With much gratitude to Vinod Moonesinghe who knows it all
Pic by Manusha Lakshan
- Landscape was changing so much that there was no longer a rift between urban and rural areas
- Colombo has stood out and attracted both fascination and resentment
Somewhere in the late 70s, Noeline Honter with Claude and the Sensations released a song titled “City of Colombo.” It was a huge hit. Some of the lines are hackneyed and they talk about the Colombo we THINK we know: that place where “the sky’s always blue,” “you can do as you please,” and “all that you want is around you” (when it is not). But of course, “the shopping is just fine” and “the tea is divine,” though I won’t say the people “are wonderful too” all the time. In one respect, Colombo “stood out” at the time the song became a hit, moreover. It was, according to every other person I’ve talked with, “a thriving cultural landscape.” Just how, though?
Colombo, a hive of activity now, was according to Asiff Hussein more sparsely populated “a little over a century ago.” Last week, I traced just how the centre of Colombo shifted from Pettah-Mutwal-Kotahena-Maradana areas to Cinnamon Gardens after the First World War. Cinnamon Gardens in fact belonged to Maradana at the time: it was referred to as the “Maradana Cinnamon Gardens.” Even at the turn of the 19th century, it had gained in prestige: Denham in his Report on the Census of 1911notes it down as “the fashionable residential quarter of Colombo” where “one-third of the European population” resided.
With the elite (local and foreign) settling themselves up there, and with Race Course and Royal College moving to the vicinity, land prices went up and everyone rushed over to build their palatial residences in the area, the most prominent being Charles de Soysa’s manor in Alfred Place. There was another factor that facilitated this shift: the building of the High Level Road, which was completed in 1934 and which led, Vinod Moonesinghe tells me, to an upsurge in property prices all the way from Colombo at the cost of natural habitats: Tissa Abeysekara recounted how in 1961 “the last of the mouse deer who inhabited the remaining patch of woodland” dragged itself to the doorstep of his kitchen, “mortally wounded by a hunter’s blow.”
Tissa tried to recapture the changes in the village, his own Gamperaliya along what is now the Avissawella Road in Pitagamkarayo. In that aforementioned essay he argues how the road disturbed what was then a valley that had “followed the contours of the land.” The High Level Road was moreover referred to as the aluth para, because prior to its construction there had been a series of parana parawal which led from the city to Avissawella and beyond. Of these parana parawal, three led directly to the Peak Shadow: one from Grandpass which cut through Sedawatta, Kotuwila, Wellampitiya, and Ambatale to Avissawella; one from Orugodawatta; and one from Cotta Road that “bifurcated at the Kotte Junction” (though Vinod, disputing Abeysekara, tells me that it “actually began at the Kotte-Boppe Road”).
All this, of course, centred on Colombo. The most immediate impact of the High Level Road was the increase in property prices, followed by unplanned urbanisation and the complete disintegration of the ecology of the surrounding areas. Marshy areas, hitherto considered uninhabitable, were filled to create more and more houses for the nouveau riche: “posh” was no longer limited to Cinnamon Gardens and Pettah. With the establishment of the Anderson Golf Links and with it opening up to locals in 1936, urbanisation picked up and the area from Borella and Narahenpita to Havelock Town became a residential hotspot. There was a massive rise in the population in the district: from 1900 to 1946 it increased by around 97%. As A.G. Ranasinghe, Superintendent of Census, observed in his General Report on the 1946 Census.
The numerical increase of 261,164 in the intercensal period 1931-1946 is not wholly accounted for by a natural increase, for births in the district during the period numbered 376,302, and deaths 225,820 giving an excess of births over deaths of only 150,482. The difference must, therefore, be attributed to an influx of immigrants into the district numbering 110,682 persons, who probably came in search of lucrative employment near Colombo.
The landscape was changing so much that there was no longer a rift between urban and rural areas, a distinction the censuses had scrupulously maintained:
The isolation of the country is being eliminated by the motor bus and cars, the telegraph, the telephone, and the radio. The rustic finds his way more often into the town, and acquires by contact some measure of the worldly wisdom of his more sophisticated brother in the town. The worker in the town finds it possible to live in the country and go daily to town for his work, and to carry back to his home in the country something of the urban scheme of life.
But this influx of immigrants, and the population boom, came at a cost: urbanisation was unplanned and it led to the haphazard construction of houses on the one hand and slum dwellings on the other. There had been two attempts at developing Colombo city through a plan: in 1921 (Patrick Geddes) and in 1948 (Patrick Abercrombie). The first had envisioned the city as “The Garden City of the East,” but it was abandoned soon after; the second had focused on the suburbs, from Homagama to Ratmalana. Under J.R. Jayewardene two more plans were drawn, in 1978 and in 1985. Ambitious in scope, successful in parts, these also floundered and were only partially implemented. The region, essentially, remained what it had been in the colonial era.
Historically, for these reasons, Colombo has stood out and attracted both fascination and resentment: as far back as 1946 it was noted that in one sense it “has been forced upon the Sinhalese in spite of themselves,” and that it was “never a city of their own choice or making.” Certainly, as I pointed out not long ago, the city has turned out to be a veritable mixture of ethnic diversity and social disparity.
But over time diversity also meant disparity, and as such different areas in Colombo became known for their class and ethnic compositions, voting patterns, and even caste tendencies. Again, I quote Vinod: while the old posh neighbourhoods (Maradana and Cinnamon Gardens) became the de facto residence of the uprooted Sinhalese elite and locals from other ethnicities, the area from Narahenpita to Thimbirigasyaya became more Sinhala Buddhist (of the Reformist/Protestant variety): it was what spurred the construction of Visakha Vidyalaya and later Greenlands College (Isipathana). The Isipathanaramaya, one of the oldest temples in Colombo, was followed decades later by the Abayaramaya; before them the only temple of prominence had been the oldest of them all: the Deepaduttaramaya in Kotahena, founded in 1785.
Denham notes these ethnic compositions down in his report:
In every other ward except St. Sebastian and Fort, where the Moors predominate, and Pettah, where the Tamils are a small majority, the Sinhalese are a very large majority. There are more Europeans in the Colpetty ward. More Burghers are found in Maradana North than anywhere else, though Colpetty and Kotahena South account for almost the same number. More than half the Malays are found in SlaveIsland.
There was another, bigger cleavage: between the colonialists and the locals. While Havelock Town was occupied by colonial officials, the area from Thimbirigasyaya to Thunmulla was occupied by the indigenous elite. The High Level Road had improved their standing, but there was another factor which had a say in this: the war. The elite, uprooted or otherwise, had extensive land interests throughout the country: Charles de Soysa, it is said, had a piece of land in every part of the island. With the government purchasing rice at hefty prices, it was natural that the residents of these metropolitan centres would encounter a rise in their prestige, something which only naturally led to these streets picking up in prestige as well.
But it wasn’t all about prestige, economic standing, or how posh the neighbourhood you lived in was. That belongs to the Colombo of the present: the Colombo of what Malinda Seneviratne referred to as the Kolombians or “Colomboans.” Colombo was, historically speaking, cut off from the world around it, but the world around it didn’t rank it highly: Denham suggests that it would probably come 17th amongst the towns of England and Wales and 10th “among the great cities of India.” And yet, there was another Colombo which transcended these figures: the “thriving cultural landscape” I referred to at the beginning. That, I will get to next week.