Colombo Fort - Past and Present
Fort Should not be referred to as the Fort. There are
no actual fortifications left, so the definite article
has been modestly dropped.
The old fortified harbour was originally built by the
Dutch to protect their prosperous trade in sapphires,
elephants, cinnamon and ivory. But when the British forces
came to attack it, the garrison of swiss mercenaries had
already abandoned the area. Colombo surrendered to its
new master without putting up much resistance. So the
victorious British tore down the old defences and began
transforming the city into a thriving port.
Remnants of Dutch colonial architecture can still be glimpsed
among the British constructions and the building sites
which are hastily trying to piece together the scars of
recent bombings. If you are undaunted by the litter of
makeshift security barriers and military guards, hosting
rifles on their hunchedup shoulders, you might find a
prowl around Fort worthwhile, particularly if you are
in search of the remnants of colonial rule.
Start at the Galadari Hotel,
opposite the sandstone colonnaded facade of the former
parliment building, now known as the presidential secretariat
Unfortunately, Photography in this area is banned because
of the military installations behind it, opposite the
seashore of the Galle Face Green.
There is a checkpoint at the roundabout end of the road
(Janadhipathi mawatha) that separates at the galadari
from the Ceylon International Hotel but it is possible
to walk past it. On the right is the Bank of Ceylon Skyscraper
next to the ones which were destroyed in a bomb blast.
Head for the Lighthouse Clock Tower
at the top of Lower Chatham Street. This Victorian landmark
was designed by the British governor's wife in an attempt
to instil punctuality into the notoriously bad timekeepers
under her husband's rule. After 10 years a light was attached
to the tower. and it successfully functioned as the city's
lighthouse until the 1950s, when it was over whelmed by
new buildings separating it from the shore. It has stood
the test of time surviving bomb blasts that shook its
Walk on the right-hand side of the road for a view of
the white mansion which was once Queen's House. In its
new guise as Jandhipathi Mandiraya,
it is supposed to be the presidents official residence.
However, President Chandrika Kumaratunga prefers the safety
of Temple Trees, the Prime Ministerial residence on Galle
Road, to this beautiful villa built in the late 18th century
by the last Dutch governor. It was home to subsequent
British governors including the building effort. A ststue
of him stands guard at the gate. All road distance from
Colombo are measured from here.
Behind this is Gordon Gardens,
once a park and now alas, barred from vision because the
Edwardian style buildings in it function as government
offices. The impressive Edwardian facade of the building
opposite the president's House is the General
Post Office. The interior has lost much of the
grandeur the building had in olden days, but the atmosphere
of the slow days when mail went by sea remains. The post
office is open 24 hours a day and there is a special counter
where letters can be handed in to franked (instead of
popped into the post boxes outside).
If you Stroll down the length of Sir Baron Jayatillike
Mawatha and turn left into York Street, you will come
face to face with the Passenger Harbour
Terminal, once a busy port of emigration when P&O
liners frequented Colombo. From here the Ceylon Steamship
Company operated a weekly service which circumnavigated
the island calling at jaffna, trincomalee, Galle and Hambantota.
It took eight days and cost a total of Rs.100.
The Original P&O offices in York Street have been
improbably preserved. The polished wood facade still lists
the names of all the defunct shipping lines which had
their offices in this same building. Opposite the Grand
Oriental Hotel, an erstwhile luxury hostelry, is another
relic from times when all tourists were called "passengers".
In 1890, an unknown Russian writer called Anton Chekhov
checked in here. His last book hadn't done too well, hardly
surprising since it was entitled A Dreary Story, but he
perked up after a tour of the island and went home to
try his hand at play writing. One of the best views of
Colombo harbour can be enjoyed from the aptly named harbour
Room on the fourth floor. Try it for a drink or the buffet
lunch. The tiny bookshop in the foyer downstairs is also
worth a browse, and the somnolent lounge off the foyer
is perfect for a peaceful morning coffee or afternoon
The faded grandeur that still clings to the hotel was
a gleaming reality in 1914 when Bella Wolf wrote: "It
is said that if you waited long enough in the hall of
the Grand Oriental, you would meet everyone worth meeting".
Three of Colombo's five-star hotels make the Echelon Square
area popular with Visitors. The Colombo Hilton extends
(byoverhead bridge) across Lotus Road where its sports
complex lies by the banks of the Beira Lake. It is linked
by another bridge with the world Trade Centre. When the
Hilton and its neighbour, the galadari, suffered from
bomb blasts, both hotels used the opportunity to refurbish,
adding new restaurants and bars to cater for Colombo's
discerning Clientele. The Ceylon Intercontinental completes
the trio; it was Colombo's first five-star hotel to be
built and retains a dated dignity.