I spent two days in the capital of Sri Lanka, one at the beginning and one at the end of my visit to the country. It feels like a long city, stretching along the coast in the south-west of the island and is split into a number of districts, making it feel as if it has no central focus.
I first visited the Pettah area, a network of streets full of tiny shops and stalls grouped by type: I bought an adapter in the street of technical gizmos for the three round pin electrical sockets that I hadn’t realised where the norm in this region.
There is a seventeenth century Dutch colonial house buried in the midst of all the tall narrow concrete buildings here. The museum contents are not that fascinating (although I loved the group of gravestones with skull, crossed bones and hourglass motifs) but the building itself, with its surprisingly green garden (plus cute cat) was delightful.
For a proper museum experience I went to the National Museum, which majors in sculpture and smaller finely made craft items. For added variety they have an old fashioned but interesting set of dioramas on the cultivation of rice plus a random whale skeleton and some tatty and very poorly lit traditional puppets.
To get my hand (or more properly my feet) in with temples, I went to the main Buddhist temple, the Gangaramaya, complete with elephant and a number of fascinating rooms full of stuff that had been donated by worshipers to the temple. These mostly comprise religious statues but include clocks, jewellery, a sewing machine and a framed portrait of the Queen with Phil the Inappropriate. It was like the storage area for an eclectic auction house. Like many Sri Lankan Buddhist establishments Hindu gods are also present, alongside the standard stupa and bo tree.
There was also a group of homilies on life, with cartoonish illustrations. My favourite was this one, which councils against spending excessive amounts of time with prostitutes and courtesans. Just say ‘no’ now and then chaps and you will avoid downfall.
Just down the road, jutting out into the lake, is a smaller modern temple (Seema Malaka), built by a renowned Sri Lankan architect who I had not previously heard of, I’m ashamed to say. Geoffrey Bawa studied law in England in the 1930s before returning home to practice as a barrister. After the war, he spent some time travelling and returned to England in the ’50s to study architecture.
His subsequent career was mostly based in Sri Lanka where he was responsible for many hotels, schools, offices and houses along with the country’s Parliament Building. On my second visit to Colombo I went to his own house, tucked away down a quiet side-street, built on the site of four small houses that sat behind one another on a small lane (itself also now part of the house).
The architect’s house was delightful, a flow of white spaces, tiny top-(sun)lit courtyards, water features (sadly off because of the problem of mosquitoes breeding) filled with beautiful personal knick-knacks and furniture. If I ever return to Sri Lanka, I’d love to stay in one of his hotels.