Tuk tuk through Pettah and Fort. Discovering city treasures

Suba Gaman. Great travels. This is what I signed up for on Saturday morning. Sharp at 8:30 a.m., a little white and orange glammed-up tuk-tuk, was at my doorstep to pick me up. Amiable Shane, my guide and chauffeur for the day, predicted a bright and sunny day as we tuk-tukked off on a tour of Colombo.

Our first stop is the Captain’s Gardens Kovil also known as the Sri Kailasanathar Swami Devasthanam, which is dedicated to Shiva and Ganesh. Located behind the Fort Railway Station, we tuk-tuk over the bridge, through small by-lanes (which I never knew existed before) and enter the courtyard of this imposing kovil. There is a pooja being conducted and the kovil is abuzz with activity. The incessant chants of bare-bodied priests gather momentum as crowds of devotees from all walks of life gather around the main alter. The air is thick with the smoke and smell of incense combined with the heady smell of flowers and fruit to be offered to the gods.

The Captain’s Gardens Kovil is the oldest Hindu temple in Colombo and is the starting point for the annual Hindu ‘vel’ festival. I cover my shoulders with a shawl before entering barefoot and tiptoe across to where the pooja is being held. As a crowd of devotees stands around in a circle, heads bent, eyes closed and deep in obeisance, the priest reads out pleas, pardons and prayers on behalf of them. Each time a name is called out baskets of fruit, garlands of flowers and broken coconuts (smashed on the ground at that moment) are offered at the main altar.

Around the back of the temple are smaller shrines dedicated to more gods. Here too, prayers are being offered, and people seek answers.

Back in the tuk, we drive through the heart of Fort, to get to Pettah. We pass the iconic 170-year old Cargills building. This red and white building was, in the day, home to the first British Governor of Ceylon, Sir Frederick North (1802) who lived there for a short time. In 1844, William Miller and David Sime Cargill commenced a general warehouse, import and wholesale business in Colombo, Fort and called this the ‘House of Cargills’, which was considered the ‘Harrods’ of the time and known as “the finest building of its kind in the East”.

Today, it remains abandoned and in need of restoration.

Next, we pass the 125 year-old Grand Oriental Hotel, once used as a mansion by a Dutch Governor and military barracks before it was turned into a hotel in 1870 during the time of governor Robert Wilmot Horton. On the 5th of November 1875, the hotel was christened the ‘Grand Oriental Hotel’. Famous guests at the time include HRM Queen Elizabeth and the Duke and Duchess of Kent. In 1966, architect Geoffrey Bawa undertook the re-designing of this building.

We tuk up to the St Anthony’s Church in Kochikade. Worshippers are in deep prayer at the foot of the revered statue of St. Anthony. Noted by his contemporaries for his forceful preaching and expert knowledge of scripture, he was the second-most-quickly canonized saint. As the patron saint of sailors, fishermen and travellers, St. Anthony has a special part in the lives of all Catholics in Sri Lanka with many devotees and several churches erected in his name. Apparently Tuesday’s are special.

Next stop is the Wolvendhaal Church. Built in 1749 A.D this is the oldest Protestant church in Sri Lanka and considered to be among the most important Dutch buildings in Sri Lanka. The little courtyard at the entrance is covered with beautifully carved mural tablets or headstones of the dead. Each has a solemn verse, a sad message or significant memory carved into them. The walls of the small foyer to this church are covered with photographs of the past. But stepping inside is like going back in time. Memories of the past of young daughters, beloved wives, precious sons and hardworking husbands are carved into hallowed walls while the floor is covered with tombstones of those who lie buried within the church. The baptismal font, still on the original ornately carved tripod stand, dates back to 1667. The Bowl was presented by Governor Rijkloff van Goens and his wife Esther de Solemne in commemoration of their daughter Esther Ceylonia, who was the first to receive the Holy Baptism therefrom. The mother died the day after the baptism of her infant daughter. An impressive tombstone to her memory and that of Governor Rijkloff van Goens can still be seen, set against the west wall of the church.

We leave as a Dutch family enter. Probably seeking a memory of a forgotten ancestor.

We tuk to the old Town Hall Museum at Kayman’s Gate, which is, unfortunately in a dilapidated state of disrepair. Incidentally it was named Kayman’s Gate because the Dutch used to stock crocodiles at Beira Lake to prevent their slaves from escaping. Prince Alfred, the late Duke of Edinburgh, laid the foundation stone to this building in April 1870 and Sir William Gregory declared the town hall open, in 1873.

Shane manages to extricate a caretaker who opens the door to one of the upstairs rooms that has life-sized wax figures at a council meeting. The likes of W. Shakespeare, P.D. Warren, Alexander Fairie and M.L.M. Zainudeen amongst others are in bad shape, as is the rest of this once magnificent building.

Next door is the Museum that has some fantastic relics of an old steam roller, Sri Lanka’s first mobile library (deflated tyres and all), an ancient ambulance, garbage-collection trucks, and the moth-eaten official garments of a commissioner and other fascinating pieces of the past. Well worth the visit!

Having been to the Fort many times, I never had the opportunity to visit ‘The Centre Point’, the currency museum managed by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and located on Chatham Street. The building is new and looks very impressive. Up the marble staircase and on the first floor is a treasure trove of historical information of Sri Lanka’s coinage dating back to the 3rd century BC. And all this information is chronologically displayed on large informative boards depicting the ancient, medieval, colonial and post independence periods.

Back on the road again, we tuk over to the Fort Galle Buck Light House. This mustard yellow landmark has become quite a tourist attraction, offering a panoramic view of the ocean and a changing city landscape. At the base of the 29-metre tall lighthouse are four lion statues and a naval gun battery that is used for traditional Independence Day 21-gun salutes. It’s too hot now to linger, so off we tuk to our last stop for the day, the jail cell of Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe.

Yes, that’s right! Right in the heart of Fort, opposite the World Trade Centre building and inside the Ceylinco Group Headquarters, under a frangipani tree (Plumeria rubra) is this nondescript yellow orb (of sorts), guarded by a distracted policeman. This is where Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, the last king of Kandy (1798 to 1815), after surrendering to British Governor Sir. Robert Brownrigg, was imprisoned along with his Queen and consorts until he was sent to Vellore in Madras on 24th January 1816, where he lived as a Prisoner of War and died on 30th January 1832.

The cell is intact with (I believe) original paintings of the king and his queen that can be viewed through the jail cell bars. It is an eerie sensation to imagine this situation.

It’s time to call it a day. This Saturday turned out to be super fun after all. If you have a free weekend, take a tuk ride through Colombo. You can get all the information here.

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