Monday, July 27, 2009

Fascinating Fort

General Post Office
The Fascinating Fort of Colombo

Colombo Fort was one heck of a place to be in the sixties and seventies. The business town was always alive, kicking, and buzzing with activity from dawn to dusk and even after through the midnight hours. Double Decker buses plied the route from the south on the Galle Road brining in the multitudes of masses to their work places and shopping expeditions.

Fort was the place for banking. Fort was the shoppers dream. Fort was also famous for its eating and drinking. Every foreign bank had its head office located in the Fort. There was The Mercantile Bank and Chartered Bank on Queen Street, Eastern Bank (later converted to the present Commercial Bank of Ceylon), National & Grindlays Bank and Bank of Ceylon on York Street, The Peoples Bank on Duke Street, Mercantile Bank (later Commercial Bank of Ceylon) on Prince Street, HongKong & Shanghai Banking Corporation on Prince Street, BoC Fifth City Branch on York Street, Indian Bank on Baillie Street, and eventually the Central Bank was also located on Queen Street. The banks were all in very close proximity to each other and there was a great sense of rapport and interaction between them and their staff members. Outside every bank, there sat a Nattukottai Chettiar, in his white Vetti, gold tooth, and smiling demeanor, on a makeshift desk and chair. He was the self appointed money changer for checks, foreign currency and whatever financial need one requested. He dealt directly with the banks to execute his transactions which he carried out for individuals for which he levied his handsome commissions to put food on his family table. He would cash anybody’s check for a price. He was also a great resource for quick credit for those who wanted to do a buy and sell to make an overnight buck.
Another interesting feature of Fort were the multitude of eating places and drinking holes scattered in every nook and corner of the town. Nanking Hotel, a typical Chinese on Queen street was frequented by the die-hard connoisseurs of good Chinese food, where a free soup on every order was relished by one and all. The Akasa Kade restaurant on the rooftop of Ceylinco building was a more elite eating place for the executives and families who frequented the place. Pagoda, run by Rodrigo Restaurants, down Chatham Street was always famous for its exquisite Chinese Rolls, Lamprais, Iced Coffee and Chocolate Cake. The Globe Restaurant, Lord Nelson, on Chatham Street and The National Restaurant on Queen Street, were the domain of the guzzlers of Fort of whom there was a multitude ranging from young bankers to ageing pensioners with only one thought in their minds. Nectar CafĂ©, at the corner of Baillie Street and York Street, erupted like wildfire by providing a self service menu dished out by young Burgher lasses dressed in neatly unformed short skirts and blouses. It was always a hive of activity in there at all times of the day. The food was tasty and cheap and the ambience of the environment was more like a university cafeteria. Then there was the hot rice and crab curry joint called Jaffna Hotel down Hospital Street that anyone shopping or working in Fort could never miss. The steaming hot crab that was served, Jaffna style, was found nowhere else in all of Colombo. It was just one of a kind. You wither had it or you’ve missed everything in life. Rice was served as much as you can eat while you only paid for the crab or other curries that you choose to order. The true five star lunch place in the town was in the restaurant at the Hotel Taprobane, located at the end of York Street facing the Port of Colombo. Previously known as the Grand Oriental Hotel (GOH) during the old Colonial times it was haunted by the rich, famous and glamorous folk who were always dressed to kill and also had lots of cash to spend. Many other smaller eating houses serving a wide variety of food and drink were also splattered around the York Street/Duke Street end of the Fort. There was always something for everyone in the Fort when it came to appeasing the tongue and tummy. Many of the watering holes also had their share of quickie apartment complexes located on the upper floors which were gallantly used by the hot blooded men and women for some wild skirmishes in their own special way. The rooms were small, dingy, dirty and used only for a single purpose by its occupants whenever required. There were also other similar locations that offered cleaner sheets and better service for the same benefits at a price, of course. In common slang terminology they were al referred to as “knock joints” by the flks of that era. Everyone knew but no one complained. Life, was a live and let live policy in the Fort of Colombo.

Businesses in Fort were so many, since ancient times, on account of its close proximity to the Port of Colombo where there was always an influx of sailors and foreigners looking for food, drink, curios, sapphires, jewelry, batiks, handicrafts and other knickknacks. Textiles, Travel Agents, Government Agencies and Corporations, and even large corporate Colonial Companies were all located here. The Velona showroom at the intersection of Chatham Street and Queen Street on the ground floor of the National Mutual Life Association building, provided a great array of cotton and textile products manufactured locally.

Within the Chartered Bank building alone there were many private sector corporations functioning upstairs, some of which I remember, were, Carsons, Bartleets, CIC, etc. A website titled CIC Evergreens has some great stories about the people who worked in these offices. See this link:-

Many were also the crummy corridors where illegal betting on horses running races in the UK were being accepted by mobile book makers acting as agents for the big Colombo Racing mafia. Towards the latter part of the seventies a very large Casino opened up on the corner, owned by the famous Aloysious Mudalali of gambling fame, opened up on the corner of York Street and Prince Street, opposite to Cargills. It was frequented by many of the hungry gambling folk in the Fort in search of some god luck to supplement their material needs. More often than not, many of them went home hungry, some even losing all of their pay packets on the month ends.

Of the private business houses that plied their retail trade along the streets of Fort, the very famous and frequented ones were, Hirdaramani, Lakshmi Silk Store, Marikar Bawa’s, all located on Chatham Street. While Hirdaramani and Lakshmi’s had a variety of textiles for men and women Marikar Bawa’s was a household name for men’s suits. Chands & Diana & Company were two famous sports stores, also located down Chatham Street. A large number of gems, jewelry, curio and tourist stores, having been in business for many decades since the time of the British Raj, were also crisscrossed across every single street in town. M C Zainudeen & Company, M C Ziard and Company, Le Toile, Vogue Jewellers, Birsam & Company, Deen & Company, were all well known for their knack in serving the many sailors, foreign businessmen and tourists who came to visit the island.

Cargills, Millers and The Colombo Apothecary, department stores were located on York Street and Prince Street, and catered to a multitude of shoppers from all walks of life. They were the premier department stores established in Sri Lanka during the old colonial British era, and in the old days catered to the expatriate and diplomatic population of the city. They sold everything from a pin to an elephant, mostly imported from the UK, Europe, and later on the USA and more recently, Taiwan and China. H W Cave and Company, referred to as Caves, located on Prince Street was the premier bookstore that all readers flocked to. Caves was another legacy of the old British Raj. They imported every possible novel, magazine, periodical and newspaper. Stationery was also another sought after item within the store. The Times of Ceylon Bookstore located in the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress building was also another famous place for books, photographic material and stationery.

The Colombo Customs, Department of Immigration, The General Post Office, and The Import Control Department of the Government of Sri Lanka were also located in the Fort.
An elite fishing club, The Anglers Club, frequented by a small group of fishing folk from among the rich and famous, was located on Galle Buck facing the new light house. It was also a drinking hole for the thirsty where the food was truly special.

The Corporate business houses of M/s E B Creasy & Company Ltd, Muller & Phipps, Carson Cumberbatch & Company Ltd, T A J Noorbhai, Nel Farm and Hatchery, Air Lanka, Ceylinco Insurance, Indian Embassy, were all located in the Fort in the sixties.

The buildings and structures that are found in the Fort are also a great legacy from the Colonial era as well as masterpieces of civil engineering and design in keeping with traditional Greco-Roman architecture. Queens House, now referred to as Presidents House, is the most handsome of them all. Located on Queen Street, opposite the Post Office, the mansion was the abode of the then Colonial Dutch and British Governors before independence in 1948, and later on the Governor Generals under local rule, and eventually the Presidents who came thereafter. The lone sentry at the gates and the changing of the guard are sighs that were extremely beautiful to witness in those halcyon times. The mansion itself borders a wide acreage of land with tremendous foliage surrounding it.

The General Post Office was built during British colonial rule and contracted to the famous Moor builder, Wapchi Marikar Baas, grandfather of Sir Razik Fareed, who also built the NMLA building, Customs Long Room, Colombo Museum, Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital at Maradana, and many other similar colossal structures that still stand tall today as a memory to those great times. The Chartered Bank building, adjacent to the GPO, is of a similar structure, standing on massive square pillars with concrete tusked elephant heads mounted on them.

The NMLA building, which houses the Import & Export Control Department, located on the corner of Chatham Street and Queen Street on the south west is another behemoth of the times. Many other smaller, yet strong and classical, buildings line up all the streets in the Fort, adjacent to each other.

Transworks House which was the home of the Central Telegraph Office has now been occupied by Sri Lankan Airlines and many other departments and offices. Bristol Building on York Street housed many small businesses on the ground floor while the upper floors were occupied by private sector corporations and departments. The whole building has been demolished now and will ake room for a public car park as planned since parking in the Fort is a much needed facility for those who live, work, do business, and travel there. Cargills and Colombo Apothecaries buildings located on York Street and Prince Street also boast of the great vintage of construction of those times. Hotel Taprobane, or the old GOH building, is another monument worth mentioning. During colonial times many were the Dutch and British families who lived in the apartments within many of these exquisite buildings in the Fort since most of the other towns of Colombo were not popularly inhabited by the rich, famous and elite. The Fort was a popular residential location on account of its proximity to the Colombo harbor.

The Fort Police Station, which used to be an old Dutch Hospital during the colonial times, lies on a lower leveled embankment on the south western side of the Fort, starting at the end of Hospital Street stretching out towards the lake House intersection. Lake House building is also another mammoth structure that has been a significant landmark on the edge of Fort leading towards Maradana on the south and Pettah on the west. It is at this point in the town that the southern railway wends its way towards the Fort Railway Station under Sir Chittampalam Gardiner Mawatha, formerly referred to as Lotus Road starting at the Slave Island Police Station, and, which is an extension of Sir James Pieris Mawatha, formerly known as General’s Lake Road, which begins in Colombo 3 and winds its way along he Beira lake towards Slave Island and The Fort.

In recent times, the tall Ceylinco building and Central Bank office building display a more modern aspect of architecture and civil engineering. The MICH building which houses the Peoples Bank and ACBC building are also significant structures on the western side of the Fort. Many plush, new, five start hotels have dotted the landscape of the Fort. The twin towers and the Bank of Ceylon tower are two of the tallest buildings in the area now. Some of the more popular and famous names are, The Intercontinental, Meridian, and the Hilton Hotels.
The Light House, located on Galle Buck Road, on the western most part of the Fort, used to be a wonderful place for families to relax and spend time, on Sunday evenings watching the ships pass by. In recent times, the place has been cordoned off as a security area and access to the light house is virtually impossible. The concrete base of the light house with its majestic stone lions looking out from its four corners, were much enjoyed as a play area by the kids of those times.

One could never complete an essay on the Fort without mentioning the clock tower that stood in the center of the intersection of Chatham Street and Queens Street. The structure has stood for many moons and even though the hands of the clock may have stopped at a quarter to four at some point of time in its history, the grandeur of its statesmanship still holds high for the town.

Great Pics of Colombo:


Sanjeewa said...

What a lovely writeup. I wasn't even born until the mid-80s, however, I currently work in one of the banks that has long since been headquartered in the Fort region.

It's really sad to see the abandoned streets and remains of some of the places you've mentioned. I know the building where this Cave's company once was, it's now been made a car park with the cars parked inside the building (Gaffoor building I think). That place has always attracted me because of it's size and architecture (I even once tried to go in there before it became a carpark but the police didn't allow me to). I hope with the end of the war Fort will once again be opened up to its past glory.

fazli said...

Many thanks for your comments. Ive heard about the car park but have not seen it yet since Ive not visited for a few years. Its so sad to see the fabulous Fort of Colombo go down the tubes. The last time I was there I tried to take a photograph of Hospital Street looking down from York nStreet but the cop there didnt allow me stating it was a hi=-security zone. I explained to him I just wanted a pic of all the shop sign boards for my blog but he insisted that it was prohibited. That was truly a sad day for me. My memories of working at Chartered Bank from 1969-79 are indelible. Lets hope things will change now that the wsar is over? God Bless Sri Lanka, a land like no other