Sin: කොළඹ koḷamba – Tam: கொழும்பு koḻumpu
‘Port on the River Kolon’ -City/Commercial Capital/District, WP, Sri Lanka
The Dove and the Mango Tree
The Dutch Coat of Arms of Colombo pictures a dove in a mango tree. The dove is a play on the name Colombo and Por: columbus, ‘dove’.
De Queyroz, the 17thC Portuguese historian, suggested that the name Colombo is derived from Cale-ambe, the Sinhalese name for a leafy mango tree.
Robert Knox, the 17th century captive of the Kandyan king, also mentions this:
‘On the west of the city of Colombo, so called from a tree the natives called ‘Ambo’ (which bears the mango fruit) growing in that place; but this never bears fruit, but only leaves, which in their language is Cola, and thence they called the tree Cola-ambo which the Christians, in honour of Columbus, turned to Columbo…’
Herath, a modern writer, shares an interesting snippet of information about this:
‘The Sinhalese had two names for Colombo – Kolon Tota and Kola Amba. Kola Amba because of a huge mango tree which had only leaves but bore no fruit. That tree was a prominent landmark that stood for many generations off Commissariat Street, Fort.’
Another clutch of explanations derive the origins of the name Colombo from a port or a river.
Moor traders sailed their boats into the Kelani river at Kelanitota, the port of the Kelani River [Sin: tota, ‘port’, ‘riverbank’]. Over time this changed to Kolontota and then Kalambo.
Sir Emerson Tennant in his classic work on Ceylon agrees: the name must come from Kalany (Kelani) river
Fr. S G Perera is much more specific. He argues that the river concerned was not the Kelani at all, but the Kolon, a tributary of the Kelani:
‘The name of the river is not given by any of the writers who allude to it. But as Kolontota was the literary Sinhalese name for Colombo, I have always been tempted to suppose that just as the Gin-ganga flows into the sea at Gintota and the Kalu-ganga at Kalutara (Kalutota), so it was the Kolon River that flowed into the sea at Kolontota.’
So where was the original Kolon-tota? Paul E. Pieris suggests that:
‘the Kolontota of the Sinhalese is that portion of Colombo which is now bounded on the North by Bankshall Street; on the East by Fourth Cross Street; on the South by Maliban Street; and on the West by Front Street; being about one half of the Pettah ward today. It would thus be protected by water on the North and South, and by marsh on the West and the greater portion of the East.’
A final derivation is from Tam: kozhu கொழு, ‘plough-share’, ‘(point of a) plough’.
This suggests that the name reflects the topography here: a sharp ‘point’ or ‘bend’ in the coastline.
It is even proposed that this is a name twin for Negombo/Nirkoḻumpu [from Tam: நீரா, nīr, ‘sea’] and Kollam/Quilom (in Kerala).
I’m not so sure:
- although a Tamil derivation is possible for Colombo it is not at all necessary;
- the underlying linguistics is underwhelming.
Father Perera wins on points. Unless, of course, you know better.