The strange world of Thota Aatha
It needs a devoted sociologist to unravel all the human dramas that
began to develop around Colombo’s main ferry across the Kelani delta.
Novelists who have a partiality to women who earn their butter, sorry,
Bathmaalu, via their body, have developed that aspect of life in
Thotalanga. Others have glorified Thotalanga Jema or Sima, providing
sensational characters for films. It is rather a dilemma, that, when
somebody produces a film on a saintly man or woman, the censor board
come down hard in a few days. But if somebody produces film on a
notorious character such as Mariakka or Mineemaru, Jima or Sima, it is
difficult to control the swarming crowds. But everybody cries, “See what
is happening to our morals?’and let the matter rest there.
Now extricating myself from the vice tentacles of Thotalanga let us
move a distance away where the living standards are much better.
The Dutch almost made the area the living quarters of the more
affluent. In fact, the Governor himself lived there.
Hulftsdorp or the Village of Hulft (Governor) metamorphosed in the
area. For the new devout, there emerged on a hill, Wolfendahl church, a
church built in a dale of wolves. Of course, it was a forested area but
the animals that ran around were jackals that were mistaken for wolves.
Wolfendahl church itself has a strange history in that in its vaults,
according to city gossip, lie the birth certificates and Baptism
certificates of the members of the Sinhala elite families of the time.
Famous names the babes owned later. It was they who even began to
monitor the political arena. You cannot blame the parents much for
getting the babes baptised in the church for otherwise the best schools
and the best professions were closed to them. Those were the miraculous
devices of colonialism.
Many conveniences for good living sprouted in the area where the
Governor lived. There were gas lamps and clean water that arrived in
carts. Water projects had been superseded by the gas project due to lack
of funds. The Colombo population opted to feast their eyes on an
illuminated city rather than drink clean water.
Shops selling myriad goods were coming up mostly run by trained
foreign merchants such as the Borahs and the Cochchis. And the Moors.
(note Moor Street). So, naturally elite families from distant areas
migrated there, some taking abode in comfy houses deserted when the
Dutch left, some building their own mansions.
The Bandaranaike family with links to the rural areas of Kataluwa and
Navagamuwa earlier was one such that put up their mansion along
As this name, translated Badal veediya, reflects that many a street
got named by professions freshly booming where the population itself
began to boom. Along Barber Street lived the Barbers. Streets with
historical names such as the Prince of Wales Mawatha were a new
phenomenon. The Kandy mail began its journey from here. The hoi polloi,
the fishermen and women and many a menial worker sought solace on the
very banks making it an amazing urban sprawl of humans.
Gas lamps were first experimented in the area due to the growing
violence and the moral decadence. Soon the law abiding citizens were
very grateful to the uniformed clad police officers who began to do the
rounds. Sorry, they had initially worn cloth and coat according to
legend which was soon given up to facilitate chasing behind criminals.
And now on to Kotahena, that was a thick jungle once. A raging forest
fire reduced its trees to stumps or Kota and hence Chena of stumps or
Kotahena. According to records it was the first area in the island not
only to acquire a police station but to have its police force (the first
in the island) to face the camera though what came out first had been
rows of dots. All this happened in the 1880 decade.
Vice was rampant but religious riots too had sprung necessitating a
That leads to an area too long to tackle here. This part of the city
was getting “baptised” when a prelate from the South decided to turn
around things. Defying a law forbidding Buddhist temples, he developed a
Buduge into a renowned temple. Next, to provoke the Government he
paraded a Buddhist procession replete with tom—tom beating, anathema to
“civilised ears” just past St. Lucia’s Cathedral that loomed over the
area attracting converts by the very glamour of it. It is said that the
police station was established to quell the riots that resulted. So in
another way, the area became the nucleus of Buddhist renaissance too.
The Buduge that developed into the famous Deepaduttamarama actually
was in the Walauwa of a Sinhala officer from the South, who unlike many
of his tribe had refused to change his religion in return for titles,
yet was employed by the Dutch for his efficiency.
Called Ihala Walauwa this abode was the nerve centre of collecting
revenue from the port of Colombo. The Mudaliyar need not walk to the
port for overseeing, the location of the Walauwa on high ground made it
possible to work from homes!
These were indeed strange areas then,a cross—way between the local
culture and the alien culture. A film now being shown on TV titled Saki
Sanda Suwaris provides a very good peep into the life then in these
suburbs of Colombo. Such films should be encouraged. The names then
used, the dresses worn as the Kambaya clothes of the women, the fallen
morals are all depicted.
Names such as Katharina, Sophie, Karline and Joakeenu abound. They
are a hotch potch of adapted Portuguese, Dutch and English names.
Suwaris itself is a foreign name though today considered a typical
village name as much as Odiris, Porolis, Karolis, Haramanis, Girigoris
Today many famous entrepeneurs carry these names. Most of their
grandchilden have now migrated utilising the dough accumulated by the
grandfathers. I met one such descendant in Kingsbury Temple in London
who cannot even speak Sinhala properly.
The Gaathas or the Buddhist stanzas are so foreign to him. Anyway, he
still goes as Mr. Porolis from Sri Lanka.
Stranger was the topography of Colombo North then, a medley of
forests, groves, hills and pastures where buffaloes, jackals and
pachyderm roamed. Soon things were changing and the area was growing in
social and economic importance. I end this by beseeching the makers of
the film Saki Sanda Suwaris to go on to make more period films of this
nature which capture on the lens, forgotten periods of our historical
The majority of the population of these areas today sport a medley of
strange human characters, eager to make a successful living. They send
their children to schools and await a better morrow. They want to ensure
that the world of pickpockets, notorious thugs, criminals and red light
females besotted with disease is never for their children.