The name “Pettah” is derived from the Sinhalese “pita-kotuwa”, which means “outside the fort”. This exactly describes what Pettah was and is today.
In the Dutch era, this area was known as the “oudestad”, or Old Town. Where the Fort held the civic and commercial buildings, the oudestad was where the Dutch colonials had their villas and residences, erected along a tidy grid of verdant, tree-lined streets.
When the British took over, much the “Dutch-ness” of Pettah was gradually lost, and the district became what it is today – a multi-cultural hodgepodge of communities and religions; as well as the location of the city’s main marketplace or bazaar – Pettah Market.
All that remains of the Dutch in Pettah are two buildings. The first is the former residence of Dutch Governor, Thomas van Rhee (1692-1697), which sits somewhat awkwardly on Prince Street (formerly Prinsestraat). It was built in the late 1600s and houses the Dutch Period Museum today.
The other Dutch-period building is the Wolvendaal Church, also known as the Dutch Reformed Church. It was built in 1757 and was the primary place of worship for the Dutch. On its grounds and inside the church building lie the graves of many Dutch residents of Colombo.
Elsewhere, Pettah is also home to some of Colombo’s most important places of the worship, one of which is the Red Mosque, or Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, a surreal, Indo-Saracenic, red and white, wedding-cake confection of a building completed in 1909 during the British era. The Mosque serves the spiritual needs of a sizeable Tamil Muslim community that has historically made Pettah their home.
Another important place of worship is St Lucia’s Cathedral, erected in 1881 just beyond Pettah in the suburb of Kotahena. It is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Colombo, and it dominates the skyline where it stands with its imposing dome and soaring Palladian facade. This is the biggest church in Sri Lanka and it was inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
There are also civic buildings here that are not to be missed. The first is the Old Town Hall at the junction of Main Street and Dam Street. Built in 1873 by the British, it boasts a Gothic architectural style entirely out of sync with the rest of the landscape around it today.
Not so far away stands the Khan Clocktower, which marks the entrance to Pettah Market. It was erected in 1923 by a wealthy Bombay Parsi family, and attests to Colombo being a bustling cosmopolitan trading hub in the early 1900s.