“Sri Lanka is a beautiful little island nation parked perilously close to India; a little too hot, a little too humid, and perhaps too expensive, but to its credit are fantastic beaches, strangely melancholy hills, and the ruins of kingdoms past.”
― Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Numbercaste, about Sri Lanka
There are many things one experiences on a visit to a country, its people, its landscape, the nature surrounding them, to name a few, but one of the quickest and most potent ways to get a feel of a country is by studying its capital city through and through. This of course applies to Colombo as well. The capital of Sri Lanka poses as a compact amalgamation of different aspects of the Sri Lankan experience.
Be it by walking down the bustling streets of the city or hurtling down them in a classic Tuk Tuk, one quickly comes to realize that the city is not just about its fantastic landscapes and beaches, which is what most think of when it comes to Sri Lanka. But it also holds its ground as a city of the modern world that has kept up with the times. The city showcases characteristics of the typically crowded cities of South Asia while the center towards the port features a series of colonial buildings that clearly show the influences of the past.
The Cultural and Political Sides to Colombo
Colombo showcases the diverse and rich culture of the Sri Lankan land, which includes a lot of customs and rituals, which go back over 2000 years. The culture is highly influenced by Indian and European cultures. The Indian influence came from intermarriage between and the European influence was a result of invasion from the Dutch, Portuguese, and the British. Buildings like the Sambodhi Chaithya stupa in Colombo Harbour and the British Era buildings near the Colombo Fort reflect these cultural influences.
Sri Lanka gained independence from its colonists in 1948 and has since been a democracy and has had its time as a dominion as well as a republic. This shift in the political situation of the country has also caused the rise of new styles of architecture. Some famed architects that rose to prominence after Sri Lankan independence were Geoffrey Bawa and Minnette de Silva who were leading trends in what is today known globally as ‘Tropical Modernism’. This is a style that emphasizes bringing together elements from different times and places to create something new and original while sticking to the local aesthetic.
Demographics and their Effect on Architecture
Apart from being the most populous city in Sri Lanka, Colombo is home to people of multiple religions, ethnicities, and cultures. Colombo has a diverse population that is a mix of numerous ethnic groups, Sinhalese, Tamils, Sri Lankan Moor as well as small communities of people with origins from China, Portugal, Malaysia, and India origins living in the city.
This varying demographic plays a part in the architecture of the city as well with colonial buildings existing along with structures built in Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Indian and Contemporary architectural styles. Old buildings of the fort area and other parts of the city date back to British times, these include governmental, commercial buildings, and private houses. One such iconic building is the Colombo National Museum of a neoclassical style.
The various temples in the city perfectly capture the other side of the Sri Lankan demographic. One of the prominent places of worship is Gangaramaya Temple, a Buddhist temple that is a prime example of contemporary architecture. The architecture of the temple is a mix of various styles from Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian, and Chinese architecture. This shrine is deemed an important landmark in Colombo and is a popular tourist destination.
Modernization of Architecture in Colombo
The election of the Jayawardene government in 1977 heralded a period of economic liberalism and this marked a period in Colombo’s history where ideas of modernization began to set in. This was also when the famous architect Geoffrey Bawa was the most active and built several projects like the new national Parliament at Kotte (1982) and the Ruhunu University campus (1984). His contributions even extend to several hotels including the Triton at Ahungalla.
The Anantara Kalutara is one of Geoffrey Bawa’s designs that was completed most recently. The construction was stopped twice; once in the 1990s due to civil war and again in 2004 due to a tsunami. It was finally completed in late 2016 under the guidance of Bawa’s protégé Channa Daswatte and remains one of the most iconic modern buildings in the city which features a large main block with open airways that optimize the effect of the sea breeze.
The city of Colombo tends to be overlooked to a great extent. One that at first glance seems to be just like any other capital city in the area. It is, however, a city with a complex and rich history that now contains a diverse amalgamation of several cultures and people. It is a city that holds many charms and secrets yet to be discovered.
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