Tales of Forgotten Colombo
Modern Colombo is a vibrant city and bustling metropolis. But this coastal city has a rich and diverse history with many forgotten locations and sides that are not in the guidebooks.
Classic Destinations seeks to reveal these hidden locations to our valued clients to further enrich their Sri Lankan experience.
Setting off from Galle Face, the experience begins at the Galle Face Green, where the first cricket match between the two leading boys schools, Royal College and S. Thomas College, was played in 1879, well before the first Ashes cricket encounter between Australia and England was ever played.
Driving along Galle Face, you reach the Colombo Lighthouse, which is the only functioning lighthouse in Sri Lanka. It was built in 1952 after the Old Colombo Lighthouse was deactivated when its light became obscured by nearby buildings as part of the Colombo Harbor Expansion project. It was opened by Rt Hon D. S. Senanayake, the first prime minister of Ceylon. Built on a concrete base that is 12 m (39 ft) high, it has four statues of lions at its base. Located at its base is a naval gun battery that is used by the Sri Lanka Navy for its traditional gun salutes.
Thereafter, continue forward towards the Sambodhi Stupa, which is a Buddhist shrine located elevated above the ground. It was designed by renowned Sri Lankan engineer A. N. S. Kulasinghe, and construction began in 1956 to commemorate the Sambuddhatva Jayanthi by the Colombo Port Commission and completed by the Colombo Port Authority. Built on a platform supported by two interlocking arches, the stupa is placed above Marine Drive at the entrance of Colombo Harbour. This main road leading to the harbor has since been renamed Chaithya Road after the stupa. The walkway has 123 steps.
Turning back towards Chatham Street, one comes across the Old Colombo Lighthouse. The lighthouse is no longer operational, but the tower remains and functions as a clock tower. It is located at the junction of Chatham Street and Janadhipathi Mawatha (formerly Queens Road) in Colombo Fort. The tower was constructed as a clock tower in 1856–57 and completed on the 25th of February 1857. The tower was designed by Emily Elizabeth Ward, the wife of Governor Sir Henry George Ward (1797–1860).
Turning onto Chatham Street, one stops at the Lord Nelson Barber Saloon, which is still operated by veteran barber “Uncle Nelson,” a charming elderly gentleman who operates this vintage style barber shop.
His furniture date back many decades with wooden framings and leather cushioning which have seen better days
A welcome head massage is provided by Uncle Nelson which is the customary finish to any shave or haircut in a Sri Lankan barber shop. He would also bring out his many antique barber utensils which hes still stored carefully and preserved to this day and showcases an age gone by.
Thereafter turning into York Street, one will notice the many old buildings constructed during the British colonial era which some old name boards still remaining.
Stopping over at the iconic Cargills Building, venture into this iconic establishment, which still operates as a supermarket, but with many old sign boards still intact.
Historic Cargills building The iconic Cargills building in the center of Colombo Fort was originally the residence of Captain Pieter Sluysken, the former Dutch military commander of Galle. It was subsequently occupied by the first British Governor of Ceylon, Sir Frederick North, who lived there for a short time before moving to a spacious villa in Hulftsdorp. The building was acquired by Cargills in 1896, while D.S. Cargill was chairman, Walter Hamilton was director, and William Jenkins was general manager.
Construction of the current building commenced in 1902; it was designed by Edward Skinner, built by Walker Sons and Company, and completed in 1906. A foundation stone dated 1684 and a wooden statue of Minerva (the Roman goddess of wisdom, arts, and trade), both retrieved from the gable end of Sluysken’s house, are preserved by the ground floor lift. By 1909, it employed “an executive staff of 32 Europeans and 600 hands.” Following a successful bid by Sir Chittampalam A. Gardiner, the business was incorporated as a public limited company on 1 March 1946. In 1981, Ceylon Theatres acquired a controlling interest in the company, and Albert A. Page was appointed Managing Director. Page went on to become the chairman of Cargills on 26 November 1982.
Driving along, one would stop over to admire the old colonial architecture of many of the old buildings of a bygone era.
Continuing towards Bank of Ceylon Mawatha, which is lined with the World Trade Centers, a busy office building, and the iconic Bank of Ceylon building with its unique architecture, one stops at the police station at the end of the street, which houses a unique structure of historical significance. Here you will find in the parking lot the prison of the last king of Sri Lanka, King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe. Sri Wickrama Rajasinhe, the king of Kandyan Kindgdom, was captured by the British on the 18th of February 1815 at Medamahanuwara after his own officials, including Eheylapola Maha Adhikaram (who was one of the main conspirators who helped the British take over Kandy), joined the British to help take hold of Kandy. The cell identified as the holding cell of Sri Wickrama Rajasinhe lies on the intersection of the Bank of Ceylon Mawatha and the Janadhipathi Mawatha, within the Ceylinco Building car park area but visible from the road. Painted in bright yellow and orange, this is a roughly 8′×5′ building with a 2-foot-thick wall. The roof is designed with a fish-scale pattern. On the outside, there are two plaques describing the capture of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinhe and the significance of the building as the king’s holding cell. Inside the cell are various pictures, including paintings of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinhe and his queen Venkata Rengammal.
Back on the road, journey towards the Colombo harbor, where lies the oldest hotel in Sri Lanka, the Grand Oriental Hotel.
Behind this establishment is St. Peter’s Church, Colombo, which is one of the oldest continuously functioning churches in Colombo. During the Portuguese occupation of the country, a Dominican monastery and a charity hall, the Chapel of Misericordia (House of Mercy), were constructed on the site (c. 1627)  where the church is now located. Nearby was an early Gothic church, St. Dominico, of which only an inscribed stone set over its arches remains. In approximately 1666, ten years after the capture of Colombo by the Dutch, they converted the building into the official residence for the Governor, with an elegant two-story facade facing the waterfront. The mansion had a flat roof, a large arched portico of cubicle form, and several large windows that let in light and air. The building was used for council meetings and as a reception/banquet hall, where ambassadors from the Kingdom of Kandy were entertained.
The British first used the structure as the residence of Lieutenant General Hay MacDowall (General Officer Commanding, Ceylon), though by this time the building was in a state of disrepair and the roof was leaking badly. Between 1796 and 1803, Wolvendaal Church was opened to Anglicans for worship. In 1804 the first British Governor, Frederick North, resolved to convert the building to a garrison church, publishing a notice on 14th March in The Ceylon Government Gazette announcing that a ‘Divine Service would be held at the Government House on Sunday at 4.30 p.m. Between 1810 and 1820, a portion of the building was used temporarily as a courthouse. In 1816, the first Bishop of Calcutta, Thomas Middleton, attended and gave a sermon at the church. In April 1821, on the occasion of the second visit by the bishop, acting on the formal request by the acting governor, Edward Barnes, he “consecrated and set apart forever for the service of God” the church on 22nd May. In the same year, Governor Barnes handed over St. Peter’s Church to four trustees.
Thereafter, a visit to the Grand Oriental Hotel itself gets you the best view of the Colombo Harbour from its namesake, the Harbour Room, a large dining room in the hotel that gives a splendid view. It is customary to sip a sundowner and try some of the local “bytes,” such as chilli cashew nuts and hot butter cuttlefish, while watching the sun set on the western coast.
As darkness sets in, continue your journey through the now less busy streets of Colombo towards Pettah, known to locals as Pitakotuwa, where you drive through many of the local shops that sell all manner of items from electronics to fabrics to fruits—you name it, they’ve got it. Along these streets, stop over at the beautiful Red Mosque, which is located on the second cross street. The mosque is one of the oldest mosques in Colombo and a popular tourist site in the city. Construction of the Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque commenced in 1908, and the building was completed in 1909. The mosque was commissioned by the local Indian Muslim community, based in Pettah, to fulfill their requirement for five daily prayers and Jummah on Fridays. The mosque’s designer and builder were Habibu Lebbe Saibu Lebbe (an unlettered architect), and it was based on details and images of Indo-Saracenic structures provided by South Indian traders who commissioned him. It is a hybrid style of architecture that draws elements from native Indo-Islamic and Indian architecture and combines them with the Gothic revival and Neo-classical styles. It is a distinctive red and white candy-striped two-story building with a clock tower and is reminiscent of the Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (constructed in 1910). Before other landmarks were built, some claim that the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque was recognized as the landmark of Colombo by sailors approaching the port.
Thereafter, to end the experience, head to the Old Town Hall Building. The Old Town Hall was built in 1873, designed by the British architect J. G. Smither, who also designed furniture to match, and was the first civic building to be opened in Colombo. The building was used as the municipal headquarters for over 50 years, until 1924. At the time, there was also a hall alongside it, used for the growth of the arts in the form of street plays and dramas—Edinburgh Hall. The hall was built at the same time and reflected several matching architectural features, such as filigreed cast iron detailing, a slightly gothic design, etc. In 1925, the municipal headquarters were moved to the current Town Hall, next to Viharamahadevi Park. With the change of premises, the Old Town Hall fell into disuse and dust, along with Edinburgh Hall, which was no longer the best location to show off the arts. In 1980, the crumbling structure came to the attention of the president of the time, Premadasa, who renovated it by 1984 and turned it into one of Colombo’s historical attractions. The adjoining building was converted into a museum, and Edinburgh Hall was turned into Edinburgh Market, where street hawkers could ply their wares. The sole caretaker of the large Old Town Hall will take you upstairs. Be ready for a mini freakout. Once you get to the top of the stairs, you’ll find yourself in a large open room with a conference table in the center. And here’s the creepy part: There will be 15 men seated around the table in dated suits. It’s only closer inspection that will reveal them to be somewhat dusty, life-sized wax figures. Each has a name card placed before them (including one named “W. Shakespeare?!), and some have strangely colorful neckties. Other than this strange plateau, there are other life-sized statues of servants and butlers, paintings, and some old photographs. You can also view the city from the windows. Make sure to check the room to the side. It has some early typewriters, old radios, and the pièce de résistance—a 1785 map of Colombo. Once you come back down, make sure to visit the adjoining museum. It has a number of different artifacts, including ancient machinery, old metal street signs mounted on an equally old wooden post, antique boilers and timers, old light holders, an old mobile library vehicle, and a giant lightbulb that lit the entire square outside the Old Town Hall.
This ends this interesting adventure into some of the lesser-known and forgotten sites of old Colombo. Classic Destinations organizes curated expert-guided tours by tuk tuk or open-top Land Rovers, which give the clients a unique perspective on day-to-day life in this historic city.