags below

It was a difficult, triangular site- part of a town that had grown up so quickly and so haphazardly like a mad gold rush settlement mining for tourists. The new building in contrast, the two vowed, would be eco-friendly and sustainable. Designed in four months, the structure was finished in six.

The result can be called a resounding success. For the average traveller who arrives from the railway station, the cafe is an oasis in a kitsch desert- the two-storeyed wooden structure twinkling cosily open to the road- its roof thatched with a carpet of illuk.

The café today has become a byword in Ella where everyone flocks for food under that undulating roof open to views of a unique town. It has a great communal feel rather like a tribe hut: the achievement of the architects (and of course the engineer W. M. D. Ranasinghe) has been to create, out of minimal resources, a sustainable eatery that harks back to the vernacular while imbibing a whiff of the mythical from its strange mountain setting.

Thilina Rathnayaka

“We got the widest road frontage in Ella town,” says architect Kanishka- “around 80 to 90 feet.” They easily managed seating for the client’s target of 120 to 150 diners.

The wood as well as the labour was local. “For the main structure including the columns and supportive timber decks, we used grandis (Eucalyptus grandis- rose gum) wood grown purposefully and approved for usage by the Forest Department of Sri Lanka.”

All raw material was from the area as were services such as carpentering, interior detailing and masonry.

Structural Engineer Miniwan Ranasinghe

The slender reedy rafters are micro timber branches while partitioning and interior wall decor was done with cinnamon sticks. The service area is separated with a regular mangrove curtain made of the cinnamon sticks. The one and only jarring note in the place seems to be struck by the ink drawing upstairs of Ravana- too generic and metalhead for a place so beautifully individualistic and quaint- though it does make welcome the hipster backpacker.

The cafe in the corner: A view from the side

The tapestries on the soaring walls are simple paduru mats- as proud local arras as heraldic flags would have been. They blend with the colourful watti clustering the walls- procured from down south keeping with the shoestring budget.

An extraordinary medley of things enjoy elegant afterlives here: old metal pots, wheels and tyres as interior decor; a bottomless old kettle and a steel bucket with elegant perforations as chic chandeliers.

The seating ranges from the formal to cosy bean bags, the furniture fashioned from carved wood to degraded logs.

Prior to being shortlisted for the Bawa Awards, the cafe was adjudged second best project at the Robert Matthew Award 2019. Organized by the Commonwealth Association of Architects, it had 35 countries competing. In the same year, the project got an honourable mention at the SLIA Design Awards.

Together with Kanishka and Thilina, their team at RAPA is beginning to break out of the box with great panache. In their budding resume are such intriguing projects as “The Elephant Next Door”, an upcoming safari boutique villa at Udawalawe which imitates ‘the figure and character’ of the pachyderm.