The Grand Tour III-6: Colombo, Sri Lanka… Southern Fort

1 - Galle Face Green

The iconic Galle Face Hotel, on the equally iconic Galle Face Green.

Setting sail from Danish Tranquebar, we wend our ship southward to the jewelled isle of Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka), situated at the southern tip of the Indian Subcontinent. We are bound for the port city of Colombo, on the southwestern coast of the island-nation.

The Greeks, Persians and Arabs knew of this port, and frequented its shores in late antiquity. The former – in particular, Greek geographer Ptolemy – referred to the island as Taprobana, the latter as Sarandib. In the course of a millenia and a half, the island would be ruled by a succession of Hindu kingdoms, culminating in just under a century of occupation by the mighty Chola Empire in the 11th century.

When the Portuguese arrived in 1505, first at Galle and onwards to Colombo, the island was split into some half a dozen kingdoms, chief of all being the Kotte and the Kandy Kingdoms.

2 - Colombo,_after_Kip

‘De Stadt Colombe’ c. 1775, after original engraving by Johannes Kip c. 1680. [Public Domain]

3 - Map_of_Colombo_(Baedeker,_1914)

Baedeker Map of Colombo, 1914. [Public Domain.]

4 - Cholas

Chola-era bronze statue of Shiva Nataraja. Collection of the National Museum of Colombo.

5 - Kandy

Detail of the Royal Throne of Kandyan Kings. Collection of the National Museum of Colombo. Kandy was a Buddhist, Sinhalese-speaking Kingdom, and the last of Sri Lanka’s local Kingdoms.

From the coastal Kotte Kingdom, the Portuguese extracted the rights by treaty to establish a coastal settlement and fort at Colombo. From thence, they would grow in power, eventually annexing Kotte and the northern Kingdom of Jaffna, and expanding the rule to including all of the western and northern coast of the island they called Ceilao (from which the English word Ceylon is derived).

Hardly anything remains of Portuguese Colombo today.  The fort the Portuguese built has all but vanished, but the area on which the fort used to stand, is still known as Fort, and was the administrative and commercial centre of British Ceylon. Elsewhere, a few Portuguese tombstones continue to stand in the galleries of the National Museum of Colombo.

6 - Portuguese Tombstone

A stone slab with a Portuguese inscription, probably fixed to the main doorway of a Portuguese chapel in Colombo fort. “The Chapel of the brethren of confraternity of the most Holy Rosary”. Collection of the National Museum of Colombo.

7 - More portuguese

Portuguese tombstones from Colombo. The tombstone on the right was found in Colombo Fort and bears a family coat of arms. It reads “This tomb is of Joana Godinha and heirs, which was made by one named Joao de Fonseca, 1646.” Collection of the National Museum of Colombo.

The Dutch United East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) arrived in Ceylon in the early 1600s and swiftly made an alliance with the Kingdom of Kandy – the last Sinhalese Kingdom in Ceylon. King Rajasinghe II of Kandy would sign a treaty in 1638 with the VOC, seeking aid in wrestling control of Ceylon back from the Portuguese, in return for a monopoly on trade.

Dutch Ceylon was established in 1640, but it wasn’t till 1658 that the Portuguese were driven off the island.  Colombo was taken in 1656 and served as the capital of Dutch Ceylon for more than 100 years.  The Dutch, having ousted the Portuguese, defied the terms of their treaty, and in the ensuing decades, would continually add to their territory, eventually taking control of almost all of Ceylon’s coastline, rendering Kandy landlocked and helpless.

Most of Ceylon’s Dutch heritage remains in Galle – which was the Dutch stronghold for much of their occupation of the island. That said, Colombo still retains a few important Dutch-era buildings, chiefly the former Dutch Hospital in the Fort and the Dutch Museum and Wolvendaal Church in Pettah.

The descendants of the Dutch – the so-called Dutch Burghers, or Dutch Eurasians also still maintain their presence in today’s Colombo; and have contributed a distinctly Malay tinge to the city’s unique cuisine.

8 - Dutch VOC

The Dutch VOC – Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (United East India Company) logo, circa 1795. This was one year before the British conquered Dutch Ceylon.

9 - Dutch Hospital

The Old Colombo Dutch Hospital is the oldest building in the Fort area, and probably dates from the late 1600s. Today it’s a shopping and F & B precinct, kind of like Chijmes in Singapore.

30 - Ministry of Crab

At the former Dutch Hospital is where you find the hugely popular Ministry of Crab, which serves…guess what? Sri Lankan crabs cooked any way you want them. Delicious!

10 - Dutch Museum

The Dutch Museum, in Pettah, occupies the former Residence of the Governor of Dutch Ceylon, Thomas van Rhee. It was probably built in the late 1690s.

11 - Wolvendaal Church

Wolvendaal Church (Wolvendaalse Kerk) is a Dutch Reformed Church built in 1757 in Pettah.

12 - Dutch Burgher Union

The Dutch Burger Union was established in 1907. Its headquarters, built in 1917, sit in the suburb of Cinnamon Gardens.

29 - Lampreis

Lampreis (served at the cafe of the Dutch Burgher Union) is a distinctly cross-cultural Sri Lankan dish with Dutch, Malay and Ceylonese influences. Rice in stock and mixed meat curry is cooked in a banana leaf, served with frikkadels (meatballs), garnished with pol sambola, or spicy prawn floss (which we Singaporeans know as hay bee hiam), and taken with sambal belachan. Absolutely scrumptious.

Dutch Ceylon became British in 1796. Twenty years later in 1815, the Kingdom of Kandy finally succumbed and was absorbed into British Ceylon.

Much of the city’s European colonial heritage dates from the British era, in particular, the Fort area contains some of the buildings most monumental civic and commercial edifices.

To the East of Fort sits Pettah – the older, Dutch city centre, which today retains a bustling air and entirely multi-cultural outlook. Here sit the city’s most important mosques – including the Red Mosque – Hindu temples and churches, alongside the city’s old British City Hall.

To the south of Fort sits Cinnamon Gardens, laid out by the British in accordance with Garden City principles in the late 19th century.  Here is a leafy, verdant landscape of bungalows and villas, sitting along broad boulevards. Here too one finds the residence and offices of one of British Ceylon and Sri Lanka’s most important exports – the late Geoffrey Bawa, pioneer of the “Tropical Modernist” style.

13 - Port

The Port of Sri Lanka

14 - Stupa

Sri Sambuddhaloka Vihara Buddhist Temple, just off Fort.

15 - Lloyds

Lloyd’s Bank Building, Fort.

16 - COLOMBO - CArgills

The iconic Cargills Building (1906) on York Street, Fort.

17 - Archway

Strolling through the arcades of Cargills Building.

19 - PEttah

The entrance to bustling Pettah Market and the multi-cultural Pettah city centre.

20 - City Hall

The Old Town Hall was built by the British in 1873. It sits in Pettah and sports a Neo-Gothic architectural style.

21 - Red Mosque

The iconic Red Mosque, or Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque is one of the oldest mosques in the city and dates from 1909. It is built in an Indo-Saracenic style.

22 - NEw KAthiresan TEmple

New Kathiresan Temple, Pettah.

23 - Golden Temple

Sri Muthu Vinayakar Swamy Temple, Pettah.

26 - Building

Colombo Town Hall (1928), Cinnamon Gardens.

18 - National Museum

The National Museum of Colombo, in Cinnamon Gardens. The purpose-built museum building dates from 1896.

27 - Geoffrey Bawa

Paradise Road Cafe in Cinnamon Gardens occupies Geoffrey Bawa’s former offices.

Ceylon became independent Sri Lanka in 1948, and many of its colonial-era government buildings were repurposed as civic and administrative centres for its fledgeling government.

By 1983, Sri Lanka had plunged into Civil War, with the Tamil Tigers in the northeast fighting for an independent Tamil Eelam state in the northern region of Jaffna.  Those who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s would remember the violence associated with Sri Lanka during this time. A Peace Accord was only signed in 2009.

24 - Independence

Independence Memorial Hall (1953) sits on Independence Square (formerly Torrington Square) in Cinnamon Gardens.

25 - Government

Old Parliament Building was completed in 1930and today houses the Presidential Secretariat. It sits near the Northern edge of Galle Face Green.

Since then, Sri Lanka has wasted no time in getting back on its feet. Any visitor to Colombo today would find it a modern and thoroughly clean city, reminiscent of Singapore in the late 1980s and even the early 1990s.

The best experience of the city can be had taking a stroll along the lovely seaside promenade known as Galle Face Green. In the distance stands the iconic Galle Face Hotel, one of the oldest and greatest hotels in the Far East and the grande dame of the city’s hospitality scene for more than 100 years.

Laid out in 1859 by the British and initially used for cricket and other sports (it was the equivalent of the Padang in Singapore), today, Galle Face Green is popular with ordinary Sri Lankans, who emerge en masse in the early evenings to picnic, fly kites, take in the sea breeze and look to the future.

28 - Hoppers

Hoppers (also known as appam), freshly made for breakfast at the Galle Face Hotel, are typical Sri Lankan food.

31 - Galle Face Green

Evening at Galle Face Green, a 500 metre-long esplanade by the ocean.

32 - COVER

A backward glance at Galle Face Green and the iconic Galle Face Hotel.


About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
This entry was posted in Art & Architecture, Cities & Regions, Culture & Lifestyle, Heritage, Landmarks & History, Photography, Travel & Mobility and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s