Sunday, October 09, 2011

Colombo in 1947

Sunday Observer Oct 9 2011

Colombo I saw in 1947

[Part 1]

My very first visit to Colombo was in April 1947, when I was a teenager and my reminiscence is clear and vivid of the city and places I visited then with my parents.
We came to Colombo by Kelani Valley Train, boarding the train at Kahawatta railway station, the one before Opanayake which was the last station on KV Line. Coming from the remote village of Emetiyagoda in Sabaragamuwa boarding a train to Colombo was indeed a thrilling experience we youngsters looked forward to passing many railway stations travelling all day long.
We reached Maradana our destination in the evening. I well remember climbing the steep stairs and coming out of the station to the road at Maradana which was well lit up and full of traffic with tramcars moving and the street filled with people on the pavement. At Maradana we boarded a bus to Dehiwala where we were to stay at our aunty's house down Fairline Lane.
Following day we visited the Colombo museum where the Holy Relics of Sariputta and Moggallana, the Aggrasavaka of Buddha brought down from India were in exposition for Buddhists to pay homage. The main purpose of the visit to Colombo was to pay homage to these relics.


The entire museum was gaily decorated and a long line of devotees in waiting, winding its way to worship and pay homage to Sacred Relics.
A group of drummers clad in white with decorative red headgear was humming their drums outside the Relic Chamber on the green. The entire place looked dignified and serene and devotees moving slowly and silently to pay homage. These many hundreds of Bhikkhus coming in a different queue to pay homage.
After worshipping the Relics we visited many halls in the museum where historical objects including the throne of the last King of Kandy were on display. We the younger were awe-struck by the impressive museum, its long corridors and archways in gleaming white. The large lawns outside neatly kept with flower beds made a lasting impression in my mind of beauty and order in a garden as part of a large building.
Getting out of the museum with a deep sigh, father took us to show the Race Course, Royal College and the University at Reid Avenue. We walked down Thurstan Road to Reid Avenue under the shades of giant Mara trees grown on both sides of the road, forming a green canopy over the road.
We saw the massive Race Course, the grand stand and the white railing along the race track. The university building and its centre tower and the play ground in front were very impressive. I remember father showing some students entering the large building and saying if we studied hard we too could study there. We had no idea then what a university was. Later when we saw the red buildings of the Royal College nearby with very large trees in the front garden. I thought university was another college for senior boys.


Boarding a bus from Reid Avenue we came to Galle Face Green where I was awe-struck by the vast scene I saw - The vast ocean in front with the green running along the Galle Face Hotel at one end and the Parliament, grey in colour, standing at the other end. We all walked the entire length of the Galle Face ground to the spot called Galle Buck, a rocky spot with a few coconut palms and the sea waves dashing on the rocks to reach the beach. We were let to touch the sea water and walk on the beach. From there we saw many ships in the sea across and the harbour at the distance. We walked up to Chatham Street where we had lunch. The shops along that street were full of people mostly foreign tourists.
After lunch with ice cream as dessert we hit the street again and saw the massive grand Queen's House with two impressive gates with uniformed guards standing motionless armed with guns. We were too scared to get near the impressive gates and look closely. Father explained that they were special police guarding the Queen's House where the Governor resides. We visited the beautiful garden next to Queen's House. It was called Gorden Gardens. There we saw beautiful beds of flowers, roses and many others well laid with pathways to walk on adorning that garden.
It was full of European visitors, some seated on the benches eating bananas and pineapples, under shady trees. They appeared to be enjoying the sun very much as some had large hats in their hands.
Leaving the beautiful Gorden Gardens to them we then visited the Colombo harbour and saw large ships anchored at a distance.
We saw the jetty and the landing pier and few white passengers leaving in boats, some carrying bunches of bananas and pineapples. Father explaining to us that they were European travellers returning to their countries by ship.
There were several sailors all in white uniforms wearing caps and appearing very smart on duty at the pier. Opposite the harbour was the Grand Oriental Hotel (GOH) from where many travellers walked to the pier. We were told that Europeans stayed either in the GOH and boarded the ships to travel to England. While watching them leaving in boats to big ships, I thought to myself that journey across the ocean must be thrilling and wished I too could go on board a ship London bound. My father explained to us while walking back from the harbour, that the sea journey took several weeks and the ship had all the things the passengers required during the long sea voyage. That visit to Colombo harbour made a deep impression on me and kindled a desire to travel across the seas one day.
We returned to Emetiyagoda after a few days and the pictures of Colombo, the buildings, the roads, tram cars, parks, gardens and the harbour and the ships lingered in my mind for months. Father bought us Pilot brand fountain pens and tooth brushes and tooth paste for us to use as utility items in Colombo.
My second visit to Colombo was in 1950 to join a college for studies after junior level education in Dickwella, Matara at Vijitha Vidyalaya. After coming to Colombo during my early youth, I grew up in Colombo and saw the city growing up after independence in 1948, and experiencing many changes within the city's urban environment.
When I came to Colombo I stayed in a private boarding house, down Maligakanda Road, Maradana. The boarding house was close to Vidyodaya Pirivena and was opposite to Cliffton Girls School.

Residential areas

Then the area around Maligakanda was typically a residential area, close to two leading boys schools, Ananda College and Nalanda College. The boarding house had a number of students attending Ananda College including my brother and two graduate teachers of Nalanda College.
I attended Alexandra College, Colombo 7 managed by G. Weeramantrie, the well-known maths teacher of the Royal College. Maligakanda area being close to leading schools had boarding facilities in most private houses. It was a service to outstation students attending Colombo schools as well as a source of supplementary income to those householders who had space to let and willing to provide full-board to a few students.
Those days college teachers wore full dress in white and wore a black tie while most junior students wore navy blue shorts and white shirts and the seniors white long trousers and white short sleeve shirts and girls white frocks.
In the mornings and early afternoons Maligakanda Road, otherwise drab, turned lively with white clad students moving down the road after school on their way home.
wThe girls were orderly though somewhat chatty. The most striking feature was that they were not accompanied by parents or any elders.


This was probably due to order and propriety that prevailed then in Colombo. Most students walked to schools by themselves and hardly anyone came in vans or other private vehicles. So did teachers and few came in cars or rickshaws.
The entire length of Maligakanda right up to the water supply reservoir on the hill, was dotted with houses some quaint and others cute with hanging flower pots or window boxes.
Only a few had front yards to grow flowers, but most had neatly kept flower pots at the entry points to the houses. One well kept house down Maligakanda Road was 'Sigiriya'.
It was the house where the late Karunaratne Abeysekara and his brothers, who were students at Nalanda College lived with their parents.
I saw the famous lyricist and radio - broad caster going about along Maligakanda Road.
He was immaculately dressed in white trousers and short sleeve shirt. And he wore a thin moustache.
Opposite the 'House Sigiriya' was the well-known dancer Premakumar's Epitawala's residence. On an ordinary day this road was not congested and one could cross at any point without fear as only a few cars and rickshaws moved up and down.
Evenings were colourful with yellow robed bhikkus in groups, leaving the pirivena after classes to their respective temples. Being close to Vidyodaya Pirivena, there were several bookshops and publishing houses along Maligakanda Road, Maradana.