The Pettah: Colombo, Sri Lanka

First impressions of Colombo are of a noisy construction site, as the modern capital busily reclaims land from the sea and erects new skyscrapers, five-star hotels and shopping centres. It seems a far cry from the tranquillity of the beaches on the south coast, the scenic hill country and tea plantations inland, and low-rise indigenous or historic Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial buildings dotted across the rest of the island. Head inland from the Fort district and coastline, and into The Pettah (bazaar) and you will find something completely different and far more seductive… the streets narrow, the humid air thickens, and there is barley room for pedestrians to squeeze through the buses, tuk-tuks, bicycles and manually pulled carts all sharing each narrow road. Following years of civil and religious unrest, it was also reassuring to see Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, Muslim mosques and Christian churches all sharing these tight spaces in much the same way as the various modes of transport do. The largest thoroughfare through the district is aptly named Main Street and houses the stunningly kitsch red and white Jami ul-Aftar mosque built in 1909. A few roads on brings you to both the New Kathiresan and Old Kathiresan kovils; Hindu temples which could easily have been taken from the set of an Indian Jones film, both dedicated to the war god Skanda and pyramid shaped adorned with innumerable colourful carved sculptures all the way to the tip. Finally you reach Sri Ponnambula Vanesvara kovil – seemingly inconspicuous from the street, but once you remove your shoes and make your way around the building to the main entrance, it again renders you speechless! Whilst it lacks the lively colours of its’ neighbouring temples, instead being constructed from stone blocks and carved columns it has a quiet, regal impact. Inside, ten shrines add hints of colour via painted wooden peacocks and mythical figures, all flickering in the light of ghee lamps and cracks of sunlight.

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