East of Fort, the helter-skelter bazaar district of the Pettah is Colombo’s most absorbing area, and feels quite unlike anywhere else in Sri Lanka. The crush and energy of the gridlocked streets, with merchandise piled high in tiny shops and on the pavements, holds an undeniable, chaotic fascination, although exploring can be a slow and rather exhausting process, made additionally perilous by the barrow boys and porters who charge through the crowds pulling or carrying huge loads and threatening the heads and limbs of unwary tourists.
Shops in the Pettah are still arranged in the traditional bazaar layout, with each street devoted to a different trade: Front Street, for example, is full of bags, suitcases and shoes; 1st Cross Street is devoted to hardware and electrical goods; 3rd Cross Street and Keyzer Street are stuffed with colourful fabrics, and so on. The wares on display are fairly mundane – unless you’re a big fan of Taiwanese household appliances or fake Barbie dolls – although traces of older and more colourful trades survive in places.
Unlike the rest of Colombo, the district retains a strongly Tamil (the name Pettah derives from the Tamil word pettai, meaning village) and Muslim flavour, as evidenced by its many pure veg and Muslim restaurants, quaint mosques, Hindu temples and colonial churches (many Sri Lankan Tamils are Christian rather than Hindu). Even the people look different here, with Tamil women in gorgeous saris, Muslim children dressed entirely in white and older men in brocaded skullcaps – a refreshing change from the boring skirts and shirts which pass muster in the rest of the city.