A series by Gaveshaka in association with Studio Times
‘Pitakotuwa’ in Sinhala means ‘outside the fort’. That is obviously how the Sinhala term for Pettah was coined to distinguish the area outside Fort. Pettah is an Anglo-Indian word from the Tamil ‘pettai’ introduced by the British to the area, which was identified by the Dutch as the ‘oude stad’ or old town.

Pettah remains the old town even today. It is the wholesale market of the city where traders from all over the island come and pick up their stocks. The picture shows a typical street scene in Pettah taken some years back. Note the double bullock cart – not a very familiar scene in the midst of the City. Just as much as lorries were used to transport goods, the bullock driven cars were very popular to move goods.

During the Portuguese period, the roads in Pettah had been narrow and crooked. The Dutch had replaced these with straighter and broader thoroughfares. Main Street had been in existence even during the time of the Portuguese who had called it ‘Straight’. It had linked Fort with Pettah as it does today. The Dutch named it ‘King’s Street’.

Pettah market was always a popular place where traders did business, even at the time of the Dutch. Here is a typical description of the Pettah market in Dutch times: “The Dutch churchyard is in the middle of the city, enclosed with a wall, on which a Malabarian school stands. On the outside of the churchyard there is sold, all the week long, silks, stuffs, and linen, by the Moors and Persians; and all sorts of fruits, dried fish, onions, sugar and rice by the Malabarians, Maldivians, Cingalyans (Sinhalese) and other inhabitants of Colombo”. This description indicates that traders were from various races and communities. Colombo was a cosmopolitan place.

When the British started attacking the Dutch, the British soldiers attacked from the north of Colombo with the support of their ships from the sea. They crossed the Kelani river on bamboo rafts without opposition, captured Korteboam and reached the Pettah through Kayman’s Gate. Colombo was captured by the British in 1796.

Unlike today, Pettah was a residential area in the early days. There were many fine houses, trim gardens and shady walks. What a different picture from what we see today? The houses were usually coloured bright yellow with bands of red or orange round the doors or windows. Most of the wealthy descendants of the Portuguese and Dutch lived in the Pettah.

Pettah was described as “neat, clean, regular, and larger than Fort” at the beginning of the 19th century”. Five streets, each half a mile in length, run parallel to one another; and the same number intersect them at right angles”. This plan is valid right up to today. There are five cross streets linking Main Street and Olcott Mawatha. They are all full of shops mainly those of wholesale traders.

The description continues: “The outer Pettah is very large, and branches out into a number of streets which extend some of them two miles. At the further end of one of them stands the church Wolvendaal and behind it a large oblong stone building supported in front with pillars, and intended for Kandyan ambassadors. A number of bazaars are here kept by the native men and women: they are abundantly supplied with vegetables, dried fish and fruit”.

“In this part of Pettah are vast numbers of carpenters, smiths and artificers of various sorts, particularly workers in gold and silver. Here are also a large number of black merchants, ‘canolies’ (kanakapullays), or black accountants; as also manufacturers and traders in the different kinds of precious stones found in Ceylon.”

Some of the street names date back to the days of the Dutch. Keyzer Street was named by the Dutch after their emperor whom they called ‘Kaiser’. Kayman’s Gate has its origin in the Dutch word Kayman, which means crocodile. In the old days there had been crocodiles in the Pettah because the Beira lake extended right up to Kayman’s Gate. Wolvendhal means the dale of wolves and Maliban Street is derived from the word Maliban, which literally means the fashionable promenade.

Some of the streets have been named after the trades that were carried out in them. Barber Street is an example. Chetty Street and Moor Street have been named after the communities that lived in them. Messenger Street was named after the messenger boys who worked in colonial firms. The Dutch had called this street ‘Rue de massang’ because masang trees grew in plenty here.

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