Four Religions. Four Fascinating Temples. Colombo Sri Lanka
Colombo is like a throbbing pulse. Busy, bustling, and bursting at its seams. Nevertheless, this capital city is full of surprises; breathtaking, mysterious and fascinating.
Colombo is also home to four of the oldest and intriguing places of worship belonging to the four main religions in Sri Lanka, and I am on a journey with Arshad, my most learned guide, to discover the history and evolution that make these places so revered.
I start at Seema Malaka, the floating Buddhist monastery on one of Colombo’s oldest waterways, the Beira Lake. It is a sublime and serene surrounding where Buddhists come to meditate, offer flowers and light incense sticks.
Sir Geoffrey Bawa, the father of tropical modernism, designed the Seema Malaka along the lines of ancient monasteries of Anuradhapura and the architectural styles from Embekke and Ritigala. He added the four main elements that are usually found in any Buddhist temple: the shrine, the Ficus religiosa or Bo tree, an offshoot of the original sacred tree from Anuradhapura, the statue and the monks residence, all of which are set in three floating platforms that are interlinked by pontoon walkways.
In the central platform are resplendent statues of Lord Buddha gifted from Thailand, Japan, and China. It is interesting to note the differing facial features of Lord Buddha depicted in the statues from these countries.
On the south side is the line of Buddha statues in four different mudras, reflecting the meditative stances of Lord Buddha. This is definitely one of the most photographed sights at this temple!
At the four corners of the side platform are small shrines dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu, Kataragama deviyo and Ganesha. These Hindu gods play a huge part in Buddhism and hence are to be found in almost every Buddhist temple across the island.
The temple museum is a treasure trove of objects including collections of ancient Sanskrit Ola leaf manuscripts, large sapphires and other precious stones, sandalwood and ivory carvings, brass statuettes of gods, elephant tusks, coins, innumerable Buddha images and statues of Hindu deities, oil lamps, votive pagodas, old clocks, porcelain, ivory carvings and even old gramophones.
Entrance tickets are for non-Sri Lankans only- LKR 300 per ticket. All footwear must be removed before entering the premises.
I take a tuk tuk to my next destination. This small three-wheeler deftly weaves its way through traffic and gets me to my destination in double quick time! This popular mode of transport is fun and one of the best ways to experience the madness of Colombo’s peak traffic.
The Sri Ponnambalawaneswarar Devastanam, is a kovil built in reverence to Lord Shiva, the third god in the Hindu triumvirate. Built in 1857, this is the only kovil in Sri Lanka to be constructed entirely out of granite and designed completely in Dravidian-styled architecture.
Arshad explains in detail about the mysteries and folklore behind the evil eye, the ancient beliefs about mythical gods, and the various gods and deities within this massive stone structure.
Unlike other kovils, the tall, conical gopuram at the entrance of this place of worship is devoid of colour, which embodies the true Dravidian style. Inside this dark cave-like kovil, spaces left intentionally in the ceiling filter enough light that is entwined with the tendrils of smoke from the incense. Beautifully carved arches and pillars are adorned with sculptures of animals and birds, gods and goddesses, flowers and motifs.
The floor is damp but clean, cooling the soles of my bare feet. Women in colourful saris, flowers in their hair and bindi on their foreheads add to the cacophony and colour of the pooja that is being held in the main shrine or moolasthanam that represents the heart or center of their universe.
There is so much to absorb and appreciate. The feeling of deep devotion and godly love permeates these stone walls.
Best time to visit is early morning or late evening. And remember, you have to remove all footwear before entering this place of worship.
My next stop is just a short walk away.
Colombo’s most famous Catholic monument, St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade, is a beautiful and revered place of worship with a fascinating history dating back to 1742 when the Portuguese introduced Catholicism.
Arshad explains the distinct differences and rituals unique to the faith and worship of Catholics in Colombo. The box for business cards, hoping for a helping hand and blessing for a workplace, the offering of flowers, crawling under the statue of St. Anthony, and even the wall hangings of the priest and victim on either side of the Christ on the Cross at the altar, all of which is unique to this church.
The church’s origins relate to the early Dutch colonial period when Catholicism was banned from the island with catholic priests carrying out sermons from hiding places. Fr. Antonio, who was a victim, disguised himself as a local merchant and found refuge with a local fishing community at Mutwal. According to local legends the community sought his help to stop the sea eroding their village and Fr. Antonio planted a cross and prayed at the beach, resulting in the sea receding and the community converting to Catholicism. The Dutch authorities then allocated him some land to carry out his sermons where he built a mud brick chapel dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua. Fr. Antonio is buried within the church.
In 1806 the chapel was made bigger and in 1822 one of the members of the congregation went to Goa and brought back a statue of St. Anthony, which still resides on one of the church’s altars. Construction of a new church commenced in 1828 and it was consecrated on 1 June 1834.
On January 20, 1995, Pope John Paul II visited the shrine on his way from the airport to Colombo, during his first official visit to Sri Lanka. Today, devotees light candles under the miraculous statue of St. Anthony, a glorious representation that is around 200-years old.
No cameras and photographs are allowed inside.
I step out into the hustle and bustle of Pettah, the core of Colombo’s business hub. As we make our way through the streets, sidestepping hawkers, stumbling over pavements, and absorbing the evening’s mayhem of this teeming city centre, we get up close and personal with fruit and flower sellers, stop to taste seasonal delicacies, smell the fragrance of beautifully braided flowers, and enjoy the chaotic, crowded smorgasbord of sounds and sights. Arshad takes me through narrow streets that can only be navigated single file to show me some of the typical homes. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too late in the evening and most of the people have retired indoors to watch TV or get ready for the night.
We take a break and step inside the Sri Suryas Hotel for dinner and I get to savor some awesome vegetarian fare washed down with a tall glass of sweet lassie (sweetened yogurt).
Back outside, we take a short walk down to 2nd Cross Street that leads us outside the stunningly beautiful Jami Ul-Afar Mosque. Fondly known as the Red Mosque, this red and white building was constructed in 1908 and is Colombo’s second oldest mosque. It was designed by Habibu Lebbe Saibu, an unknown architect at the time, according to Indo-Saracenic architecture. Each brick is painted red or white and the domes take on the shape of pomegranates while its walls are painted the same shade of red as the innards of that fruit, along with pale yellow horizontal stripes.
I step inside (yes, visitors are allowed inside as long as you are dressed conservatively). Unlike on Friday’s Jummah (prayers) where the capacity crowd exceeds 7500 people, it is relatively quiet this evening. I observe the solemnity as Muslims bow and prostrate themselves in their ritualistic prayer.
One thing we Sri Lankans have to be thankful for is the tolerance a majority of us have for other religions. Having visited these four temples of worship of the Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims, I am awed at not only the beauty and history of each place, but also the fact that all four religions can peacefully co-exist within such close proximity in harmony and grace.
If you want to check out these places for yourself, give Arshad a call on +94 1 77 726 6046 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org