Edifices of Wonder Colombo’s Architectural Masterpieces

While the city of Colombo is constantly subject to development initiatives, so that it can compete with other commercial cities in South Asia, it still retains a number of architectural gems from the Old World. As these edifices are dotted all around metropolitan Colombo and its suburbs, it requires a bit of effort to locate them. Wear a comfortable pair of shoes, don a hat, and grab a bottle of water because you will first be stepping into the bustling neighbourhoods of Pettah and the Colombo Fort.

The Dutch Museum that lies hidden on Prince Street is an intricate display of Sri Lankan History from the Dutch colonial era. It was originally built as a mansion for the governor of Dutch Ceylon, Thomas Van Rhee, during his term in office from 1692–1697. Although located in the ever-changing environments of the Pettah markets, the stark appearance of the Dutch Museum building is hard to miss as you walk along the street. Its white gargantuan columns and high ceilings have virtually remained the same since the 17th century. Enter and you are instantly surrounded by a style of architecture that no longer exists even in the Netherlands. Inside you will find several relics of Dutch Colombo, including the intriguing insignia of the city which highlights the Mango tree, as the Dutch believed the name ‘Colombo’ was derived from combining the Sinhalese words for ‘Leaf’ and ‘Mango’.

Admire the woven colonial furniture neatly arranged around the mansion, while you view artefacts such as coins, porcelain and documents placed throughout the aisles. Gaze upon the oldest courtyard garden in Colombo, popularly known as the ‘Meda Midula’. The garden includes a solitary Cinnamon tree – the spice that attracted the Dutch to Sri Lanka. The well that resides in the centre of the courtyard is another unique feature that is typical of Dutch colonial style.

While the 17th century Dutch colonial era is an interesting time in the city’s history, it was during the 19th century British colonial era that Colombo began to transform into a metropolitan city. Walk along Main Street and you would find the neo-gothic style building that served as the first civic building of the city. Although no longer serving as a major civic building, it is now a museum and still holds a significant place in the annals of the city. Knock and the caretaker would open the door, and give you a tour around the old building. The monuments and artefacts contained within the museum showcase the lives of Colombo society in the days of yore. Typewriters, printing presses, posters, monumental plaques, and even automobiles are scattered all around the building. One of the more intriguing sights to behold is the room that contains a tableau of a typical town hall meeting of the 20th century. A map of Colombo dated 1785 hangs in one of the rooms. It allows you to appreciate how much the city has changed, but also still remains unchanged in certain ways.

Although these edifices are heavily concentrated in the Fort-Pettah area, there are many others dotted around the city’s suburban spaces too. Head over to Colombo Seven, a chic suburb that houses a number of historic landmarks and affluent residences.

The Colombo National Museum, located in a quiet corner of the suburb, is an important complex that contains several artefacts dating back to the various kingdoms that existed in the island before it was subject to colonisation. Built by local contractor Wapchi Marikar in 1877, the design of the museum itself is unique, as it incorporates the styles and intricacies of the neo-Palladian School of architecture.

Wander through the halls and observe relics of the old kingdoms; the pièce de résistance being the original throne and crown jewels belonging to the Kingdom of Kandy – the last independent kingdom of the country. Sri Lanka’s natural history can also be witnessed in several wings dedicated to display the various species of flora and fauna that thrive in the country. Catch a glimpse of the large skeleton of the Blue Whale hanging from the ceiling of the natural history wing.

Colombo Seven is also home to many charming recreational and shopping spaces that were once important administrative complexes during the colonial days. The Racecourse Stadium that was built in 1893, located just a kilometre away from the museum, happened to be the primary location in which individuals of high society would come and witness horse racing in Colombo. It was eventually transformed into an airstrip at the outbreak of the Second World War, where several RAF squadrons were stationed. Ironically, it was never bombed during the war, although the Japanese conducted an air raid in Colombo in 1942. The grassy course was then transformed into a ground where athletes would train up until 2014, as it was then renovated and turned into Sri Lanka’s first international Rugby Union ground. While the grounds were being revamped, the grandstands of the stadium underwent a beautification process whereby it was transformed into a space for retail and dining.

The nearby Arcade Independence Square also tells a similar story. Built in 1889 and originally serving as a lunatic asylum, the building has had many purposes over the years, such as serving as the office of the Auditor General. Today, it has been restored and turned into a complex for cinemas, restaurants, cafes and designer lifestyle brands. Right opposite the shopping precinct lies one of the most significant monuments for the people of Sri Lanka – the Independence Square and Memorial Hall.

Built in the year 1948 to commemorate the country gaining independence after more than 400 years of European rule, the unique complex is an eclectic mix of ancient Sri Lankan traditions. Its design incorporates styles from the Jaffna Kingdom, Anuradhapura Kingdom, Polonnaruwa Kingdom and the Kandyan Kingdom to name but a few. Today, the complex and its surrounding grounds have become a haven for the fitness enthusiasts of Colombo. It is also used to host outdoor events by various organizations and corporate entities.

Travel a little beyond the southern borders of Colombo towards Mount Lavinia to experience another beautiful remnant of the Old World. The Mount Lavinia Hotel originally served as the official residence of Sir Thomas Maitland, the Governor of British Ceylon in 1806. Legend states that the name ‘Mount Lavinia’ was derived from the affair between the governor and a local mestizo dancer called ‘Lady Lavinia’. She is believed to have been smuggled into the governor’s residence via a secret tunnel which connected to the village. A statue of Lady Lavinia can still be seen in the middle of the fountain located at the main entrance, immortalizing the story of the forbidden love affair. The beachfront hotel retains its colonial architecture and charm, and is a great place to grab a drink and dinner.

Colombo is not just a vestige of colonial architecture and buildings. It does contain many new and modern constructions such as malls, arcades, hotels and residential complexes. However, these edifices are not exclusive to the city, as similar structures can be seen in any other cosmopolitan city in the region. Therefore, we would encourage you to take time to visit the locations listed above for a truly unique experience.

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