Pettah - the bustling market of Colombo

Very different from the Fort is the frenetic Pettah, where people wheel and deal from dawn until dusk. Whatever it is you want, it can be found in Pettah. Starting from the tourist market next to the railway station, you could weave your way through the tiny streets that lattice the area, each of them specializing in a different range of products. Pettah is an area of Colombo in Sri Lanka just north of the Colombo Fort Railway Station. It is always buzzing with shoppers, merchants and vehicles in its narrow congested scruffy streets.

The highlights of Pettah are the Old Dutch Museum at 95 Prince Street, the Hindu temples in 1st Cross Street and Sea Street and the red and white candy stripped Mosque in 2nd Cross Street.

In the old days the area was very different. Because it was near the port rich merchants built grand family houses and warehouse on wide shade giving tree lined streets that boasted clean smooth pavements. With the increase in trade there was a demand for land.

The density of construction increased as large plots were sold so that multi-occupancy units could be constructed and bring in a higher rental income for Landlords. The goods that were imported needed a street frontage shop to display and sell these items. The docks needed a labour force so more housing was built.

The local residents needed nearby shops to buy food, clothing and household items so more shops appeared to serve the residential population of Pettah. A busy Bazaar was born. There is a fish market, fascinating, but not the most sweet-smelling or beautiful destinations. If hunger creeps in, pop into a shop and try the delicious Indian sweets. You can sample small pieces to make sure you like them and then take away your own calorie bomb in a box!


Old Dutch Museum

A very interesting site if you are visitng the Pettah. This museum can be found just north of the Colombo Fort Railway Station in the heavily built up area of the Pettah. In the late 17th Century it was the Dutch East Indies Company VOC Governor’s official residence in Colombo.

The building was constructed during the Dutch occupation of Colombo (1656 – 1796) and was the formal residence of the Dutch East Indies Company Colonial Governor Van Rhee during his term of office in 1692 to 1697. At that time the surrounding streets in Pettah were very wide with rows of trees to give shade for those walking on the smooth and regular pavement. The area was described by a visiting English Doctor in 1757 as very elegant. Unfortunately these attractive avenues now no longer exist and the shopping bazaar of Pettah is full of narrow scruffy streets where vehicles have problems passing each other.

The building has been used for many different purposes over the years. It was a teacher training college and an institute for the instruction of clergymen between 1696 and 1796. There is an inscription over the entrance in Latin that dates from this period. It says ‘NisiJuehova aedificet domum, frustra laborant aedificatores’ which means unless ‘God builds the house, the workers toil in vain’ Psalm 127.

This is one of the few remaining buildings in the Pettah showing evidence of the Dutch period in history. You will find it at 95 Prince Street. It is a tall building painted white and has a row of classical columns holding up the red tiled roof facing the street. It is surrounded by antique shops and market stalls. It is open between 9am and 5pm every day except Friday. Entrance is free but you are expected to tip the official guide. The interior court yard garden is charming.

Colonnades were introduced into the design of Dutch buildings in the Tropics to give much needed shade to the open windows to try and keep the inhabitants cooler on hot dry days. They also provided much needed shelter from the monsoon intense rain storms. The over hanging roof channelled the great volumes of rain water that can occur in one of these deluges into the street and away from the house.

You will notice that there is no guttering system. On the outside of the building there are wood shuttered windows on two levels which contrast dramatically with the whitewashed plastered walls. Study the craftsmanship of the giant wooden doors.


The Pettah red and white Mosque

Colombo Jami Ul Alfar Muslim Mosque in Pettah is known as the Colombo red and white Mosque. This colourful white and red candy striped mosque can be found in Pettah, north of the Colombo Fort Railway station at the end of 2nd Cross Street near the junction with Bankshall Street. It is worth the trip as it is architecturally very distinctive.

Red and white contrasting bricks have been used to create a variety of patterns on the flat outside walls or on the columns. It is very near the Dutch Museum and the Hindu temples of 1st Cross Street and Sea Street. Pettah is a busy congested narrow street scruffy shopping area clogged with bikes, cars and tuk-tuks.

The exterior of the Mosque is well maintained but the street in which it was built is dirty with rubbish lying in the gutter and on the walk ways. If the council was not cleaning the street often enough I would have thought that the Mosque elders would employ someone to keep the immediate area around the Mosque clean. Inside the faithful have to wash themselves before they prey. It would be good to keep the outside of their place of worship clean as well.


The old Town Hall

The old Town Hall is a gothic-type Dutch building at the end of Main Street in Pettah. Inside it is a creepy museum of life-size dolls sitting around a wooden table in different postures: a replica of a council meeting in 1906. Built in 1873, the mastermind behind this wonderful creation was British architect J. G. Smither who himself designed the furniture to match the woodwork of the building.  The unique feature of this painstakingly designed furniture is the back rest of the chairs which resembled the design of wooden arches in each window.

Town hall was the first civic building at the time to be opened in Colombo. Its architecture has the overall features of a Neo-gothic building with its predominance of pointed arches and cast iron columns. The building was used as the municipal headquarters from 1873-1924 until in 1925 it was moved to a new premises.

Along with the Town Hall Building, the Edinburgh Hall was built alongside it and was opened at the same time.  The Edinburgh Market market too was designed as an extension to the main building and the same architectural features with its open plan and identical cast iron details could be seen. This hall was used for stage plays and dramas.

After a long period of disuse, the building was renovated in 1980 and and then president Ranasinhe Premadasa and in 1984, the adjoining building was converted to a museum of the town hall. The renovated Edinburgh Hall  now converted to an market place and rented out to street hawkers by the Municipal Council.

At the upstairs of the building a council meeting  has been recreated using the original wooden furniture and life size clay mannequins. Once you get to the top of the stairs, you’ll find yourself in a large open room with a conference table in the center. And here’s creepy part, there will be 15 men seated around the table in dated suits. It’s only closer inspection that will reveal them to be somewhat dusty life-sized wax figures. Each have a name card placed before them (including one W. Shakespeare?!), and some have strangely colorful neckties.The wax figures are placed so as to recreate a council meeting from 1906. A few antique typewriters and a map dating to 1785 lies against the wall.

The museum consists of number of interesting artifices of the Council. a old post with old street name boards mounted on it, sewage transportation carts,  a old van which has functioned as a mobile library, antique boilers and timers, light holders, taps, fans and machinery of every description and in one of the display cases there’s even a giant bulb. Gas lit, it used to stand at the centre of the junction outside. This single bulb was enough to light the entire area and is probably the only one of its kind left.

Pettah - Dutch Museum
Meeting at Pettah Old Town Hall

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