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Colombo: A Capital Day Trip

Colombo: A Capital Day Trip
Colombo Uncovered

With much of the expressway now working between the hotel and Colombo, it is simple to enjoy a full day's outing to the capital, taking in the best in food, shopping, art, and history that the city has to offer.


Founded by Muslim Arab traders in the eighth century, in the game of musical chairs that is Colombo’s history, the Arabs were expelled by the Portuguese.


The Portuguese built their fort and trading centre on the same spot as the Arab traders between 1505 and 1528, and then set about pushing out the Kotte kings from all neighbouring lands. Their fort was soon upgraded and given three bastions, with stone and mortar replacing mud walls; and was christened “Our Lady of Victories.” A town, complete with Franciscan friars grew around it - but by 1554 everything was once again upgraded. This time the Portuguese moved the fort to the area now known as “Fort,” adding to it regularly so that by 1630 it boasted fourteen bastions, residences, churches, and many of the facilities of a small and busy town.


After an epic siege, the Fort fell to the Dutch in 1656. The new colonialists proved no less enthusiastic for military improvements. The fort was restructured to better sit astride the natural defences offered by the lake and the sea, and a moat dug on the landward side and stocked with crocodiles. It was separated out from the old town or Pettah, and given nine bastions and two batteries. The fort became a walled city with storehouses, residential buildings, churches, shops, a parade ground, stables for horses and elephants and streets lined with shady trees.


When, in 1796 betrayal, rather than military prowess, saw the fort fall to the British, life continued with little structural change until the 1870s when the British then began to systematically destroy large sections of the fort to expand the space for mansions, warehouses, jetties, palaces, churches, offices, pleasure domes and parks. The city expanded beyond the boundaries of the fort - for example into Cinnamon Gardens, a fashionable address for diplomats, bankers, administrators, and tycoons. 

What remained was a melting pot of cultures – Sinhalese; Parses, Moors, Malays, Tamils; and Portuguese and Dutch who had stayed behind, or inter married, becoming known as Burgers. It was not until the disastrous ‘Sinhala only’ policy in the late 1950s that these families finally disappeared, migrating to Australia, Canada, and the UK. . 

An Englishman writing in 1803 noted of Colombo that: “there is no part in the world where so many languages are spoken, or which contains such a mixture of nations, manners, and religions.”

Hints of the old fort can still be glimpsed in several places:


Kayman’s Gate Bell Tower – an entrance to the Fort located at the foot of the Wolvendaal Hill in Pettah.


Delf Gateway – one of the main entrances to the Colombo fort, now part of the premises of the Commercial Bank.


The Battenburg battery – a 50 metre sliver of wall inside the Harbour.


The Enkhuysen bastion / Dan Briel bastion Wall – a section of wall now located beside the Junior Police Officers Mess.


Dan Briel Bastian – built in 1751 and now inside the Navy Headquarters.


The Slave Entrance - now found within the Navy Headquarters, this entrance was built in 1676 to access the land between the sea and the fort where the Dutch kept their ill-stared Kaffir slaves.


Fortified Dutch Warehouse – now the Maritime Museum of Colombo Ports Authority, built in 1676.


Despite the official capital moving slightly south to Kotte in 1982, the city is still regarded by everyone except the politicos as the capital. It is washed by a salty tropical ocean air that makes you sweat and smile. 

Unusually for any capital, still less an Asian one, it remains largely low rise with offices and homes, restaurants and services jumbled together in beautiful, functional, chaotic harmony - though a broody plague of meretricious high rises are darkening the skies around Beira Lake and the Colombo Port City development off Galle Face Green which promises to focus on "driving high-value investments through state-of-the-art infrastructure, advanced technology, and favourable regulations for development," whatever that means.


Of the many things to do and see there my recommendation for a day’s outing is to start the tour with a fresh lime soda and some retail therapy at The Barefoot Café & Gallery, home to fabrics, books and collectibles, before moving on to take in Galle Face Green, Pettah and the old Fort area by car, 

The Gallery Café for a perfect lunch, a quick shop at Fashion Fabric for silk PJ basics, and a peep at Schokman & Samerawickreme's Auction House in Isipathana Mawatha, before heading towards two of the best independent art galleries, Gallery Fourlife, and the Saskia Fernando Gallery.

If you are there on a Saturday, drop in on the virtuous stalls of Good Market, next to the Colombo Racecourse grounds.


Should you be missing strawberries, or have bitten off more mangos than you can chew, visit Simply Strawberries, whose menu has found novel ways of reinventing the fruit - which it grows at its Hill Country farms - for soups, salads, crepes, pasta, bakes, and even beer.


Make time for a whistle stop visit to The Colombo National Museum. In its shaded chambers lies one of mankind’s greatest and most beautiful works of art – a small bronze statue of Buddha, The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, relaxed, a leg hanging down, an arm resting on a thigh, holding, for some fourteen hundred years, its spectators breathless.

The statue is considered one of the world’s masterpiece sculptures. It was discovered in 1968 along with 51 other Buddhist images among the ruins of an ancient building in the precincts of Sri Sangabodhi Vihara in Veheragala in Anuradhapura District

This solid-cast gilt bronze represents Avalokiteshvara, a Mahayana Bodhisattva who is the emanation of the Dhyani Buddha Amitabha.

Scholars, arguing, as they do, place its date at the 6th, 8th, or 10thcentury CE. Its style has many affinities with South Indian sculptures of the 7th-9th centuries. It stand 49.8 cm in height and is made from bronze using the lost wax process

The Bodhisattva’s hair is arranged with several loose locks are fallen onto the shoulders, its hair dress once garnished with gems.

Alternatively, there is the sad, calm beauty of the historic Borella Cemetery. "Death," reads one gravestone, "may be the greatest of all human blessings." The graveyard, shaded by ancient trees and whose graves mark the deep history of the city, is also a place noted for the terrible violent of the Black July pogroms against the Tamils in 1983 that resulted island wide into riots that killed over 3,000 Tamils, and left about 150,000 homeless.


And a final tip - Colombo's best kept secret...The Bawa Museum at No.11, 33rd Lane, Bagatelle Road - the architect's town house, with gardening books left still open and marked for later action.

Please contact the Hotel Office to arrange a trip.
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