Reviving Colombo’s Cosmopolitan Flair

31 comments
Asia, South, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka's Old Parliament Building, Colombo

The Presidential Secretariat with the Colombo World Trade Center Building in the Background

Chapter 4, Part 24

We are in a small two-story restaurant right at the heart of a constantly busy district where our Australian-run homestay is located. Inside, the Italian owner is busy behind the counter while a local staff member attends the cashier. Others dash from one table to another, serving dishes to an international clientele, from Japanese to Europeans. It would have been a normal scene in Asia’s business hubs, like Hong Kong or Singapore. But we are in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s bustling financial center with an increasingly cosmopolitan flair.

That shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, though, for Colombo has been a thriving port since the British took control of Ceylon from the Dutch at the end of the 18th century. In the 1950s, when the island was still a fledgling independent nation, Colombo not only served as a major port of call along the shipping lines of the Indian Ocean, but also connected cities in Europe and Southeast Asia during the early years of the jet age. However, as a new prime minister took office and began implementing radical changes, the country was soon directed toward a dangerous path.

Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike became Ceylon’s fourth prime minister in 1956. Born to a Sinhalese Anglican Christian family, the adult Bandaranaike then converted to Buddhism. In his first months as prime minister, a controversial act was introduced: English was dropped entirely from the country’s official languages, leaving only Sinhalese. It marked the beginning of a period of discrimination against the Tamil minority on the island, a man-made problem which would prove costly for the entire nation.

Several years after its introduction, there were efforts to revise the act. However, discontentment among Buddhist extremists soon escalated, resulting in the assassination of Bandaranaike in 1959. His wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, then took the helm of her husband’s party, and became the world’s first ever female prime minister following the victory of her party’s coalition in the 1960 elections. During her terms, she turned Sri Lanka into a left-leaning country by introducing socialist economic policies and forging closer ties with Moscow and Beijing.

In the 1970s, the country’s Tamil community saw further government-sanctioned discrimination against them. From a policy which favored Sinhalese students over their Tamil counterparts, resulting in a drop of university admittance among the Tamils, to the preference given to Buddhism in Sri Lanka’s constitution, resentment grew among the Tamils which emboldened the separatist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE/Tamil Tigers) to launch attacks all across the country.

During the height of the decades-long civil war, the LTTE targeted places which were both symbolic to the Sinhalese people and important to the country’s economy. In 1985, they massacred pilgrims at Anuradhapura’s most sacred Buddhist site, an event our Anuradhapura-native host in Kandy still vividly remembers. Then in the 1990s, the Tamil Tigers attacked the heart of Colombo’s financial district in Fort. A bomb-loaded truck exploded at the main gate of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in 1996. A year later, the World Trade Center – where the Colombo Stock Exchange was located – was attacked only a few days after its inauguration. These incidents prompted the government to ban motorized vehicles from entering most parts of Fort which is also home to the President’s House as well as the Presidential Secretariat. The multiple security checkpoints and the heavy presence of military personnel in the district practically shut it off from civilians, locals and tourists alike.

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The Clock Tower and Colonial Buildings in Colombo’s Fort District

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Conservation Works on A Gem from the Past

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A Revitalized Old Building in Fort

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One of the Edwardian Buildings along York Street

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Cargills, the Department Store Fiona Used to Go to When She was A Kid

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The Constantly Busy York Street Junction

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Another View of the York Street Junction

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Colors of the Past

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Cargills with the Colombo World Trade Center Behind

By the time of my first visit to the city in 2012, the civil war had ended. However, tension was still palpable, particularly in Fort. As the Presidential Secretariat – formerly the Old Parliament building – emerged through the window of my auto rickshaw, so did the constantly vigilant security staff guarding the premises, including a number who stood on the beach across the street. Signboards warning people not to take photographs of the beautiful sand-colored Neoclassical building were mounted on its fence. The watchful eyes of uniformed officers made sure no one dared to even sneak a photo.

However, on my second time in Colombo, Fort feels refreshingly different. Our hosts, Drew and his Sri Lankan-Australian wife, Fiona, tell us about the reopening of Fort to the public. She recounts how Cargills department store, also located in the old district, was a lively place when she was little. After having breakfast at their cozy guesthouse, we take an auto rickshaw to Fort. Minutes later as we’re approaching the Presidential Secretariat building, I quickly grab my camera and start taking photos before any security guards see me.

But something is not quite right. There is no police officer, no military personnel, no intimidating faces at all.

As we get off, I instantly notice the absence of the signboards. Does that mean it’s now okay to take photos of the building? I wonder. One, two, three photos, nobody seems to care. Confounded by the laid back atmosphere, I walk toward the heart of Fort – the President’s House itself – with James following me closely. We pass an unmanned security post where a steel gate is left open, allowing cars and motorbikes to go through, and soon we are already in front of the Central Bank. At the intersection of Chatham Street and Janadhipathi Mawatha (formerly Queens Street) stands a 19th-century lighthouse which was turned into a clock tower in the mid-20th century – the clock, however, had been installed long before the decommissioning of the lighthouse. Behind it is another checkpoint, a telltale sign of an important site beyond – Google Street View can only afford to go up to this point.

It is in fact the location of the president’s abode, Sri Lanka’s own White House, as well as the General Post Office building opposite the palace. Next to it is the former Standard Chartered Bank office with its distinctive sculpted elephant heads, rendering the edifice an exotic Sri Lankan charm. Then we walk down the small street to the north of the General Post Office building, and end up at the York Street junction, a busy intersection lined by elegant Edwardian buildings. Walking around this part of Colombo that was long off-limits to civilians is a sobering experience and a reminder of the dire consequences of wars – they separate people, restrict movement, and instill fear, among other things.

This second trip to Sri Lanka’s biggest city ends too soon. However, it drastically changes my perception of the city and leaves me wondering how much more cosmopolitan, progressive, and exciting it will become years from now, as long as everyone is willing to move forward, develop the city and its communities, and heal from the scars of war.

Colombo 11

Jami ul-Alfar Mosque in Pettah, Another Old District of Colombo

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Scenes of Pettah

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The National Museum of Colombo, Established in 1877

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Vestiges of British Colonial Rule on the Island

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The Town Hall of Colombo Viewed from Viharamahadevi Park

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The City’s Mayor and Councillors Meet under the Watchful Eyes of the Buddha

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Crows Cooling Off at A Pool inside the Park

Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

31 thoughts on “Reviving Colombo’s Cosmopolitan Flair”

    • Thanks for reading! Colombo has many more architectural gems to explore. Unfortunately the last time I was in the city I only stayed for one night.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. If only the same atmosphere prevailed in the north where the ubiquitous military presence is still responsible for disappearances, rape and torture of Tamils to this day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Honestly I’m rather unaware of the situation in the north today. But when we were in Sri Lanka back in October 2015, quite a lot of people suggested us to visit Jaffna. I’ve been wondering though, whether the improved security there is the result of an ongoing reconciliation or a heavy military presence. From what you said, it sounds like the country has a long, rocky path toward a sustained peace where justice and fairness prevail.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My advice is not to go there. Sadly, I don’t see any reconciliation in the near future. There are sit-ins by Tamils demanding their land back and answers about what happened to the disappeared, but little progress.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is really disheartening. Ending a war is one thing. Ensuring peace that follows will remain for generations to come is an even bigger challenge — whether there will be another conflict or not in the future really depends on how well peace process and reconciliation are carried out.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Bama can you tell me why the temple that looks to my untrained eye looks like a multitude of candy canes? One fascinating exterior!

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    • That is actually an old mosque, Sue. It was built in Indo-Saracenic architectural style which was preferred in South Asia during British colonial time. I did wonder about the interior of the mosque though, but that day I decided to only take some photos of its facade.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The painted buildings are gems! It seems I am deluged with Sri Lankan images these days … all for the good; in fact, I am so captivated by this place now that I can’t wait to see it. Having your mini-history here is even more intriguing and helpful – thanks for the great post, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And those are only some of Colombo’s architectural gems! In spite of its thousands years old heritage sites, well-preserved colonial buildings, and inspiring landscapes, I do feel that Sri Lanka is still relatively less known than its bigger neighbor across the strait. It is one of those places I can see myself returning several more times. Well, if you do have ample time when you visit Southeast Asia in the future, maybe you’ll want to consider making a detour to Sri Lanka. 🙂 Thanks for reading, Lex.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. It looks wonderful. I wouldn’t have expected the very grand buildings! But you’re right, you sort of forget that Sri Lanka was a previous British colony!
    ‘Lovely photography as usual! 🙂

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    • And the good thing is now you can explore parts of Colombo which were closed to tourists for a long time. Thanks Victoria!

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  5. I was in Sri Lanka once, but didn’t really get around in Columbo. Looks like I’ll have to return and check it out. Love those buildings with all the colors. Actually, I wasn’t too thrilled with Sri Lanka, in general. Maybe I was in a bad mood. I didn’t even get a good photo. Thanks for taking care of all that for me!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Were you in the country during the civil war? I remember reading an article about Sri Lanka on a local newspaper here probably ten years ago which mentioned about how tourism in the country was hampered by the war. Less than a million foreign tourists visited the island nation annually during the civil war years. Anyway, whether you love or not a place is determined by a number of factors, and probably you were in Sri Lanka at the wrong time. But maybe you just don’t feel the chemistry with this country whatsoever — the only way to find out is by giving it another chance. 🙂 Glad you enjoyed my photos, Badfish!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post. It was interesting to read some of the comments too. It is good to see some normalcy come to the island. It is a shame what bad leadership can do to a country. Over 50 years later, the people still suffer.

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    • Thanks Jeff. I guess right now we all should embrace peace on the island cautiously. So many lessons learned from decades of civil war, yet so many paths can lead the people back to the same old situation.

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    • Mbak Riyanti nih bisa aja. Makasih banyak lho mbak. 🙂 Duh saya beneran pengen deh balik lagi ke Colombo. Penasaran sama beberapa masakan setempat yang belum sempat saya cobain dan katanya ada pengaruh dari masakan Indonesia (dulu dibawa sama Belanda ke Sri Lanka).

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  7. Beautiful photos. One thing I’ve learned from traveling to formerly turbulent places is that time changes and heal everything.

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    • Thanks! To permanently hear the scars, one needs more than just time, I believe. Forgiveness and compassion are two important things to heal the world.

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