This experience is focused on walking through the open-air market, exploring its quirky nooks and crannies. You will meet traders, learn about historic buildings and marvel at their architecture as you navigate a maze of trade, traffic and local banter.
Pettah is a chaotic, crowded smorgasbord of sights and sounds. But it is also the go-to place for a variety of items, from plastic, toys, electronics to mechanical parts.
‘Pettah’, in local parlance, refers to the Pettah Market, an expanse of shops extending from Olcott Mawatha to Main Street and beyond. The name ‘Pettah’ is derived from the Tamil word ‘Pettai’, used to indicate a suburb outside a fort. The Sinhalese word for the area, ‘Pita-Kotuwa’, meaning ‘outside the fort’, correlates with this.
As indicated by its name, Pettah or Pita-Kotuwa is the area outside the fort the Portuguese built in the 16th century. The fort was besieged by the Dutch in 1656, who demolished part of the fort and rebuilt it to take advantage of the natural strength of the location. After the British took over in 1815, they set about establishing control in Colombo, and in 1870 demolished the walls of the fort. Despite the absence of ramparts, the area continues to be known as Colombo Fort.
‘Pettah’, and more specifically the Pettah Market, lies just outside what remains of Colombo Fort and is a bustling bazaar of hawkers, shops, vendors and buyers. Architecture from the colonial period stands as the backdrop to the daily hustle and bustle; the Wolvendaal Church, the strikingly red and white Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, the Khan Clock Tower and the Dutch Period Museum watch as life in the 21st Century passes by. Trade in Pettah is dominated by Muslim and Tamil businessmen, but tradesmen from Sinhalese and other minority ethnic groups also operate here. It is usually very crowded, and it is better to undertake the task of shopping there on foot, although there is a car park near the Khan Clock Tower, where buyers arriving in vehicles can park until their shopping is done.
The streets of Pettah are in a constant state of flux; nattamis dart to and fro, unloading heavy gunny sacks of fruit and vegetables from trucks and carrying them to wholesale stores, while buyers in their dozens sidestep them on narrow lanes. Carts laden with apples, grapes, oranges and other ‘imported’ fruit stand at every street corner, while tiny kiosks serve colourful ‘cool’ in glasses.
After you exit Pettah you can take a short walk through the last remains of the colonial era Colombo Fort Wall and then explore a historic church erected during the Dutch colonial period.