The largest city and commercial center of Sri Lanka
Colombo is the commercial capital of Sri Lanka – it is the traditional gateway to the Orient. Colombo was a popular port of call for many a passenger liner from the western route to Australia and the Far East, during the leisured times of a bygone era, when India was the biggest ornament of the British Empire and Sri Lanka was then known as its brightest pendant !
The city is bordered by the waters of the Indian Ocean on the west and the bustle of the harbour mingles with the activity of its busy commercial, banking, and shopping area. The approach to Colombo is from the north and is a minimum one hour drive from the Katunayake International Aiport.
The original Moorish trading settlers, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, have left in their wake churches and monuments, clock towers and belfries, canals and breakwaters, religions and names, costumes and food and smattering of their languages which have been absorbed into the speech of the Sri Lankans. Cutting across Colombo's main trunk road is an old Dutch Canal which is a part of the character of Colombo city, with its cosmopolitan life and landscape. Buddhist Temples and Statues, Hindu Temples and Christian Churches of many denominations, Mosques and Minarets are sprinkled in profusion. Manifesting the peaceful tolerance of the city's racial and religious mix.
Colombo which has a population of over a million distributed over fifteen zones, has three main zones, each of which has a distinctive character. The Fort, the centre of metropolitan activity, the Pettah the bustling bazaar area and the old Cinnamon Gardens, now fashionably known as Colombo 7 with its spacious mansions and better residential areas.
The Fort is designated Colombo 1. The most important landmark in the Fort is the Lighthouse Clock Tower built in 1837. The tower was built to a design by the Lady Ward (wife of the British Governor at that time) and is possibly the world's only light-house in the middle of the City. The new light-house is at Marine Drive over looking the Governor's pool. A little away is the Janadhipathi Medura – the President's House, formerly the Queen's House. The statue facing east in front of President's House is that of Governor Sir Edward Barnes – the great roadmaker who caused the Colombo-Kandy Road to be constructed, all trunk road mileage is measured from this statue.
Pettah which is known as Colombo 11, is an Anglo-Indian word derived from the Tamil "pettai" used by the British to describe the place the Dutch called :Oude Stad" or Old Town. The area is called "Pita Kotuwa" in Sinhalese and means "outside the Fort" . Here as in the past, a brisk trade goes on each day in fruits, vegetables, spices, cloth, gold and silver, jaggery and honey, coconut oil, sandalwood, brassware and copper – the list is endless.
There are many legacies of the Moors, Portuguese, Dutch and British who lived and traded in the Pettah. The belfy at Kayman's Gat marked one end of the Beira Lake. The old Pettah Post Office was once a Dutch Seminary. Headstones from the old Dutch cemetery are still seen at Keyzer Street, with Mosques and Hindu Kovils in close proximity and a famous Catholic Church dedicated to St Anthony the Miracle Worker, where the faithful of many religions go for assistance and solace is on the waterfront at nearby Kochchikade on a site dating back to Portuguese days.
Cinnamon Gardens popularly known as Colombo 7 is the city's most exclusive residential district. Cinnamon Gardens – its name comes from the cinnamon plantations which once covered the area. Within the Cinnamon Gardens area are several places of interest : The Town Hall, premier civic centre, the beautiful Vihara Maha Devi Park (originally named after Queen Victoria but now commemorating a great Sinhala Queen of the pre-Christian era). The other places of interest are the War Memorial commemorating the dead of two world wars, the Public Library, the Art Gallery, the Lionel Wendt Theatre and Art Centre, Colombo National Museum, Independence Commemoration Hall and the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall.
The Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in Sri Lanka was a gift to the people of Sri Lanka from the People's Republic of China. This 30 million Rupee Convention Complex is the best of its kind in South Asia and equipped to handle the largest of conventions.
Sri Lanka 's Zoological Gardens situated in Dehiwela is considered one of the best in Asia. A very fine collection of animals, birds, reptiles and fish from all parts of the world. The biggest attraction of the zoo is its daily elephant circus.
Just past Dehiwela is Mt Lavinia a popular beach resort of city dwellers has plenty of wide beach for sunning and the sea is ideal for swimming and surfing. Here is also a lovely palm-fringed bay and the spacious Mt Lavinia Hotel of which the main building was formerly the romantic hideout of a British Governor.
Apart from Mt Lavinia, Colombo has a sea-front extending seven miles south from Fort to Dehiwela with many places ideal for sun and sea bathing, swimming and surfing. Dehiwela and Mt Lavinia also have small fishing hamlets, where you can watch the boats go out and if you like, help bring in the catch as well.
There's more beach north of the city at Hendela on the way to the International Air Port Katunayake where the Pegasus Reef Hotel provides international class accommodation. Hendela also affords opportunities for boating along the Dutch Canal which flows through miles of picturesque coconut grove.
Sri Lanka is also famous for its Temples and within Colombo itself you will see the Dipaduttaramaya in Kotahena (Colombo 13) founded in 1806 which is the oldest Buddhist Shrine in the city. The Paramananda Purana Viharaya also situated in Kotahena was also founded in the same year. The Gotami Vihara in Borella (Colombo 8) is notable for the contemporary paintings by George Keyt which adorn its walls depicting the life of the Buddha. The Isipathanramaya in Havelock Town (Colombo 5) and the Asokaramaya in Thimbirigasyaya (Colombo 5) also have paintings which illustrate the style of art during the Buddhist revival in the quarter of this century. In Colombo 2 is located the famous Gangaramaya, the meditating and Bhikku Training Centre sited on a picturesque location in the Beira Lake. This centre also includes a museum on Buddhism. The Vajiraramay in Bambalapity (Colombo 4) is one of the recognized seats of Buddhist learning and discipline.
Seven miles from the city of Colombo is the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, on a site believed to have been sanctified by a visit of the Buddha. The Mahavams, ancient chronicle of the Sinhalese, records that the original dagaba at Kelaniya enshrined a gem studded throne on which the Buddha sat and preached.
Sri Lanka's famous Kovils, Churches and Mosques of historic value are also found within the city of Colombo.
Things you can do
- The Colombo Museum -
It houses many of the island's historical treasures, such as archaic palm leaf manuscripts, antique porcelain, rock sculptures from ancient cities, royal regalia, and an excellent collection of demon masks. Erected at the request of the Ceylon branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, it was declared open in 1877. Designed by James Smithers, an architect then working with the Public Works Department, it was constructed by Wapchi Marikar Baas (later knighted as Sir Razik Fareed). Pleased at the quality of the construction, the Governor asked Marikar Baas what favour he desired for constructing so fine a building. Marikar requested that the Museum remain closed on Fridays, so as not to distract Colombo's Muslim community from their weekly prayers. To honour his request, the Museum still closes to public every Friday.
- Fort Railway Station -
The railways came early to colonial Ceylon - work on a line between Colombo and Gampaha began in 1864, less than forty years after the world's first commercial railway began operating in England. Spurred on by the demands of the coffee (and later, the tea) trade, the first Colombo-Kandy service began in 1867, and a complete island wide rail network was in place about fifty years later.
- The Galle-Face Esplanade -
This mile-long palm-lined stretch in the heart of the city is its largest and most elegant promenade, with a number of small food stalls and a small stretch of beach. Once used by the British army as a parade ground - and an execution place for mutinous soldiers - it is today home to families and children playing sports and flying kites, health enthusiasts taking their daily evening walks, and local and international concerts. Around the corner from Galle Face are prominent coffee bars, chic bars and boutiques.
- Presidential Secretariat -
Known to most Sri Lankans as the 'old Parliament', the Presidential Secretariat building has served many functions in its time. Originally intended to house the 49-member Legislative Council, a body of mostly elected representatives advising the British Governor, it became Independent Ceylon's first House of Parliament in 1947, with its debating chamber being modified to accommodate 101 members. As the number of parliamentarians kept increasing, the premises proved too small and a new Parliament was built at Kotte in 1977. The Secretariat building, with its double-height Ionic columns and louring portico, is a typical example of the Neoclassical style popular among Western architects between the two world wars.
- Vihara Maha Devi (Victoria) Park - Ever since its gates first opened in 1865, Vihara Maha Devi Park has served Colombo residents as a quiet retreat from the bustle of city life. Located at the geographical centre of Colombo, next to the National Museum, Vihara Maha Devi Park is much smaller now than it used to be - earlier it used to include the Nomads' S.C. cricket grounds opposite St. Bridget's College and the areas presently occupied by the Colombo Public Library, the Art Gallery and the John de Silva Memorial Theatre. Famous for its flowering trees, fountains and water channels, the Viharamahadevi Park overlooks the pristine white-domed Town Hall. The park is at its best from March to May, before the monsoon arrives when its trees and shrubberies are in brilliant flower.
In the centre of the park a statue of Queen Victoria commemorates her rule, while on the lawns near the Town Hall a golden image of the Buddha represents an older heritage.
- Lighthouse Clock Tower -
Legend has it that Colombo's most famous landmark was commissioned by the wife of Governor Sir Henry Ward in the hope that it would teach the Ceylonese to be punctual. Unfortunately, the clock never worked properly and its replacement, commissioned in 1872 (from the manufacturers of London's famous Big Ben), was installed only in 1914, having been kept in storage for forty-two years due to the expense of installation!
- Pettah -
The old Bazar District of mostly Tamil and Muslim traders, this is one of the most ethnically mixed places in Sri Lanka. Each lane seems to have its own specialty, from silk garments and jewelry to spices and fruits. As dusk falls and the oil lamps and neon lights come on, the Tamil, Indian and Sinhalese traders call out, inviting you to sample their wares. Pettah also has many religious buildings, temples as well as the Ul-Afar-Juma Mosque built of brickstone in the year 1909.
- Wolvendaal Church -
Colombo's oldest Dutch church is still in use. Its floor tiles, made from tombstones formerly in the Dutch church in the Fort, were brought here in 1813.
- Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara -
This Buddhist temple is believed to be located at the spot where the Buddha preached 2000 years ago. It has an excellent carving of a reclining Buddha, and is the site for an annual prahara (religious procession) in January.
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