Colombo Jumbo!

Saturday, 16 March 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Geoff Ells launches a fascinating compilation of the origins of Colombo street names

By Cassandra Mascarenhas

Did you know that Duplication Road was renamed R.A. De Mel Mawatha over 60 years ago? I was always under the assumption that it was a fairly recent change made over the last decade. Not a single street sign with Duplication Road on it exists anymore – yet, it’s still known by this name. Why? And who is R.A. De Mel?

‘Colombo Jumbo’ answers these questions and many more – in fact, it details the meaning behind every street name in Colombo. Author Geoff Ells, during his four-and-a-half year stint in Sri Lanka, made it his mission to track down the meaning and history behind every street name in Colombo and through his efforts has woven an intricate patchwork history of the country, dating back to the times of Sri Lanka’s ancient kings and queens, spanning across the Portuguese, Dutch and British eras and provides intriguing snippets of information on some of the country’s most well-known personalities.

Launched last Thursday at the Park Street Mews, I had the pleasure of sitting through Ells’s thoroughly informative talk, through which he explained how he had embarked on the project and narrated some interesting anecdotes that he had come across through his extensive research for the book and I finally found myself standing in queue to buy a copy of the book, which is definitely worth a read.

Origins of ‘Colombo Jumbo’

“I’m interested in history. It started when my son Toby arrived in Sri Lanka, when he was five years old. We used to look at street signs; the signs I love were the ones with the boards in Sinhala, Tamil and English because you can learn a lot from them. I knew Tamil anyway because I worked in India but I was practicing my Sinhala and it’s just beautiful drawing out the different symbols, the round Sinhala letters and the square Tamil letters and the street signs helped.”

It started with Layards Road, he explained. Who was Layard? Ells then found out that he was Charles Edward Layard, that he was connected to the famous archaeologist, that he had 26 children and he did live on Bagatelle Road – then why Bagatelle? Because Layard built a mansion for his 26 children on the road and named it ‘Bagatelle’. It was then acquired by Charles Henry de Soysa, who was, at the time, the richest man in Colombo. “The road is right next to Bambalapitiya. Why Bambalapitiya? You can’t stop once you get started!” he exclaimed.

Patchwork history

Reading the book which contains over 1,000 old and new names from cover to cover will give the reader a thorough history of Sri Lanka. “I think certain events stand out more than others. 1915 and the events that surrounded it resulted in more of the street names, Sinhala names, than many other events. I’ve been interested in history for a long time, particularly Indian history. I have been in Sri Lanka for four-and-a-half years so inevitably, I started digging away,” said Ells.  

He spent a lot of time at the Colombo Museum library, which grew on him to such an extent that it is now his favourite place in Colombo. The National Archives, he added, were always very helpful. The Colombo Municipal records housed there date right back to 1865, some of which are kept in plastic bags as the pages are so cracked.

Ells was formerly a university professor, until 2000, after which he did some development work in South India for two years, after which he returned to the UK. However, he was desperate to return to South Asia and when the British Council was on the lookout for corporate trainers, which is exactly Ells’s field, he signed up and brought his family out to Sri Lanka. Now he has to prepare to return to the UK.

“Sri Lanka was not a second choice to India, it was more slightly different. I lived in South India and I could have gone to Gujarat for instance, or Bangalore. Sri Lanka to me was the most interesting area to come to,” he added.


The mystery of Fussel’s Lane

When asked if there were certain street names that stood out for him even after his extensive research, Ells cited Fussel’s Lane in Wellawatte – a name he never found an answer to. “It’s not because there aren’t possibilities, there are; as a name it could be English, Burgher, German or French. Fussel is a name that exists in all those languages but there’s no Fussels anywhere in the archives,” he explained.

“So I started thinking that maybe it’s a corruption of Faisal or Fazal. These days, the corruptions you see are due to spelling mistakes but I think in the old days it was due to mispronunciation, particularly where the British were writing down street names and they got it wrong.” He added that he learned a lot about botany through his research and dug up a lot of information on the internet. He also had to use etymological dictionaries, to unearth the meanings behind old Pali and Sanskrit names, and not just Tamil but old Tamil – Dravidian.

When asked about how he dealt with the changing of street names over the last couple of years, he explained: “When names were changed, it went into the book. If the street had an old name, that too went into the book, so it includes the old and the new because the history maybe in the old name or it could be in the new one. You’ve got to remember that the names have been changing since 1948, actually before that. Changing names is not a bad thing but considering the current changes, maybe they should be made shorter.” For some truly enthralling tales which range from how P.D. Siebel’s nurseries gave Flower Road its name to how Stratford Avenue got its name from Shakespeare’s birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon, and to know why Maradana means ‘place of trees,’ pick up a copy of ‘Colombo Jumbo,’ priced at Rs. 1,000, from Barefoot. There are currently only 500 copies of ‘Colombo Jumbo’ available and while Ells acknowledged a reprint is always possible, it’s currently not on the cards. The book is also available on Kindle.

Pix by Daminda Harsha Perera