by Kishanie S. Fernando
Colombo 07 was part of a vast cinnamon cultivation that began during the Dutch colonial era and was referred to as the ‘cinnamon garden’ which so many years later, retains reference to this fact.
For the purpose of postal services the present Cinnamon gardens of Colombo has been assigned as Colombo 07 and is surrounded by the suburbs of Kollupitiya, Union Place, Borella and Havelock Town.
The Cinnamon connection
It all began with the cultivation of cinnamon in the area, when the assumption was that cinnamon would only grow in the wild. The first cinnamon plantation in Colombo was cultivated after more than a century of Dutch rule at Maradana. Subsequently cinnamon was cultivated in the Negombo, Kalutara, Galle and Matara areas.
It is recorded that in 1789 the Disave of Colombo, Cornelis de Cock, was responsible for laying out the first cinnamon garden in Colombo on the instructions of the Governor Iman Wilem Falck. This garden belonging to Disave Cock totaled 116 amunas, equivalent to about 232 acres. He employed about a hundred and fifty natives and put up a wooden fence around the garden to keep the cattle and other animals out. During 1786 the garden stretched up to the Beira Lake in the west, down to Bambalapitiya in the south, while its inland border extended up to the boundary of the former kingdom of Kotte.
However with time the popularity of the cinnamon trade started to wane resulting in much of the land reverting back to its original state of wilderness. In the 1850’s the Racecourse of the Ceylon Turf Club was shifted from inland Galle Face to an area which had originally been part of the vast cinnamon garden. This resulted in the area being much sought after by the rich and powerful, who wished to establish their stately homes there.
In 1900, H.W. Cave writes in ‘The Book of Ceylon’ that Cinnamon Gardens is today the most fashionable residential area of Colombo. According to him the area’s VIP status comes partly from the fact that the roads here are named to commemorate the various British Governors - the Earl of Guildford, Sir Robert Brownrig, Sir Edward Barnes, Sir Robert Wilmot Horton, The Right Hon Steward Mackenzie, Sir Henry Ward, Sir Charles MacCarthy, Lord Rosmead, Sir William Gregory, Sir James Longden and Sir Arthur Havelock.
He further states that although the cinnamon bushes which were once the predominant feature of the district have for the most part, given way to the garden compounds of bungalows. There are yet a few flourishing cinnamon trees, a branch of which if freshly broken, will emit the pleasant scent of the spice.
A Hallmark of Independence
Everyone is aware of the Independence square, which is the inevitable landmark of independent Ceylon and modern Sri Lanka. Here, the Independence Memorial Hall sits triumphantly, its stylish Kandiyan architecture attracting many tourists. Huge Yapahuwa lions stand guard at its entrance while more crouching lions and other auspicious symbols are seen around the building. The building is said to be constructed of reinforced concrete and pillared in the style of the medieval Kandiyan audience halls. On the inside, bas-relief bronze panels depict scenes from Sri Lankan history.
On 4 February 1948, the duke of Gloucester on behalf of the British crown formally opened Ceylon’s first Parliament here used today for many a state function. The road leading to the independence Memorial Hall is named Independence Avenue and is flanked by a series of tall elegant Indian Willows.
Colombo’s white house
The majestic white building with its many tall pillars and tower-dome is said to have been modeled after the U.S. White House.
Colombo’s New Town Hall had its foundation stone laid in 1924 and was completed in 1928. This building replaced the earlier Town Hall building in Pettah which was built in 1873. A site in Cinnamon Gardens was chosen, which at the time was a residential area. It is said that this choice was criticized at first for being so far from the town.
The architecture of the building is attributed to the winning design of Mr. S.J. Edwards from the firm of Ralph Booty and Company of Singapore. It is acclaimed as a striking building of fine proportions, commanding pleasant views from any angle. Inside, it was well planned with spacious rooms and corridors, with a magnificent Council Chamber containing an elevated gallery. The crowning glory of the building is its central tower and dome. Even today, it is one of the most magnificent buildings in Colombo
Where it rains flower petals
The Town Hall overlooks Colombo’s largest greenery, initially christened the Victoria Park and renamed in 1958 as the Vihara Mahadevi Park. At its entrance directly facing the Town Hall across the road is a large golden Buddha image seated in the posture of meditation. The park is known for its lush vegetation. Ebony, mohagany, fig, sal and eucalyptus amoung others can be found here. Many large and beautiful flowering trees are an added bonus to the pleasant environs. During the flowering season the trees turn into canopies of pink, mauve, red and purple. With the breeze flower petals softly shower onto the pavements, forming coloured carpets making it a sight to behold.
Large bats settle on these trees and can be seen during the day hanging upside down from the branches while at twilight they glide across the skies. Song birds and marsh birds are also a common sight here.
On one side of the garden the World War Memorial stands high - a column filled with names of those who sacrificed their lives for the cause. This memorial initially stood on Galle face Esplanade which is currently occupied by the gardens of the Taj Hotel. A statue of Queen Vihara Maha Devi after whom the park was renamed can also be seen here.
Today the park caters many pleasurable events. One of the best children’s parks – Sathutu Uyana is included here. Another side of the park is hired out as an exhibition and sale ground for plants, handicraft, Avurudu fairs, Christmas fairs etc. While yet another side is an open air stage used for musical shows and dramas. Its quiet and pleasant atmosphere is sought after by young couples looking for a place to relax and hang out.
History behind the House of History
The Colombo National Museum is an excellent showcase of our ancient heritage. The majestic white building which houses the museum is a classic piece of architecture which became a land mark of Colombo overnight.
It was the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society that initially wanted a National museum for the county. Sir William Gregory the Governor at the time supported the cause. Thus in 1873 work was started on the project. Architect Mr. James Smither F.R.I.B.A. designed it in the Italian style of architecture. It was completed at the cost of Rs. 120,000, and opened to the public on 01 January 1877. Thus the striking building with its grand portico, spacious verandahs, Roman pillars, arches and balconies stood in the centre of a perfectly green lawn with meticulously trimmed hedges, and huge shade trees and became noted during its day as ‘undoubtedly the greatest modern and architectural ornament of the island’, and as ‘a fine piece of Colonial architecture in South East Asia’. In front of the building is a gorgeous bronze statue of Governor Gregory by Boehm, whose enthusiasm led to the end project.
Today the building has been extended in keeping with its original architectural style. The Natural history museum stands in a separate building. The imposing marble statue of Queen Victoria which was in the Gordan Gardens was shifted here recently. The museum library founded on the same date as the Museum occupies the rooms of the right wing in the building. The library is noted as one of the best in Sri Lanka for its vast collection of ancient books, manuscripts and other documentation on Sri Lanka.
In 2005 the main exhibition galleries downstairs were refurbished with the aid of Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), bringing it up to world standards.
More than a storm in a tea cup
Lipton’s Circus, sometimes referred to as the De Soysa Circus and the Eye Hospital Junction could be said to be the father of all roundabouts in Sri Lanka. Here in fact two roundabouts converge where six of Colombo’s popular roads: Ward Place, C.W.W. Kannangara Mawatha, K.W. Perera Mawatha, Deans Road, Union Place, Dharmapala Mawatha meet. Surrounded by some of Colombo’s historic buildings, it is also the site and terminus for political, labor and rights marches and demonstrations.
The name Lipton’s Circus originated from the huge building which was one time owned by the world famous Lipton’s Company. It is a tribute paid to Sir Thomas Lipton (1848-1931) one of Glasgow’s most famous and successful sons, who from humble beginnings became world famous as a tea merchant and yachtsman. He visited Ceylon in 1890 and was responsible for marketing Ceylon tea to Europe and the USA making Ceylon tea a house hold name in the world. Today this building is owned by United Motors (Pvt.) Limited.
The unforgettable philanthropist
The statue of Charles Hendry de Soysa (1836 – 1890) the nineteenth century philanthropist occupies the central roundabout and bigger circle at Lipton’s Circus.
Charles Hendry Soysa was born in Moratuwa. He inherited great wealth from his father and uncle which he spent in the most diversified forms of charity. Amongst a legacy of monuments he left behind are Prince and Princess of Wales College Moratuwa, the De Soysa Maternity Home, the De Soysa Eye Hospital and the Medical Research Institute in Colombo. It is said that Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Christian religious institutions throughout the length and breadth of Sri Lanka enjoyed his patronage. He got roads, bridges, irrigation canals, tanks and culverts built and repaired at his own expense. He helped those affected in times of drought, famine, flood and pestilence both in cash and in kind.
His generosity knew no bounds; his philanthropy knew no limitations. His benevolence extended even across far off England - to Institutions such as the Victoria Chest Hospital, Brompton Hospital, Ormonde Street Hospital, Royal Free Hospital and the Hospital for Accidents to Dock workers.
Charles married Catharine de Silva and had fourteen children. After his untimely death, he was posthumously knighted and his wife became Lady de Soysa in appreciation of her husband’s philanthropy.
George Wall fountain
The adjacent roundabout and smaller circle holds a memorial fountain to commemorate the life of George Wall, legislator and merchant of the nineteenth century Ceylon.
The beautiful ornamental fountain decorated with Doulton china bears a simple plaque ascribing it to the ‘George Wall – Philanthropist – 1820 -1894’. It is a domed structure resembling the old Moorish architecture which was very much in vogue at the time.
George Wall was born in Manchester. He was a pioneer of the planting enterprise in Ceylon and was prominent as a merchant, coffee planter, politician, astronomer and botanist. His was the fate of making a fortune in Ceylon from coffee and then loosing it with the failure of coffee. In his later years he was the editor of the Ceylon Independent. He was foremost in the demand for the reform of the Legislative Council for which he was for sometime a member. He fought for the abolition of the paddy tax. It was also George Wall whose idea it was for building a separate women and children’s hospital that subsequently came to be known as Lady Ridgeway. In Nuwara Eliya he built Keena House to pursue his hobby and fitted it with an expensive observatory. He also studied and wrote on the ferns of Ceylon.
The fountain originally stood on a triangular plot off Union Place in Slave Island and was later shifted to the Lipton’s Circus.
Victoria memorial Eye Hospital
The red brick multi domed building situated on the side of Ward Place from Lipton’s Circus was originally built as the Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital in 1905. Lady Ridgeway laid the foundation stone for the building. The architecture is according to that of the Hindu-Saracenic style. The architect was Edward Skinner Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. After the new hospital was built this building housed the Accident Service Unit of the General Hospital.
New kid on the block
The Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond) Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre opened to the public on 15 December 2011 as the new performing arts centre in Colombo. The post modern architecture of the building was inspired by the twelfth century Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond) in Polonnaruwa, built by King Parakramabahu the Great. Like the Polonnaruwa's Nelum Pokuna the building is shaped as an eight-petal lotus flower. The architects of the building are Kahawita De Silva and Associates while the structural engineer was Ynajien Group from China
The theatre is equipped with ultra modern facilities such as an auditorium with one thousand two hundred and eighty eight seats, a library, and training facilities. The building features two permanent theatres - the main auditorium and an open-air theatre, and the ability to convert the front steps into an additional open-air theatre. The 690-square-metre moving stage in the auditorium includes the ability to raise and lower the orchestra pit to and from stage level.