The unseen side of Colombo Experiencing the colours, sounds and smiles of the city Colombo with Trek
Saturday, 8 February 2014 00:01
By Cheranka MendisIt’s safe to say I don’t know Colombo.
Having spent two-and-a-half hours walking down narrow alleyways, nodding at first, and then smiling unabashedly at strangers, stopping every few minutes to marvel at some miraculous appearance of a shrine of sorts, I have to admit I do not know Colombo.
Colombo as I knew it was a busy, smoke-filled city with buildings shooting up in every possible space. The city I knew was also on a cleaning spree, taking away little communities to give space to much larger developments. People were always in a hurry, running from one task to another.
But on Thursday, thanks to Trekurious, we discovered another side of this busy city – a side that is mostly seen only by those who reside there; a more humane side, with a raw beauty that has been preserved over the years by the little groups of people residing in cramped quarters in delightfully colourful buildings.
Discovering Kotahena and Jampettah Street on a walk through the neighbourhood with acclaimed photographer Dominic Sansoni was an eye-opening experience, a wake-up call to stop and really ‘feel’ the city rather than moving from one stop to another.
Starting from Beach Street (off Sea Street) at a quaint kovil – Lord Kadireshan temple, Sansoni led us through Sea Street, through a number of little alleys, to St. Thomas’ Church and then through little paths to emerge in front of St. Anthony’s Kochchikade. Every turn held a surprise of sorts and every smile had a story of its own. It was a fascinating journey.
A fascinating neighbourhood
Having walked through these streets uncountable times, this is Sansoni’s favourite neighbourhood.
“To me it’s one of the most fascinating neighbourhoods in this city of ours. It is an absolutely multi-racial, multi-religious society and I think it’s the only part of Colombo where nothing happened during the ’83 riots. That says it all,” Sansoni said.
Giving us a preamble, he noted that people live in very close proximity to each other – as was evident during the next few hours as we marched through tiny lanes that also serve as the evening chill out spots for most of them. “It is not a slum. It is a neighbourhood full of people who are just as extraordinary or ordinary as all of us.”
And Sansoni was right; it’s a wonderful community of people. “The food is great, bars are great, architecture is mind-blowing – the whole society is just fascinating.”
One of the oldest trading parts of the city, once rich with Portuguese and Arab merchants striding down the streets, business now mostly comprises small-scale shops selling everything from betel leaves, to jasmine garlands, to the higher-end electronics. Evidently, the latter sells well here. Even the tiniest house, with just one room and a living room, had a massive flat screen TVs and sound systems in place.
Even though the roads were narrow, with only two people being able to walk abreast (and sometimes even that was barely possible), the entire place was clean, had no bad smells polluting the air. The neighbourhood mostly use communal bath and toilet facilities, we were told, even though pipe-borne water is available in most houses.
As we started off on foot at around 4:30 p.m., an hour or so later we could see plastic chairs coming out to the streets, and families gathering to spend a few leisurely hours sharing the day’s news. Children washed and powdered are out to play as well. Men massage each other, while women pass the tea.
Old grandmothers smiled their red-gummy smiles, in between chewing betel leaves while the girls are shy, peeping from behind curtains and half-opened doors. The boys sit around low tables, playing cards. Music is in the air, at times replaced by pirith or gathas or azan.
It seemed for awhile that we were visiting a neighbourhood out of Colombo.
A key observation was the number of tiny shrines that we stumbled upon almost at every end of those narrow lanes. Like Sansoni said, this was a community that lived in harmony, despite the religious and ethnicity issues that are raised elsewhere.
In shops, there are pictures of not only the Hindus Gods but also of Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. Next to Hindu households are shrines dedicated to St. Anthony or Mother Mary, and behind the shrines of Hindu Gods, there are photos of St. Anthony. We are told that during the feast of St. Anthony in June, one of the most incredible festivals the city hosts, people from all religions gather to celebrate and worship.
We also came across a shrine made by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanadan for him and his family to worship, St. Thomas’ Church and the stunning Sivan Kovil made entirely out of kalu gal. The beauty lies in the fact that these establishments have been there for over 100 years, a secret for the most part.
Maheswari’s story: a healer among the people
Leading us through a dark alley, so dark that I almost stepped on a man sleeping in a corner, Sansoni introduced us to 37-year-old Maheswari. With a peaceful smile she invited us up a tiny flight of stairs to her own kovil. Since space is limited, the building is divided into three floors. One floor has an imposing statue of Kali Maniyo, on the next floor is the Naga-Amma and on the third is yet another goddess.
What’s so special about this space and Maheswari is that she is a healer. First possessed by Kali Maniyo when she was eight years old, she uses her connection with the maniyo to help others and heal those who need cures.
“So many people come here, from cancer patients to those who have other issues. I have healed so many of them over the years,” she said.
The pooja is held every Friday, but if needed she can look in to the ‘kalaya’ and relate your woes. What you only need to bring is Rs. 301 – no betel leaves or limes or incense.
Another interesting person we met was 47-year old Roshan who collects pigeons as a hobby. A strange fascination, one might think, but for him; this is something he does since he was 15 years old. Next to his house there is a loft with multiple pens. In each of these 24 pens are at least two pigeons, sometimes three, as there were many baby pigeons and eggs as well.
A part-time driver, Roshan said he sells them from time to time, gives them for those who want pigeons for church vows and competes with his friends on how long they can keep their pigeons free before they come back to their loft.
A journey like no other
There are many more stories to these people who greeted us with smiles and ‘hellos’. Unfortunately, the space is limited to bring to words the incredible journey through these little alleys. But fortunately for everyone else, Trekurious will be organising a number of similar walks in the future. To experience the ‘real Sri Lanka,’ contact them for more of these excursions.