Pettah is one of the oldest and most colorful neighborhoods in Colombo! Located immediately inland from the Fort area (the original Dutch Colonial center) it is home to a bustling bazaar, wholesale markets and fruit vendors. It is the most ethnically diverse area in the country and as I walked through it I noticed religious buildings representing a plethora of faiths jammed in here and there.
I arrived early in the wholesale district and watched as merchants piled out their wares along the streets…fabrics, appliances, hardware, Christmas decorations, electronics, bicycles, lace & ribbons and Ayurvedic medicines. What an amazing array of merchandise!
The streets were packed with people, vehicles and hand carts so that it was difficult for me to watch were I was walking while trying to take photos of everything that I encountered. Everyone was friendly and most wanted to know where I was from. Whenever I said USA more often than not they would smile and say “Obama” while giving me thumbs up. The President is more popular in this part of the world than I could every have imagined.
All the numbered streets (1st Cross St, 2nd Cross St) of the district run north to the port of Colombo where the candy cane striped cranes, which are used to unload the cargo ships, could be seen to tower over the old Colonial buildings along the waterfront.
To the east of the general merchandise district were the commodities dealers and vegetable wholesalers. Shops fill with bags of rice, onions, potatoes, garlic, peppers and spices filled the doorways while laborers swaddled in rags and barefoot carried huge load of produce on their backs. I can’t imagine it was any different a hundred years ago.
I stopped into the Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque located in the heart of the district to watch the faithful come and go. Many of the merchants along the street appeared to be Muslim and the mosque was well used. It was a fine old building…broad red and white striped facade with Moorish arches, graceful towers and an urban courtyard nestled between commercial buildings. As I stood hidden in the shadows I watched as men came into the courtyard to wash their feet in the pool before going into the mosque for morning prayers. It makes me uncomfortable to take peoples photos in a house of worship…an invasion of their privacy and their faith…so I shortly moved on.
Further to the east was the main fruit and vegetable market for the city. The produce was piled high on the ground or stacks of crates. I never guessed that there were so many mangoes grown in the world or that so many were eaten. Mangoes, Mangoes, Mangoes everywhere you look and if it is not Mangoes its coconuts. Sri Lanka is one of the world’s largest producers of coconuts…every yard and street has coconut palms loaded with fruit just waiting to drop one or two on some unsuspecting pedestrians head. I would hate for my obituary to say that “He was felled by a coconut in Colombo” How ignominious!
At the edge of the Pettah district is the oldest Dutch Church on the island…Wolvendael Church. Built in 1749, and still in use, it was the church of the Dutch Colonial masters for the 140 years that they controlled the Island. Scores of Dutch Governors and Generals are buried here all having died young from various fevers or malaria. The austere church still has the original furniture and ancient pipe organ so it is good for a quick visit.
I think this area of the city is one of the most interesting and entertaining spots in Colombo. It is well worth a few hours of your time. It is easy to imagine what it must have been like in Colonial times…tall masted schooners lining the wharfs, natives carrying loads of spices on their backs or in ox drawn carts, merchants haggling over prices and striking hard bargains….not so different from today!
Check it out and see if you are not as fascinated as I was.