Colombo is the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, and in a sense cannot be compared to the effortless beauty that the serendipity isle is known for – be it in terms of ancient history that fills the pages of every travelogue and postcard with enormous tranquil Buddhas, winding roads sneaking circuitous around hills layered in green tea plantations, golden beaches domed by island blue skies, masked dancers exorcising evil and illness, endemic wildlife or music and twists of island-spice tastes.
But still… Colombo is also a slice of paradise - it is as if the offerings of the island are preserved in little languorous sips in here…
Vestiges of its ancient history can be found dotting the city - places of worship amidst the hyper local flavours and sounds of a bazaar, a sea face ringed with cannons from eons ago that stare empty and poised at the sea once treacherous with invaders, vestiges of the old Fort area discernible even amidst change, ‘edenic’ gardens, and museums preserving treasure troves of time long since past. People so warm and friendly, you feel the dance of their smiles and lilt of their accents in the simplest exchanges you may have.
You’ll get your opportunity to frown, cross eyes and shake your head pantomiming ‘island insanity - a little too much sun’. When you read street signs and discover names of places - they simply do not sound believable and then you discover what these places have morphed into today! Kayman’s Gate where the Dutch kept crocodiles or kayman in a lake in the area to prevent their slaves from escaping but is today the area that houses the old Townhall and museum; Cinnamon Gardens once acres of fragrant cinnamon gardens now the residential area of the rich and fashionable; and Slave Island which is in reality not an island or an island of slaves at all but a busy commercial area.
The Garden City creates a tasting of the island-soul by what can best be described by the islanders’ love for tea. Tea ‘taken’ as they would say, sitting preferably in their gardens- lush green island crab grass, flowers in a profusion of colours and very likely, a little pond or a bird bath. Turn the aromatic flavour around in your mouth, enjoy this moment of island sun in your eyes, toes curled with leisure. Colombo accesses the rest of Sri Lanka - this is where your journey begins….
Colombo has always been a significant port on the Indian Ocean and is located on the western coast of the island of Sri Lanka. Situated near the mouth of the river Kelani it lies adjacent to the new capital Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte.
How to get there
Colombo is easily accessed by air. The Bandaranaike International airport is situated in Katunayake, about 38 km. from Colombo. SriLankan, the national carrier, has flights to and from nearly every important city in Asia, and it is very well connected to and from Europe and Australia. Besides this, most significant airlines fly to Colombo. Taxis are aplenty from the airport to Colombo city.
It is believed that the early colonists of the island, the Portuguese, with their entry into the island in 1505 introduced the name Colombo, a derivative of the kolon thota meaning ‘port on the river Kelani’ in native Sinhala. It is also believed by others that Colombo is a derivative of the simply descriptive Sinhala phrase-word kola-amba-thota meaning ‘harbor with leafy mango trees’.
A natural harbour located on the East-West trade route Colombo was a port much frequented by the ancient traders - the Moors, Arabs, Persians, the Romans and Chinese, as early as 2000 years ago. Even historically the island nation was always approached by outsiders, lured by a need to possess the ‘Pearl Isle of the East’ as she was also called, offering assistance bartered for valuable resources. The Portuguese arrived on the island and offered the King protection of the coastal areas in exchange for trade in cinnamon. They were granted control over the coastal region and permission to establish a trading post as well. Before long they ousted the local population from the Colombo area and began constructing an impressive fort. Colombo also afforded them a comfortable vantage point from which they could control the coastal areas in their possession in India. They made frenetic attempts to expand their dominion over the island nation and they were driven back to Colombo eventually up until 1593 when they finally had complete control of coastal areas and ruled from the fort in Colombo.
In 1638 the Dutch signed a treaty with the King of Kandy to assist him in his efforts to oust the Portuguese in exchange for a seemingly undivided monopoly in the goods trade. In 1656 the Dutch captured Colombo, ousted the Portuguese and restored the area under the dominance of the Sinhalese kings. This valiant effort was short lived as they eventually refused to turn over the land and gained control of the island, its awesome cinnamon reserves and control of maritime activity until 1796. The British then made their presence felt, invading and making Colombo one of their military outposts. In 1815 with the eventual fall of the Kandyan kingdom the British occupied the island. The crown Colony of Ceylon as the island nation came to be known then was molded into a city with residential, cultural and official buildings; it was until then, in the time of the Portuguese and the Dutch a military bastion or fort. The influence of the three successive eras of invaders and colonists are apparent even today in the buildings, structures, language, and culture making Colombo and its people far more ‘European–ised’ as much as many of them are local.
What was once the bastion of the Portuguese, The Fort area, was once completely under water and later occupied also by the Dutch who built the Fort and British who followed. It is today a commercial nerve centre that houses the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the 19th century buildings of yore that create an unmistakable ambience of the quiet grandeur of the past. It is perhaps one of the remnants from the time of occupation that the locals seem comfortable, even proud of having endured – ‘there are some good things’ they might say simply.
The word pettah really means ‘the village outside the fort’. Once a coveted area to reside in - unimaginable today in the face of a chaotic bazaar that makes a visit there seem really like an expedition. The alleys are full of wares from scented candles, electrical appliances, suitcases, glassware, spices and scented oils, bags and luggage, underwear, toys and more. You must bargain and the haggling will not be as aggressive as you would find in the bazaars in India or Pakistan but the game is the same except quieter and more reserved. If you must go, you must walk- slowly and carefully - and soon the colours and sounds will take on an experience you will remember- even if you don’t shop the people are amazing to watch!
The Kochikkade Church, the wholesale fish market nearby where the fish is brought everyday from Negombo, and the main branch of Laksala a government run arts and crafts emporium are all situated in and around the Fort- Pettah region and worth a visit.
Galle Face Green
South of Pettah and the Fort area is the Galle Face Green. It is sea facing and was designed by the British in 1859 for horse racing. Today you will find that it is enjoyed by adults and children alike who come to sit, walk, fly kites, play cricket, enjoy the cart stalls selling local delicacies, and ‘umbrella lovers’ as they are called , seated under the privacy of a flimsy wind-whipped umbrella, spend quality time! Across the green is the Galle Face Hotel where you can sip tea on the verandah a year old building or give into the island indulgence and consume copious quantities of cocktaiks seated outdoors on the black and white tiles patio!
Called Victoria Park during the time of the British colonists who established this space as a botanical garden and conservatory for tropical flora it is a fascinating place full of trees, birds, and butterflies. A pond with murky green water dodgy with carelessly thrown waste is home to freshwater turtles that surprise you when their inquisitive snouts hit the surface, or perhaps the cormorant that dives mock suicidal head first only to emerge moments later with fish in its beak!
To the east of the park are eight rectangular ponds intended to create a vision that leads up to an enormous seated golden Buddha who today looks over one of the busiest roads often congested with traffic.
In the vicinity of Slave Island is the recently restored Beira Lake. The Dutch called the area slave island because of the slaves they kept here in captivity but that island of the past ceased to exist a long time ago. But there is another artificial island today where celebrated Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa designed the Sima Malaka Meditation Island practically oppositethe the beautiful Gangaramaya Temple. Sima Malaka Meditation Island on Beira Lake is a wonderful place to sit a spell and let the buzz of the city drain away leaving you content and peaceful on a lake amidst the Thai Buddha statues housed there.
Tucked away in a quiet lane close to the Beira Lake, the temple astonishes you with stone carvings, Buddhist paintings, and row upon row of small stone Buddha statues, reminiscent of Thai Buddhism. Sima Malaka Meditation Island was built in conjunction with this temple in the 19th century. It also features a small museum with curious things gifted and collected and beautiful vintage cars.
Established in 1877 it houses antiques, objects of art and history that illuminate the viewer as to the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, national treasures and vestiges of history from all parts of the island. On the first floor is a fascinating section housing the hypnotic masks and puppets traditional to Sri Lanka. It is also the Children's Museum. A fascinating collection of books over 500,000 in number and more than 3500-4000 olas or palm leaf manuscripts are found here.
The Museum of Natural History situated in the same complex as well as the Dutch Period Museum in Pettah are interesting places to visit if you enjoy losing yourself to the annals of time gone past- even if just for a while.
The National Zoological Gardens or the Dehiwala zoo was once the Ceylon Zoological Gardens Company at Dehiwala. An eleven acre plot it was really established by the brother of the famous animal trainer Carl Hagenbeck. They used it primarily as a collecting depot to dispatch animals to European zoos. When the company went bankrupt in 1936 it was taken over by the government. Initially it seemed as if the zoo was more a source of curiosity and entertainment than a message in conservation, but it came into its own in the 70’s and 80’s. It is even today impressive, for it was the first of its kind even if not the best of its kind. It also gives the opportunity to get away from the city and unwind in the green tropical expanses of the zoo’s interiors.
Viharas, kovils, mosques and churches
The presence of places of worship of many faiths could be observed in and around Colombo. The Buddhist Viharas outnumber the Hindu, Muslim or Christian places of worship as it does in most parts of the island and owing to the fact that it is predominantly a Buddhist nation where 71 percent of the population is Buddhist.
Viharas or Buddhist Temples
Dipaduttarama Paramananda Purana Vihara – the oldest in Colombo is situated in Kotahena.
Gotami Vihara - modest but displaying the beautiful murals expressed in the modern idiom by artist George Keyt.
Issipatanaramaya Temple - situated in Havelock town is adorned with beautiful frescoes.
Vajrarama Temple - situated in Bambalapitya it is the centre from which missionary monks took the message of he Buddha to America and the rest of the west.
Vidyodaya Privena – one of the oldest seats of Buddhist learning.
Kovils or Hindu Temples
Kadiresan temples along Galle road, Pnnambalavaneshwar temple, Mariamman Siva Temple and a Ganapathy temple all in and around the city.
The presence of the minarets of mosques are obvious in and around the Fort area. The mosque attached to Zahira College in Maradana is the oldest and biggest, the Davatagaha mosque near the town hall, the one in Pettah and another in Slave Island are the most important of the Islamic worship areas in the island.
The Doric style church in Wolvendahl, the St Lucia’s Cathedral, and the St Anthony’s church are the major churches in Colombo.
Where to stay
The Colombo Plaza
The Hilton Colombo
The Hilton Colombo Residence
The Taj Samudra
Continental Hotel Colombo
The Galadari Hotel
The Trans Asia
Havelock Road Bungalows