25 Apr Four religions in one street; a friendly multi religious cocktail in Colombo
Pettah is Colombo’s market bazaar, a crowded, chaotic potpourri of different cultures and religions. In the old heart of the city, within the same block of streets, you find the iconic candystriped Red Mosque, two blue washed Hindu temples, a solemn golden Buddha statue and a quaint white Christian church. For centuries the port town of Colombo was a magnet for traders, they came from India, from China and all the way from Europe and all left their mark in the streets of Pettah. Today these temples, mosques and churches are more than just places of worship, they are cultural anchors, places for community celebrations and hugely popular pilgrimage destinations; a living testimony to the city’s unique multicultural history. We go for walk in the streets of Pettah to find out how people of different faiths live, work and pray so peacefully together in such a crowded neighbourhood, and to experience Colombo Culture.
A red-white candy-striped mosque
We start in Main Street at the Red Mosque, the centrepiece of Pettah. This is one of the most iconic architectural sights you will see in Colombo, if not the whole of Sri Lanka. What started as a small prayer house for Indian traders has over the centuries grown into a giant candy-striped neo-Mughal, Indo-gothic masterpiece. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Moscow. When on Friday afternoons the call for prayer sounds from the red white pomegranate shaped domes, hundreds of white capped worshippers flock to the mosque, not just the Pettah Muslim community but from far beyond. This is probably the only mosque in the world that also doubled as a lighthouse, back in the days, ships that entered the harbour were guided by the domes of the mosque than the lighthouse.
The Red Mosque is like a poetic commentary on a historical alliance between trade and religious worship. Arab and Indian traders have for centuries dominated trade on the island and the Pettah bazaar is probably the largest concentration of Muslim trading capital in the country. Many people recall the two-decade long bloody war between the dominant Singhalese Buddhist population and the Tamils from the North, many of whom are Hindu’s, Christians and Muslims. But perhaps surprisingly in this part of town there have been few tensions between the different religions. Sellakumar Kandasamy, owner of the prominent Lalitha Jewellers has been doing business in Pettah for more than three generations. He shares: “Everything in Pettah operates on trust and loyalty. 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 definitely brings people from different communities, religions and ethnicities together.”
Where to find this place? Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid (Red Mosque) . 228 Second Cross Street . Colombo 11
The candy-striped red and white brick façade of the Red Mosque, one of Colombo’s most iconic architectural sights
“Pettah operates on trust and loyalty. Everything is so close, everyone knows each other. Trade and commerce definitely bring people from different communities, religions and ethnicities together”
Blue washed Hindu temples built by traders
Next, we wander into Sea Street, the home of Colombo’s gold traders. The entire street is like a mini market for jewellery, precious stones and gold, host to dozens of goldsmith’s workshops. “In Sinhala and Tamil the street is called Chettiartheru street, after the South Indian traders from Chettiar from Tamil Nadu. They are known all over the world for their craftsmanship and money lending skills. They sailed here in the 19th century and business was so good here that many of them decided to stay” says Sellakumar Kandasamy, of Lalitha Jewellers who has been in Sea Street for three generations.
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. 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.
We speak to Chandrakumar, 44, an immigrant from the hill country who came to Pettah, at the young age of 16. He has been selling flowers to Kovil goers at Sea Street for 20 years. Trade flourished for many years, especially in the war years. “Many Tamils from the North took refuge here during the years of the war, in those days kovils were always crowded, and there was constant demand for flowers and coconuts for worshipping. Now it’s quieter, but with the festivals it gets busy and we see people of all walks of life celebrating together”.
Where to find this place? Old and New Kathiresan Kovil . Sea Street, Colombo 11
Chandrakumar, who has been selling flowers to Kovil goers at Sea Street for over 20 years
Intricate ornamental details of the old Kovil in Colombo’s Sea Street
“Many Tamils took refuge in the kovils during the war years, in those days they were always crowded, and there was constant demand for flowers and coconuts”
A small white church where miracles happen
At the end of Sea Street, where Pettah becomes Kotahene, we stumble upon a small white church. The church building may not be that spectacular, but the energy inside is! St. Anthony’s Shrine is the single most popular church in town, among Christians and non-Christians. There are very few places on this planet where people from all faiths pray together and this is one of them. The highlight is the sacred statue of St. Anthony – which was brought all the way from Goa in India – and is surrounded by traditional motifs designed in brass and on either side are circular plaques representing the Sun and the Moon. This is where you will see Buddhists, Hindu’s, Muslims and Christians kneeling down to say a little prayer for someone sick or needy.
Why is St. Anthony’s so popular? The origin of the Church goes back to the colonial days when local Catholics were persecuted by the Protestant Dutch East Indian company. There was a man called Antonio who worked as a labourer in Pettah during the day, and at night held secret Catholic services for a small community. One day when he heard the Dutch soldiers were coming to arrest him, he fled here to Kotahena. The local fisherman recognised him and helped him hide. The priest then performed a miracle: surrounded by the fishermen and the soldiers who had by then arrived, he prayed and the sea receded. The Dutch soldiers reported the incident to the Governor who instantly gave the priest the piece of land where the miracle had happened. That’s where Antonio built a little mud hut. That was more than 200 years ago. Now it is a proper church, but the altar still stands on the very spot where the miracle took place.
Tip! Come on Tuesdays, the day dedicated to St. Anthony. It gets really busy here with queues of devotees offering their puja (offerings or prayers) to the statues. Mothers often bring pubescent daughters here to pray for protection from evil spirits that ‘might take advantage of the girls’ nascent sexuality.
Where to find this place? St. Anthony’s Mawatha . Kochchikade . Colombo 13
Grand ceremonial procession at the annual festival of Kochikade St.Anthony’s Church. Image: OmLanka
St. Anthony’s Depot sells crucifixes and rosaries, next-door is a shop selling Buddha statues
“St. Anthony’s Shrine is a place of miracles. It is the single most popular church in town, among Christians and non-Christians”
A stunning dreamlike Hindu temple
But our religious journey doesn’t end here. Across the road from St. Anthony’s in Sri Ramandan Street is the Hindu Sivan temple, the biggest and oldest in town and quite simply an otherworldly fairy-tale. The structure is a genius piece of architecture. The grand hall is made of thick black granite walls. Hundreds of pillars graciously carry a roof with intricately carved openings to leave in rays of sunlight. Inside is a solemn peaceful atmosphere without being heavy. Women pray, offer flowers or just sit and chat in small groups enjoying the coolness of the granite walls. There’s always a small ceremony going on, priests give blessings and attend to the fires. The muted sounds, the smell of incense and the delicate light-play of sun and firelight make it a magical place.
The Sivan Kovil was the brainchild of Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a famous statesman, one-time attorney general and a key figure in Sri Lanka’s independence struggle. It is said the design came to him in a dream. It was not an easy journey to make it happen; raw material was sourced from all over the island – the black granite came all the way from quarries in Veyangoda – and craftsmen were brought in from India. His masterwork of stone-craft was completed in 1915.
The best times to visit are in the early mornings or evenings. Watch the ceremonies dedicated to Shiva and listen to the prayers, complemented by the playing of the nadaswaram (long flute) and various percussion instruments. Don’t forget to ring the bells at the foot of the door before you leave to bring you some good luck!
Where to find this place? Sri Ponnabala Vaneswaram Kovil . 38, Sri Ramandan Street . Colombo 13
The Hindu Sivan temple is a genius piece of architecture made of thick black granite blocks imported all the way from India
Hundreds of pillars graciously carry a roof with intricately carved openings to leave in rays of sunlight
Women pray, offer flowers or just sit and chat in small groups enjoying the coolness of the granite walls
“There’s always a small ceremony going on, priests give blessings and attend to the fires. The muted sounds, the smell of incense and the delicate light-play of sun and firelight make it a magical place”
The oldest Buddhist Temple in town
A bit further in Kotahene is what the locals call the Thai Temple. Thai royalty has been visiting this place for centuries because it was the first Buddhist temple the colonial powers allowed in Colombo. It was the year 1785 when Ven. Migettuewatte Sri Gunananda simply convinced the authorities of the need to build a stupa in the front yard of his lovely white washed colonial villa. The result is a unique blend of cultures and architectural styles. The place has lots of history, the Sri Lankan flag was designed and first hoisted here and was a front base in battle for the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Still, Thai kings and queens come to visit, but on most days, you will have the place to yourself.
Where to find this place? Deepaduttaramaya Temple . Kotahena Street , Colombo 13
A Buddhist stupa built in the front yard of a lovely white washed colonial villa
Thai kings and queens come to visit, but on most days, you will have this famous temple to yourself
A peaceful multi-religious potpourri
Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, but here in Colombo’s historic heart, Buddhists, Muslims Hindu’s and Christians have together created a unique multicultural melting pot. And there’s more, walk a bit further and there is the Wolvendhael Church, the oldest Protestant church in Sri Lanka with an ornate organ dating back to 1770 or the Anglican St. Thomas, a charming stone church perched on a hilltop, built in honour of the Asian apostle, in 3rd Cross Street is another mosque, the solemn Memon Hanafi Mosque and tucked away in 4th Street a small yellow Buddhist temple.
This short walk has shown us that these temples, mosques and churches are not monuments of a past, they are living heritage with active, friendly and hospitable communities who are happy to share their festivals and their homes of worship with their neighbours.
Pettah’s religious landmarks on a map dating back to 1924, the times of British India. Source: the British Library
Want to wander the streets of Pettah?
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Find the iconic domes of the Red Mosque on this illustrated map of Pettah
Words by Abdul Halik Azeez and Ester van Steekelenburg
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
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 Colombo, 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.