Colombo’s crowded and chaotic surface hides a rewarding city whose contrasting mix of cultures and sights show the country at its most diverse and progressive.
The city of Colombo is a relative newcomer by Sri Lankan standards – indeed many of the more staid inhabitants of longer established towns elsewhere in the island regard their capital as a rather brash and uncouth upstart which has grown up suddenly in their midst. Although the area has long been settled, particularly by Muslim seafarers who established a small trading port here from the 8th century onwards, the town remained at the margins of Sri Lankan history until the arrival of European in the 16th century.
In 1517 the recently arrived Portuguese built a fort here, their first foothold on
the island, from where they launched their conquest of the Sri Lankan lowlands. It was this fort which subsequently formed the nucleus of the modern city. The Dutch expanded the fortifications and gave the fledgling city new suburbs and an extensive system of canals, though it was not until the arrival of the British that Colombo really began to take off, as improvements to its harbour transformed it into the island’s principal port and an important staging post on the Indian Ocean’s maritime routes. The modern city, home to a population of around 3 million, has grown exponentially since independence and now spreads in all directions with suburbs along the coast for the best part of 60 km (37 miles).
A colonial capital – Colombo City, Sri Lanka
Much of this ever-expanding metropolis is now a disorienting morass of mildewed concrete and gridlocked traffic; but though initial impressions may be unwelcoming, Colombo’s handful of low-key sights, it’s fascinating contrasts of colonial and modern, and its sheer hustle and bustle reward all those who take the time to spend a few days in the city and absorb something of its unique character.
Colombo’s relatively modern origins and colonial character – not to mention its sheer size, far bigger than any other city on the island – have given it a distinctly different atmosphere from the rest of Sri Lanka. There’s relatively little visible evidence of Buddhism or traditional Sinhalese value here. Instead, the city’s population comprises a cosmopolitan spread of cultures, with important Tamil and Muslim communities, as well as Burghers and considerable number of expats. Mosques, churches and Hindu temples remain as visible as Buddhas and stupas, while conversations in the city’s smarter suburbs are as likely to be in English as in Sinhala or Tamil. And compared to the more conservative towns elsewhere in Sri Lanka, Colombo
remains absolutely forward-thinking – a vibrant crucible of contemporary Sri Lankan life, its eyes fixed firmly on the outside world, with every last fad and fashion hitting the streets of the capital some time before they reach the rest of the island – if, indeed, they ever do.