Sri Lanka’s dynamic capital, COLOMBO, seems totally out of proportion with the rest of the country, stretching for 50km along the island’s western seaboard in a long and formless urban straggle that is now home to around three million people. The city’s sprawling layout and congested streets make it difficult to get to grips with, while a lack of obvious charms means that it’s unlikely to win many immediate friends, especially if your first taste of the capital is via the hour-long drive from the airport through the northern breeze-block suburbs and hooting files of weaving traffic.

There’s plenty to enjoy beneath the unpromising exterior, especially if you’re interested in getting behind the tourist clichés and finding out what makes contemporary Sri Lanka tick – it’s definitely a place that grows on you the longer you stay, and is worth a day out of even the shortest itinerary. The city musters few specific sights, but offers plenty of atmosphere and quirky character: a heady admixture of Asian anarchy, colonial charm and modern chic. Shiny office blocks rub shoulders with tumbledown local cafés and shops, while serene Buddhist shrines and colonial churches stand next to the garishly multicoloured towers of Hindu temples – all evidence of the rich stew of races and religions that have gone into the making of this surprisingly cosmopolitan city. And for sheer adrenaline, a walk through the crowded bazaars of the Pettah or a high-speed rickshaw ride amid the kamikaze traffic of the Galle Road have no rival anywhere else in the country.

Brief history

In the context of Sri Lanka’s almost 2500 years of recorded history, Colombo is a relative upstart. Situated on the delta of the island’s fourth-longest river, the Kelani Ganga, the Colombo area had been long settled by Muslim traders who established a flourishing trading settlement here from the eighth century onwards, but only rose to nationwide prominence at the start of the colonial period. The Sinhalese called the port Kolamba, which the poetically inclined Portuguese believed was derived from the Sinhalese word for mango trees (kola meaning “leaves”, and amba meaning “mango”); it’s more likely, though, that kolamba was an old Sinhala word meaning “port” or “ferry”.

The colonial period

The first significant settlement in the area was 13km northeast of the modern city centre at Kelaniya, site of a famous Buddhist shrine which had developed by the thirteenth century into a major town; the nearby settlement of Kotte, 11km southeast of the modern city, served as the capital of the island’s main Sinhalese lowland kingdom from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Despite the proximity of both Kelaniya and Kotte, however, Colombo remained a relatively insignificant fishing and trading port until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1518. The Portuguese constructed the fort that subsequently formed the nucleus of modern Colombo and, in 1597, attacked and destroyed both Kotte and Kelaniya. Portuguese control of Colombo only lasted until 1656, however, when they were ousted by the Dutch after a seven-month siege. The Dutch remained in control for almost 150 years, rebuilding the fort, reclaiming land from the swampy delta using the system of canals that survive to this day, and creating spacious new tree-lined suburbs.

In 1796, Colombo fell to the British, following Dutch capitulation to the French in the Napoleonic Wars. The city was made capital of Ceylon, while new road and rail links with Kandy further enhanced the city’s burgeoning prosperity. With the construction of a new harbour at the end of the nineteenth century, Colombo overtook Galle as the island’s main port, becoming one of the great entrepôts of Asia and acquiring the sobriquet the “Charing Cross of the East” thanks to its location at the crossroads of Indian Ocean trade.

Independence and civil war

Colombo retained its importance following independence, and has continued to expand at an exponential rate ever since, though not without sometimes disastrous side effects. Growing islandwide Sinhalese–Tamil tensions erupted with tragic results in mid-1983, during the month subsequently christened Black July, when Sinhalese mobs, with the apparent connivance and encouragement of the police and army, went on the rampage throughout the city, murdering perhaps as many as two thousand innocent Tamils and reducing significant portions of the Pettah to ruins – a watershed in Sinhalese–Tamil relations which led, almost inevitably, to fully fledged civil war. During the civil war itself, the city was repeatedly targeted by LTTE suicide bombers, most notably in 1996, when the massive truck-bombing of the Central Bank killed almost a hundred people and succeeded, along with other attacks, in reducing Colombo’s historic Fort district to a heavily militarized ghost town which is only now slowly recovering from its wartime trauma.

Despite its traumatic recent past, the city’s irrepressible commercial and cultural life continues apace, now mainly concentrated in the southern suburbs of Kollupitiya and Bambalapitiya, and in the rebuilt and revitalized Pettah. And for all its problems, Colombo remains a fascinating melting pot of the island’s Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher and expatriate communities, who combine to give the place a uniquely forward-thinking and outward-looking character quite unlike anywhere else in the island – one which gives a glimpse of what a multi-ethnic, twenty-first-century Sri Lanka might become, communal tensions permitting.