A City of Ethnographic Diversity

At first glance, Colombo may appear to be just like any other fast paced commercial city, but it is so much more. Colombo is a multi-cultural, multi-religious smorgasbord that is a wonderful example of harmonious living.
Records of Ibn Battuta’s visit during the 14th century show that Colombo was a significant city, welcoming merchants and sailors from around the world. The merchants of old did not only bring goods for trading purposes, but also their culture and ways of life too. The port city became a haven for anyone willing to experience a new life, giving birth to a diverse society that continues to grow and adapt even today.

The various places of worship, constructed by different religious communities, tell the story of this wonderful city that has absorbed so many cultures and traditions to become the melting pot it is today.

Starting at the heritage centre of Colombo Fort and the Pettah neighbourhoods, the Wolvendaal Church is a vestige of the old Dutch colonial master and the faith they brought with them. Construction of the protestant church began in 1736, however, due to administrative reasons, the church was only consecrated in the year 1757. Still sporting its typical Dutch-style architecture, the church contains five-foot thick walls along with a high ceiling. The name ‘Wolvendaal’ literally translates to ‘dale of the wolves’ or ‘valley of the wolves’, as the area was inhabited by the canine animals, or so the Dutch thought. In reality, it was inhabited by a similar looking species of jackal. The tombs within the church, along with inscriptions on the wall, shine a light on the life of the colonists of old. The Wolvendaal Church is one of the last monuments of Dutch architecture and Dutch-protestant society. The Kayman’s Gate bell, located almost two kilometres away from the church, was used by the church to alert devotees of services and sermons.

A site revered by devout Catholics in the Pettah-Fort area is the St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade. The origin story of the church is rather intriguing. The protestant Dutch colonisers banned the practice of Catholicism in the country during the 18th century. Although banned, the religion was practiced in hidden confines. Legend states that Father Antonio, a Catholic priest, fasted and prayed for three days asking for divine intervention when the coast started eroding, adversely affecting the livelihoods of the local fishing community. A miracle took place on the third day, with the sea receding and sand banks reappearing. The Dutch, who themselves were grateful for the miracle, decided to allow Father Antonio to continue to practice his faith. They permitted him to build a small hut in the spot he prayed. Dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, the church was expanded in 1806 and completed in 1828. It houses several sacred Roman Catholic artefacts, along with the tomb of Father Antonio. Today, the church has been rebuilt following the Easter Sunday attack of 2019, and continues to be a place of reverence even for those belonging to other faiths.

Heading back to the heart of the bustling Pettah markets and over to the junction where Bankshall Street and Second Cross Street meet, you will come across an interesting candy-striped building – the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque (popularly known as the Red Mosque). Built in 1909, it is one of the oldest operating mosques in Colombo and is also one of the most recognizable buildings in industrial Pettah. The unorthodox red and white coloured mosque is one of the primary places in which many devout moors in Pettah, dating back to colonial days, would go and perform their daily prayers along with the congregational Friday Jumu’ah prayer.

The Hindu community’s presence too can be felt strongly in Pettah and in the Colombo Fort area. Walk along First Cross Street and you would stumble upon the Sammangodu Sri Kathirvelayutha Swamy Kovil. Built during the 19th century for Hindu traders to practice their faith, the kovil still sports its original ‘gopuram’ (ornate entrance) with depictions of Hindu deities.

The Gangaramaya Temple also has a museum that houses a large number of fascinating artefacts of the Buddhist world. Such artefacts include bronze and brass statues of the Buddha gifted by the neighbouring countries of Indonesia, Myanmar and China during the island’s prosperous kingdom rule. Relics such as a hair strand from the Lord Buddha, along with coins and even classic cars donated to the temple can also be viewed at the museum.

Similar to the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, the Gangaramaya Temple is known for hosting an annual parade of colourful pageantry – the Gangaramaya Navam Perahera. The parade may only have started in 1979, but it has gained critical acclaim around the world, as it has been likened to that of the ancient Kandy Esala Perahera. The temple’s festivities do not end there, as it also hosts the Buddha Rashmi National Vesak Festival that commemorates the birth, life, and death of the Lord Buddha. Filled with vibrant pandols and colourful decorations, the entire area is illuminated with bright lights and lanterns.

The Seema Malakaya meditation centre, located at the end of a pier on the Beira Lake in close proximity to Gangaramaya, is a treat for the mind, body and soul. Built in the same eclectic styles of Asian temples, the meditation centre is the ideal escape from crowded Colombo, as the calm waters of the Beira Lake, coupled with the Feng Shui centred design allows you to detach from the urban jungle.

Although these places of worship are a great way to experience the multi-cultural society of Colombo, it is only one of the experiences that gives insight to the cultural and religious harmony of the city. A number of neighbourhoods in Colombo overtly display the different cultures of immigrants that have adopted the city as their home.

The suburb of Slave Island is one such intriguing area that portrays the lifestyles of the Malay community that call Sri Lanka home. Although Slave Island has a past in which African Kaffir slaves were held captive during early colonial rule, it was eventually transformed into an army barracks for the Malay soldiers of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment under British rule. As a result, Slave Island alternatively became well known as ‘Kampong Kertel’ to the Malays (Malay settlement quarters). The local dialect of Bahasa Melayu can still be heard in the narrow streets of Kew Gardens and Java Lane. Traditional Malay cuisine such as tripe curry, mani pittu and pastol can also be found in this area.

Leave the Malay Kampong and enter the suburb of Wellawatte – also known as Little Jaffna. Located in the southernmost limits of Colombo, Wellawatte is home to many migrants from the city of Jaffna, most of whom were forced to flee the northern city during the country’s civil war. The numerous vegetarian eateries, textile shops, jewellery shops and electronic shops run by traders draw people from all over the city and its suburbs.

Colombo was, and still is a city that welcomes people of all ethnicities, races and religions. The city only grows richer by imbibing the cultures and traditions of the varied people who now lovingly call it home.

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