Colombo is divided into fifteen postal zones which run anti-clockwise from Fort round to Mutwal. These match traditional names of areas of Colombo, although (especially in Colombo North) they may merge many of the old districts.
COLOMBO 1: FORT (COLOMBO)
Colombo’s natural harbour attracted traders and invaders alike. The Portuguese (1505-1656), the Dutch (1656-1796) and the British (1796-1948) built and extended the Fort which was situated around the port, Colombo’s original city limits stretching no further than the Fort/Pettah districts.
By the time the British took over there were eleven bastions and four main streets. Demolition of the Fort began in 1869 when the Rotterdam bastion was blown up, the walls demolished and the moat filled in.
Fort is still the commercial and financial centre of Colombo and Sri Lanka, although little remains of the original fort’s battlements.
COLOMBO 2: SLAVE ISLAND
Slave Island is, in fact, a peninsular joined to the mainland at what is now Colvin R. de Silva Maratha (Union Place). The Portuguese brought nearly 2,000 Kaffirs to Ceylon from the East African coast (Mozambique). The Dutch later used them as mercenaries, servants and cheap labour. Following an uprising and the murder of Barent de Swan, a Dutch VOC company official, the Dutch introduced new security measures to keep them under tight control. They rounded them up each night after work in ‘Kaffirs Veldt’ in the Fort, ferried them across the Lake to the Ije (island) where they were housed in shanties and slave quarters. The crocodiles in the Lake ensured they were kept in place overnight and just in case there were any further ideas of insurrection there was a gallows post on prominent display.
Slave Island also came to be known as Kompanna Vidiya or Company Street. It was given this name because the Rifle Company (regiment) was based there. See Rifle Street.
COLOMBO 3: KOLLUPITIYA
Kollupitiya means ‘stolen’ or ‘plundered’ land.
In 1644 three Kandyan chiefs plotted to overthrow King Rajasinghe II and place his 12 year-old son on the throne instead. The son, however, refused and two of the conspirators were beheaded. The third, Ambanwela Rala, was exiled to Dutch territory to face whatever punishment they chose for him. The Dutch, however, set him free and took such a liking to him that they gave him a sizeable plot of land close to the sea which they had seized from the local population. Here he started a coconut plantation which even had its own brewery. He even assumed a Dutch name: Van Rycloff.
The area around St. Michaels’s Church is still called Polwatte (Sin: pol, ‘coconut’; and watte, ‘garden’) and this busy area at the top end of Galle Road still carries the name which betrays the original theft.
COLOMBO 4: BAMBALAPITIYA
Bambalipitiya gets its name from the jambola fruit trees which used to grow there in abundance. Jambola is the Sinhala word but the name is derived from a Dutch or Portuguese corruption of the Tamil word pampalimaasu.
The fruit (Citrus maxima), also known as the ‘pamplemousse’ or ‘pomelo’, is a large citrus fruit. The French word pamplemousse or ‘grapefruit’ is derived from the same source; the fruits, although related, are different.
COLOMBO 5: HAVELOCK TOWN
Arthur Elibank Havelock was the British Governor from 1890 to 1895. Although he was not the most inspiring of Governors he was the ‘best dressed man on the Island.’ However, he did manage to hit the jackpot: he is the only British Governor to have a District named after him and there are a further three streets that bear his name (Havelock Road, Elibank Road and Havelock Place), although he has now lost Havelock Road to the new Sambuddhatva Jayanthi Mawatha.
COLOMBO 6: WELLAWATTE
Wellawatte or Wellawatta means ‘sandy gardens’.
Wellawatte was an area of wasteland leading to the beach, covered with the type of weeds, plants and shrubs that thrive in poor, quick draining soils.
Wellawatte, now a busy shopping area on Galle Road, also featured numerous waterways and canals.
COLOMBO 7: CINNAMON GARDENS
Willem Imam Falck, the Dutch Governor of Ceylon (1765-1785), experimented with the cultivation of cinnamon in plantations. Previously it was thought it could only grow wild in the jungle. These ‘cinnamon gardens’ were twelve miles in extent stretching from Maradana to Havelock Town, including the area that is now Colombo 7.
The Sinhalese name is Kurunduwatte [Sin: kurundu, ‘cinnamon’; and watte, ’garden’].
COLOMBO 8: BORELLA
Borella means ‘gravelly place’ (boralu).
The Portuguese called it Outeirinho das pedras (‘knoll’ or ‘hillock’ of stones), which means the same as the Sinhalese Borelle Kande.
It is now more famous for its Fiveways Junction: Ward Place; Dr Danister de Silva Mawatha (Baseline Road); Gnanartha Pradeepa Road (the Borella section of Mardana Road); and Dr N. M. Perera Mawatha (Cotta Road).
COLOMBO 9: DEMATAGODA
The Demata shrub (Gmelina asiatica or ‘Asiatic bushbeech’) has been used for many medicinal purposes in Sri Lanka, including snakebite. It has bright yellow bell-shaped flowers which hang down from the main bush. The plant is usually no more than 3m tall. Perhaps Dematagoda was a village where this Demata bush flourished.
Another possibility is that the name has a mixed origin. De mata in Portuguese means ‘of’ or ‘in’ the ‘jungle’; goda is ‘village’ in Sinhalese. So Dematagoda could mean ‘village in the jungle’, reminiscent of the rural setting of Leonard Woolf’s book of the same name (although this was based in Hambantota District).
Dematagoda is now iconically urban: the National Railway Museum is based here and Dematagoda has its own multi-lane flyover.
COLOMBO 10: MARADANA
In Tamil maram is ‘tree’ and danam is ‘place’. So, Maradana is the ‘place of trees’. Or, in Clough’s definition, a Sinhala name for a ‘sandy area’.
The first cinnamon garden was planted in the sandy plains of Maradana and the finest cinnmon in Ceylon was cultivated here. Cinnamon will mature in five years in this sandy soil, but will take seven years or more in a good soil.
So special was the Maradana cinnamon that destroying it or stealing it carried the death penalty, but in other areas only merited a good whipping. Maradana is now a busy road junction and a railway terminus for the southbound trains from Colombo.
COLOMBO 11: PETTAH
The Sinhalese called this area Pita Kotuwa which means ‘outside the Fort’. Hobson-Jobson, the Anglo-Indian dictionary, describes a Pettah (Pettai in Tamil) as ‘the extra-mural suburb of a fortress, or the town attached to and adjacent to a fortress.’
Once a highly residential area it has also been the site of open-air bazaars and markets. And today, with its maze of streets and alleys, it is still very much the central hub for Colombo’s retail and wholesale markets.
COLOMBO 12: HULFTSDORP
Gerard Hulft, the Dutch General, was killed before the final victory over the Portuguese in 1656. He had been collaborating with King Rajasingha II of Kandy to oust the Portuguese who had occupied Colombo for over 150 years. The day before Hulft died they had exchanged presents; the king had placed a ‘collar of gold’ round his neck and had put one of his own rings on Hulft’s finger as a token of their alliance.
Hulft was inspecting the advance trenches to be used on the final assault when the Portuguese managed to set fire to one of the Dutch galleries. He rushed to help and was suddenly heard to exclaim, ‘Good God! Help me!’ But it was too late: he had been shot through the heart with a musket ball. He never lived to see the Dutch take Colombo but Hulftsdorp (Hulft’s village) marks the hill where he built his house.
At one point the British tried to shift the market from Pettah to the slopes of Hulftsdorp Hill: this is where the Sinhalese name Aluthkade (‘new bazaar’) comes from.
Today Hullftsdorp Hill is the location of all the key legal institutions of Sri Lanka including the High Court, the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Justice.
Despite alternative spellings (e.g. Hulftsdorf) Hulftsdorp is the only correct one.
COLOMBO 13: KOTAHENA
Kotahena or Kottanhena was a fishing hamlet which acquired its name from the kottan trees (Costus speciosus) that grew there. This became Kottanchina in Portuguese. The Dutch name, Korteboam, means ‘short trees’. Finally, the British corrupted it into Cotton China.
Another possible derivation is that Kotahena refers to the ‘slash and burn’ method of cultivation. Kota is ‘tree stump’ and hena or chena is the field prepared for cultivation by cutting down trees and burning the jungle undergrowth. Once the land has been farmed it is abandoned and a new site is cleared.
There has been a church here since 1760, but this little village was elevated to the status of a City when St. Lucia’s Cathedral was established in 1838.
COLOMBO 14: GRANDPASS
During Portuguese times there were two ferries which crossed the Kelani to the North. The Portuguese called them both passo and this was later anglicized to ‘pass’ by the British.
The first was at Nakalagam, which the Portuguese called the Passo Grande (which later became Grandpass) and the other was further downstream at Wattala and was called Pasbetel. Grandpass was the busier of the two crossing places and had its own market and toll.
In 1822 a pontoon bridge, the ‘Bridge of Boats’, replaced the ferries. It consisted of 21 anchored boats supporting a causeway 499ft long. This continued as the main river-crossing until 1895 when the ‘Victoria Bridge’, a 26ft wide lattice girder road bridge, was brought into service. The Kelani railway bridge had been completed 30 years earlier.
COLOMBO 15: MUTWAL
The ocean-bound segment of the Kelani River has traditionally been called Mutwal-Oya. The name Mutwal comes from a Portuguese and/ or Dutch corruption of Muhatuvaram, the Tamil word for ‘river-mouth’. This name can be found elsewhere in Sri Lanka in such places as such as Illankathurai-Muhatuvaram in Trincomalee district.
The modern Mutwal comprises the Mattakuliya, Modera, Kadirana and Crow Island areas of Colombo North.
For related place names see Sri Lanka Place names.