05 Jul We ask some locals where’s the best shopping in Colombo
Pettah is Colombo’s must-visit market bazaar. This colourful, crowded and chaotic potpourri of ethnicities is the Best Shopping in Colombo. Arranged in a traditional bazaar layout, you will find each street devoted to a different type of goods. Pettah Market is the place to be to explore local Colombo life at its most intense. It is the place where you’ll find Colombo’s unique community culture. Roam the streets, find the tiny stalls, feel the fabrics, smell the spices and bargain hard. What makes this place so unique? What is the true culture of Pettah? How to find your way in the urban chaos? What are the locals favourite places? We go to the popular Old Town Hall market and the famous gold shops along Sea Street to find out.
Old Town Hall Market – Hand-Made Goods Bazaar
Colombo’s gothic Old Town Hall looks like a crumbling Harry Potter set. It might be hard to imagine now, but this was the heart of the Dutch colonial administration. The officers have long left and the city’s town hall moved to a grand white building on a green lawn, just like the White House. The historic monument in the heart of Pettah has become a popular marketplace. In fact, people come from far to shop for hardware, kitchen items and all sorts of other household products.
At Old Town Hall, we meet Mohammed Akram. He’s the 2nd generation owner of Gaddafi Traders, the oldest stall in the marketplace. Gaddafi is a great place to stock up on handwoven baskets and traditionally manufactured goods. Akram employs artisans from all over the country and says with pride that over 3000 people live off the business he provides for them. The family’s business relationships are so strong that they are cross-generational: “My most reliable customers are the children of my father’s clients, who have taken over their family businesses.”
Akram remembers when he took over the business from his father in July 1983, shortly after the ethnic riots that wreaked havoc in Colombo. Pettah was in the middle of its wartime heydays. He recalls how they used to double and even triple their income by selling to clients in the North and the East: “Those areas were cut off by the LTTE, and goods from the South weren’t allowed in. Buyers from the North would transfer money into his bank account, always paying a large premium, and would send representatives to collect the goods.”
When asked why the store was named after a Libyan strongman, Akram smiles wryly. He doesn’t need to say it, but the glory days of the seventies and eighties saw many babies in the Muslim community of Sri Lanka named after the same man, just like plenty of businesses and babies were named after Saddam Hussein and Yassir Arafat. Akram says he wanted to change the name when America was bombing Libya in 2011 but realised that it had acquired a brand identity, which was powerful in its own right, so he decided to keep it.
Akram laments the recent changes with many other big markets being moved to the suburbs of Colombo. “When the fish market was still around, I used to open my shop at 7 a.m. and sell cane baskets, which are used to carry fish. By 9 a.m. when my employees arrived, I would have mad about 3,000 rupees.”
“The business relationships are cross-generational. Most of my customers are the children of my father’s clients” – Mohammed Akram
Near Gadaffi’s stall, we find Abdul Hakim (16) and Mohammed Arafat Mohammed Yunus (17) who both live in Maligawatte, a crowded neighborhood not far from Pettah. Hakim comes to Pettah to earn some pocket money working for traders in Pettah, while Yunus, who left school when he was nine years old, has started to work here on a regular basis.
For most urban kids from these areas, work in Pettah is a common way to avoid the trap of crime and drugs, enabling them to make a living in the process. Most of them start as early as possible. In Sri Lanka, that means when they reach 14 years of age, the minimum/legal age for employment. Football culture is huge in central Colombo, and both Yunus and Hakim are avid fans of the game. After he left school, Yunus says that all he did for eight years was watch television, sleep and play football with his friends. “Both my parents were abroad for work, and I was brought up by my grandmother and aunts. When I refused to go to school early on, they didn’t object.” He seems to have no regrets about his short-lived academic career and seems to enjoy work in Pettah. “I get paid about 500 rupees a day. All I have to do is to attend to customers at the shop, and I don’t really have a lot of heavy lifting to do.”
When we ask for local tips, Yunus shares that both he and Hakim enjoy eating the various types of food at Pettah and are happy to give recommendations. “Elite Hotel serves up some delicious roti kuruma, you should definitely try some.”
“I get paid about 500 rupees a day. All I have to do is to attend to customers at the shop, and I don’t really have a lot of heavy lifting to do” – Mohammed Arafat Mohammed Yunus
Sea Street – Gold & Jewellery Street
Sea Street has always been the place for the jewellery and gold traders. The entire street is like a mini market for jewellery, precious stones and gold, and home to dozens of goldsmith’s workshops. For a decade, Sea Street has been a prestigious destination for everyone from couples about to tie the knot, to people looking to buy jewellery for a newborn baby. It used to be along the sea, which is where they originated. In Sinhala and Tamil, the street is called “Chettiartheru street,” after the South Indian traders from Chettiar in Tamil Nadu who settled here hundreds of years ago. In fact, they are known worldwide for their craftsmanship and money lending skills. The Chettiar sailed here in the 19th century, and business was so good here that many of them decided to stay. Now, 200 years later, business is still going strong.
At #105, we meet Sellakumar Kandasamy, a 3rd generation owner of Lalitha Jewellers. What started 60 years ago as a humble gold shop is now one of Colombo’s most reputable jewellers. Lalitha is where the city’s rich and famous come for handcrafted precious pieces. “The shop was started by my grandfather, who passed it down to my father, who passed it down to me, and I hope my son will join in the business too,” says Sellakumar Kandasamy, the charismatic owner of Lalitha. “I started going into the store when I was 10 years old serving drinks and wiping the tables. I have a close relationship with the staff. In most Pettah shops, employees and customers are multigenerational.” He shares proudly how one of their craftsmen works at Lalitha because his grandfather worked there until he was 80 years old: “Customers come into the shop and tell us their grandmother’s ears were pierced here.”
Lalitha has opened a swanky shop in Colombo 07, the city’s well-heeled neighbourhood, but still operates a workshop right here in the crowded streets of Pettah. “We will always be in Pettah, this where our heart is,” says Sellakumar. The shop operates on the same principle as the Pettah market: “Here, you find a strong culture of compassion, trust, and loyalty. Different communities and ethnicities do business together. It may look like chaos, but it has an ingrained and intangible system that holds it all together. Everything is so close, everyone knows each other. Commerce brings people together. He concludes by saying: “We evolve as a business, but we keep our traditional culture and personality. Likewise, I hope Pettah develops but retains its character and retains its vibrant and energetic vibe. “
“The shop operates on the same principle as the Pettah market. Here, you find a strong culture of compassion, trust, and loyalty” – Sellakumar Kandasamy
What gives Sea Street character, are the two stunning Hindu kovils (temples) with their fantastic coloured doorways in a palette of blue, yellow, red, and green. W meet Chandrakumar (44), one of the flower sellers at the temple. He is an immigrant from the hill country who came to Pettah, at the young age of 16, right after his O Level exams to find work. He has now been selling flowers to Kovil goers at Sea Street for 20 years. “My father did the same business in Gampola,” he says, happy that he has managed to follow in his father’s footsteps. He now supports his family of 4 children with his work.
The road to financial independence hasn’t been easy. “When I first decided to go on my own, I started a small shop selling fruits and vegetables. I built a small wooden shack by Main Street in the mid-nineties.” It was also a time when the distant war was making frequent appearances in Colombo, the separatist LTTE were targeting key locations in the city in an attempt to damage infrastructure and destroy the credibility of the Sri Lankan state. Power grids were a frequent target, and Chandrakumar found himself working right next to a large transformer, potentially a prime target for a bombing.
“I remember that day so clearly. I wasn’t feeling well and had decided to close my shop for a while and cleared out all my goods. At some point that afternoon, I decided to walk over to check on it.” Within sight of his shop, a hundred meters or so away, he heard and saw a large explosion that blew his wooden shack to pieces. The LTTE had targeted the transformer that he was working next to. Chandrakumar couldn’t believe his good fortune.
Two years later, he started his trade in flowers. Trade flourished for many years, but lately, it has slowed down. “Many Tamils from the North took refuge here during the years of the war. In those days, kovils were always crowded, and there was a constant demand for flowers and coconuts for use in activities of worship.” Nowadays, there are less people at the Kovil, and the advent of decorative plastic flowers means that he is also losing a key side business.
“This business is tough, flowers can’t be stored for long, and we have to sell them as soon as possible after they arrive in the trucks and lorries that also bring vegetables and fruits to Pettah,” he says. There is a lot of wastage involved, and these difficulties mean that his children don’t necessarily want to follow in his footsteps as he did with his father.
But there is still enough demand for the real thing to enable Chandrakumar and his colleagues to eke out a living. Business booms during the Ther festivals, especially in April during the New Year celebrations and in September, when the ancient Kathiresan Kovil of Sea Street is the hotspot of religious festivities, giving him a much-needed periodic boost.
If you are lucky enough to be there in April (during the Sinhala-Tamil New Year) or during the Aadi Vel festival in August, this is the place to be. The new Kathiresan Kovil is the starting point of the festive ceremonial processions carrying the statue of Murukan through the streets of Pettah. “One of my best memories is the New Year procession. It is an old tradition to break a coconut when you go to temple as an offering of something pure. At the festival, we sometimes break as many as 7,000 coconuts,” says Sellakumar Kandasamy.
“It is an old tradition to break a coconut when you go to temple as an offering of something pure. At the festival, we sometimes break as many as 7,000 coconuts” – Sellakumar Kandasamy
Shop in Pettah like a local?
Find the Best Shopping in Colombo, specifically in Pettah, and much more in the iDiscover Colombo Guide. It has 4 handcrafted itineraries that bring you the honest and authentic in the city’s most historic neighbourhoods: Pettah, Fort, Cinnamon Gardens, and Slave Island. Plus, it comes with a free navigational app, so you can get lost without getting lost.
Pettah map designed by Ruwangi Amarasinghe
Words by Abdul Halik Azeez
Halik is a visual artist and writer who uses everyday life in Sri Lanka as his inspiration. He likes to spend as much time as possible walking the streets and encountering the unexpected. Find him on Instagram @colombedouin.
Photography by Kesara Ratnavibhushana
Kesara has been documenting cities for close to 20 years. His photographic practice is based in Colombo but also works internationally. His hometown is changing, rapidly, sometimes faster than even Kesara – a quick adaptor – can keep track of. He spends hours walking the streets recording its history and urban reality. Check out his website.