A BustlingCapital of Intrigue and Colonial Influence

Historically, a typical trading port between the Sinhala kingdoms of old and the rest of the world, today the city of Colombo serves as the commercial capital of the island. The natural harbour of Colombo is believed to have been a major docking point for many a merchant sailing in from the Arabian Gulf, Persia, Greece, and China for over 2000 years. Due to Colombo’s strategic location, it was colonised by European powers, namely the Portuguese in the 16th century, the Dutch in the 17th century and the British in the 18th century until the country gained independence in 1948.

The post-colonial period saw Colombo transforming into an eclectic mix of European culture interwoven with native and immigrant traditions. This, coupled with the constant development any modern city is subject to, has turned Colombo into the diverse, vibrant and exciting city that it is today.

The neighbourhoods of Colombo Fort and Pettah are easily two of the places that best showcase the essence of Colombo’s colonial and post-colonial culture. It embodies the typical fast paced life of hard-working Colombo folk, who also make time to relax and interact with each other.

The towering Khan Clock Tower, built by the wealthy Khan family of Bombay in 1923 to memorialise their appreciation of the people of Colombo, serves as a good starting point for a tour around the commercial hub. Wear comfortable shoes, carry some cash, and bring a large bottle of water, because you are about to delve into the busiest place in all of Colombo – the Pettah Market.

Turn right from the clock tower and travel along the cobblestoned Malwatte Road. Be careful as the street is narrow and crowded with vehicles, pedestrians and plenty of roadside shops selling genuine and faux leather products. The grid layout of the streets will then lead you to the entrance of Olcott Mawatha, which is famous for apparel shops containing a wide variety of locally produced and imported items. A left turn from here will take you down Bodhiraja Mawatha, which is rather congested with pavement hawkers.

A peculiar looking gothic style building towers over the neighbourhood at the end of Bodhiraja Mawatha. Built in 1873 by the British, this was once the old Town Hall of the city. Still sporting its typical gothic style architecture, the building is now a museum that portrays stories of colonial rule alongside artefacts, such as old typewriters, paintings and even old posters. Leave the 19th century building and fast forward to the 21st century market.

Take a left onto the wider Main Street and be surrounded by a variety of shops selling electronics, clothes, sarees, shoes, kitchenware, sweets and savouries. It is probably the most active commercial street in the country, a characteristic which remains from the British colonial period. This is most likely due to its proximity to the Colombo Harbour. If you walk straight down this road, you will end up at the clock tower, right where you began.

Hold on! You have still only scratched the surface of the Pettah Markets. Each major street branches out to other arteries that specialize in selling specific types of products such as children’s toys, electronics, stationery, fabric, lighting, kitchen ware and party decorations to name a few.

Pettah’s historic significance as the main commercial hub of Colombo has resulted in much of its colonial era sites being demolished to make way for development. However, there are still a few untouched landmarks that remain from the pre-British era.

In addition to the British built Old Town Hall building, Pettah also contains monuments from the Dutch colonial period. Walk along Prince Street and you will find the mansion of old Dutch governors built in the 17th century. This mansion now serves as the Dutch Museum, housing several artefacts from the colonial period, such as furniture, ceramics, coins and weaponry.

The Wolvendaal Church, consecrated in the year 1757, is another intriguing vestige of the Dutch colonisers. Built for the garrison that occupied the city, as well as the local converts, the church still functions as a place of worship celebrating Sunday service. The Kayman’s Gate bell tower located on Fourth Cross Street, still contains the original bell rung during colonial times.

With several Muslim and Hindu ethnic groups setting up shop in the streets of Pettah, the markets have become a kaleidoscope of culture. Colourful places of worship such as the Old Kathiresan Kovil with its intriguing ‘gopuram’, along with the candy-striped Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid (Red Mosque) showcase the diverse and harmonious space in which the traders coexist.

Leave the bustling neighbourhood of Pettah and enter the quaint Colombo Fort to rest your weary legs. Although many of the original features of the Colombo Fort have been lost to the development of the city, the Fort area still contains a few noteworthy colonial vestiges. Some of them have undergone major refurbishments, which help them to blend into the cosmopolitan nature of the city.

Exit the Pettah markets and enter the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct in the Colombo Fort area, just opposite the World Trade Centre buildings. Wander through the quaint corridors of what once was a major hospital during Dutch rule. Believed to have been built in 1681, the present-day complex is a space for shopping, dining and recreation. The Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct is the ideal place to enjoy a cold beer, indulge in some delectable seafood, shop for trinkets and souvenirs or just revel in a relaxing massage.

Further inside the Fort, along York Street, lies a row of colonial facades that tell intriguing stories. One such façade that catches the eye is the bright red Cargills Miller’s Building. Built in 1844, the large complex was the first ever department store in the country, and was the only place that sold a number of imported goods. The building still houses the offices of Cargills Ceylon and its many subsidiaries.

With the sun slowly setting in the horizon, head out of the Colombo Fort area and on to the open space of the Galle Face Green promenade. Your walk there would take you past the impressive neo-classical styled Old Parliament building, left over from the days when Colombo functioned as the administrative capital of the country.

The Galle Face Green promenade is a wide-open space overlooking the India Ocean. It functions as a park for hundreds of families who flock there every evening to fly kites and enjoy picnics. Every evening, the promenade comes alive with a number of carts and stalls selling delicious Colombo street food ranging from ‘isso vadey’ (similar to a prawn cake), achcharu (pickled fruit), cassava chips, fried seafood, ‘kotthu rotti’ (mix of rotti, meat and vegetables) to ‘bombai mutai’ (hand pulled candy). You would not regret spending an evening enjoying the many flavours of Colombo, sitting by the ocean, watching a stunning sunset.

The Galle Face Hotel, a beautiful colonial masterpiece lies at the end of the Galle Face promenade, and is definitely a place you must visit. Possessing a history that can be traced back to the year 1864, this heritage hotel has been recently refurbished to reflect the grandeur of its former glory days as a Dutch villa. The hotel has played host to a number of famous figures, including heads of state, Hollywood celebrities and high-ranking military personnel.

The commercial heart of the city, specifically the neighbourhoods of Pettah and Colombo Fort, truly captures the essence of life in Colombo. It may take more than a day to enjoy all the experiences it has to offer, but it definitely will be worth your while!

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