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How Did Colombo Derive its name ?


by Mr. Jayewardene


Colombo derives her name from the Port of Kolomtota (Colombo harbour), which traces back to the Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte kingdom. In 1369, Nissanka Alakesvara, King Vikramabahu III's powerful prime minister, established Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, which has been the administrative capital of Sri Lanka since 1982. Through centuries of Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, the name was changed to Colombo.

Kolomtota was the port first used by traders from China and the Far East, India, Persia, Abyssinia and Indonesia, who came to barter for the country's famed spices. In April 1505, however, an epoch of 443 years of foreign occupation began in Sri Lanka, when the Portuguese fleet under the command of Don Lorenzo de Almeida arrived in Colombo's harbour. Soon after, Portuguese rule became official with the signing of a trade treaty with King Parakramabahu the VIII, and it prevailed until 1656. Following the Portuguese were the Dutch, who occupied the country from 1656 to 1796. Then came the British, ruling the region as a colony until a few years after World War Two..

This era of western domination ended peacefully when Sri Lanka was granted independence in 1948. However, foreign occupation had a tremendous impact on the people of Colombo. Laws were changed, the economy strengthened, and the monarchy gave way to a parliamentary democracy. The dawn of a new culture arose.

Styles began to change--from clothing to customs, religion to proper names. An entire new culture took root. Even today, the influence of the Portuguese, Dutch and British is clearly visible in Colombo's architecture, names, clothing, food, language and attitudes. Buildings from all three regimes still stand in their pristine glory as mute reminders.

The first to adopt Colombo as their administrative centre, the Portuguese built forts, stores, barracks, churches and residential quarters. The Dutch then used the city as their operational centre and expanded her borders. The British made Colombo the capital of their new colony and positioned her as a blossoming metropolis of the east.

Colombo's current centre, Fort, got its name from the presence of the Portuguese and the Dutch fortifications located there. At the turn of the 21st century, the British, who took over from the Dutch after bitter fighting, razed the last structures of the Dutch stronghold.

Many links between Sri Lanka and Portugal are in evidence today. Several items of furniture in Sri Lanka derive from the Lusitanian style. Sri Lankan and Portuguese names have many similarities: Mendis (Mendez), de Silva (da Silva), Dias (Diaz), Corea (Correa), Tissera (Teixera), de Mel (de Mello) and Swaris (Soares), to name a few. The most obvious legacy of the Portuguese, however, is Catholicism, still practiced by a small percentage of the population. The Dutch introduced the Roman Dutch Law system which Sri Lanka still uses today. The Burgher community, another Dutch legacy, are descendants of the original settlers from Holland and neighbouring countries. They came out with the Dutch United East India Company and remained throughout the British period that followed.

The Dutch culinary tradition also endures here. Popular local delicacies include lamprai and pilaf, frikkadelas and meatballs, pastellas (curry patties wrapped in crisp pastry), love cake, breudher and poffertjes.

The Dutch Museum, housed at "Dutch House" at Prince Street in Pettah, was built in the 17th century. As the former residence of Dutch governor Count Carl Van Ranzow, it embodies the unique architectural features of a colonial Dutch townhouse. Another impressive sentinel of the period is the Wolvendaal Church, constructed in the Doric style.

It was the British, however, who left a truly lasting impression on almost every aspect of life in Colombo. They developed a unique urban plan to modernise Colombo, under which specific areas were demarcated for economic, political, judicial and cultural developments. They encouraged the rapid and uninterrupted development of the plantation sector, which in turn presented demand for a banking and commercial shopping complex at Fort.

The British were also responsible for creating the country's first parliament building, Temple Trees (the official residence of today's Prime Minister and formerly of the colonial secretary), and the President's House (the official residence of the President and of the former British governor). In 1923, a classical-style Secretariat and a Town Hall were constructed. The British introduced schools and streamlined education. They instigated a democratic government and paved the way for efficient administration. By initiating a road and rail network, they introduced modern methods of transport. Among the many first-class hotels they constructed, three--the Taprobane (Grand Oriental Hotel), the Galle Face Hotel and the Mount Lavinia Hotel--are still standing. Several sports clubs for cricket, rugby football, tennis, swimming, rowing and yachting also exist today, some of them more than 100 years old.

While upgrading the ancient port, the British laid down plans for the country's armed services and police. But far more telling than any of these reforms was the introduction of the English language, which has helped millions of Sri Lankan's in their educational and employment pursuits, and thousands of others in their quest to immigrate abroad.

Self-administration in 1948, and the following economic development, encouraged skyscrapers to alter the Colombo skyline radically. Stunning hotels and commercial buildings stand out among remnants of the city's architectural past. True to the essence of Colombo, the new stands side-by-side comfortably with the old. With independence and the swing to nationalism has come today's emergence of national identity. Colombo's people are proud to be Sri Lankan, proud of their city's history, and proud to be a part of her future.