03 Dec Memories of Cinnamon Gardens in Colombo
Cinnamon Gardens in Colombo, the name invokes memories of times long gone, of whitewashed plantation bungalows with big verandas in lush leafy gardens. We catch up with two local residents from different generations, Amithi from Pedris Road and Ashik from Gregory’s Road, and ask them their favourite places, how the area has changed and what makes Cinnamon Gardens so unique.
The sapling mango tree growing through the roof of Amithi’s house
Growing through the roof
We’re served tea at the veranda of Amithi’s antique-filled house, above us a pitched roof to provide some welcome shade. But there’s something unusual about this roof, it’s been built around a tree. “My husband was an architect so he designed it himself. The land had two beautiful trees, a mango tree, and a cassia tree. We choose to build the house around the sapling mango tree. Now it is the towering feature of the house and backyard. I take great care in trimming to accommodate its ever-growing presence. Every year just before the Puja celebrations, suddenly the leaves will grow pink and then burst into fruit, it’s a magnificent sight.”
Memories of place
Amithi Selvaratnam has lived in Cinnamon Gardens her whole life. She remembers the days when the land parcels were big, the trees tall and the streets quiet. “When I was young, we had a huge area of land, it was not uncommon. I grew up in my father’s house next to where I live now on Pedris Road. There were no walls around the houses in those days. It was very safe”. In those days the kids would walk to school and pick flowers on the way. “My favourite was the Anthurium flower that used to grow along the garden fence,” she says. “I went to Ladies College down the road and my brothers went the other way to Royal College. It was fun growing up here. In the weekends I would wear boy’s clothes and play cricket and climbed trees with my cousins and their friends.”
“The plot was big and had beautiful trees, we built the house around the sapling mango tree” – Amithi Selvaratnam
Some of the many antiques that Amithi has collected over the years
The houses in Colombo 7 were big, so it was common for different generations to live on the same compound or even under one roof. “I grew up in my father’s house next to where I live now.” Amithi says. Perhaps difficult to imagine given the political frenzy that has stirred the country in the past decades, Colombo’s society was very mixed in those days: “My father was a ‘Jaffna boy’. He worked as a civil servant for the British and married my mother a ‘Colombo girl’. My family was Hindu and for Pongal people would come to our house to cook rice out in the garden and at Christmas we would visit our Christian friends and drink milk wine. But times were not always rosy living here. During the 1983 riots things got ugly and we had to seriously consider what our future would be: stay or leave. We decided to stay and I’m glad we did. This is home still, it is warm and the sun is always shining.”
Value of old things
The house on Pedris Road is a fine example of tropical modernism. The clean lines, high ceilings and airy spaces make it comfortable even without aircon. There’s antique furniture throughout the house, in a seemingly effortless mix of old and new. Amithi clearly has an eye for aesthetics. We’re not surprised to hear that she was at the forefront of interior design in Sri Lanka: “I started one of the first interior design companies in the country in collaboration with a British company. Even after I quit, I always kept an interest in furniture. My husband and I would travel to Galle to buy antique pieces from the old houses in Fort. There were lots for grabs, people didn’t see the value in those days.”
Amithi would not want to live anywhere else. Although Cinnamon Gardens is not as quiet now as it used to be and now there are walls around every house, it still is Colombo’s finest neighbourhood. She goes for daily walks in the Viharamahadevi Park or around Independence Square with her son Ishu and once a week she visits the Ladies College swimming pool: “I love swimming. Back then not many people knew how to swim and I was one of just two girls in my school who used to swim.” She says with a content smile, Colombo seven may no longer be heaven, it certainly makes for a healthy lifestyle.
Family living & Royal schooling
Ashik Bari has lived in Cinnamon Gardens his whole life
“At Royal, you’re in it together. You learn to appreciate the little, the big and everything in between” – Ashik Bari. Coach, The Rugby School
Ashik Bari lives on Gregory’s Road. When he was small the whole family lived in one house and even today grandmothers, uncles, aunties and cousins all live in the same street here at the top of Gregory’s Road in Cinnamon Gardens. “No matter what time I come home there’s always a family member around to greet me and have a little chat,” he says. Ashik schooled at Royal, one of Colombo’s most prestigious schools. But for Ashik and his family, Royal College was simply their neighbourhood school, just a 10-minute walk from home. There are more than 8,500 kids in the college so he got to grow up with kids from either all sides of the spectrum, children from very wealthy families but also students whose parents are farmers from Batticaloa. Royal has taught him some valuable life lessons “At Royal, you’re in it together. You learn to appreciate the little, the big and everything in between” Ashik says proudly. He also shares a story about how the connections at school can serve you lifelong in a way that you never imagined: “I once asked my boss why he hired me, and he said: I saw you perform in the Royal Drama Competition when you were 15 years old.”
The love of the sport
Ashik played rugby throughout his school years. At Royal, kids start playing from the age of six and from there it all leads up to the Bradby Shield, the longest uninterrupted rugby match in the world played every year between Royal and Trinity College in Kandy. This tradition started in 1920 and it still has a loyal following. For the Bari’s it’s also a family tradition, Ashik’s father and grandmother’s brother played for Royal and even his grandmother still watches it every year unfailingly, together with a capacity crowd of up to 15,000 people. “The pressure is unbelievable, one side of the community cheering you on and the other waiting for you to make the smallest mistake. You look at the crowd, see your friends and classmates and know you just can’t screw up” he says.
“Rugby is a great sport, it allows you to build lifelong friendships, you learn to watch each other’s back,” Ashik says. In fact, some of his best school memories are of playing rugby with his friend Bilal. One such memory was at the Royal-Thomian Rugger final in their last year at school, after the game had ended, they put their arms around each other and walked off the Royal complex knowing they would never get to play again and it was an emotional moment for them both.
Royal College in Cinnamon Gardens, one of the country’s elite schools
The next generation rugby academy
Together with his best friend Bilal, Ashik started a Rugby Academy. They coach kids from the age of 3-12. Teach them the rules of the game and toughen them up a bit, but more than anything they have fun together playing sport. “It’s heart-warming to see kids still kicking a ball around on the pitch, long after the training has ended. We even have scholarships for those kids who can’t afford it” he says. Ashik coaches six days a week and for him, nothing is more relaxing at the end of a long stressful day: “In rugby it’s all about having the power, will and strength to get up after you get tackled to the ground”.
The uniqueness of place
Also, Ashik wouldn’t want to live anywhere else: “This is home! It’s green and safe and everything is close. Now it’s busier, as kids we were cycling the streets and on curfew nights, we’d play cricket on the empty roads. But still it’s the greenest and nicest part of town. My favourite place is Viharamahadevi Park at 5am. I go there often to run, it’s so pretty and quiet.”
Ashik coaches six times a week at the Rugby school he founded together with his friend
Want to discover the spirit of Cinnamon Gardens?
Find all these local eateries and much more in the iDiscover Colombo Guide with 4 handcrafted itineraries that bring you the honest and authentic in the city’s most historic neighbourhoods: Pettah, Fort, Cinnamon Gardens in Colombo, and Slave Island. Comes with a free navigational app, so you can get lost without getting lost.
Cinnamon Gardens map designed by Neesha Fernando
Words by Ester van Steekelenburg
Ester moved from Amsterdam to Hong Kong Just before the handover in 1997… with little more than a backpack. She fell in love with the city’s energy and almost 20 years later, she still calls Hong Kong home; a base from where she works on cultural heritage projects throughout Asia. Her favourite cities include Hanoi, Istanbul and Yangon. In Hong Kong she’s happiest exploring the city’s busy backstreets or hiking in the country parks.
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.