What happens in and around Thotalanga
What does not happen in and around Thotalanga (of Colombo) is a
better query. The irreconcilable aspect of it is that there is nothing
spectacular about Thotalanga. There are no inscriptions or monuments
emblazoning historical places. Yet Thotalanga is just packed with
history. Further it is of geographical, sociological, demographic and
economic significance. All that is too much to tackle. So let us take
each aspect briefly.
Geographically, it can be called a delta area, a mix of land and
water. The mighty Kelani River which does a stupendous run from the
hallowed Samanala Adaviya disgorges its waters to the Indian ocean here.
Are poets and writers of yore who always superimposing the feminine
gender to the river effuse that she embraces her husband, the ocean at
such and such a place. We have many Thotas where this erotic act is
staged but Colombo's Thota crowns them all, perhaps because of its
proximity to the mega city.
And did the mega city itself owe its prominence to this delta or
Muwadora? In fact it had once been called Kolonthota, the port where the
Kolon river had her rendezvous with her husband.
Kayman's Gate reduced
to a bell tower
The Kolon river now no more was perhaps a tributary or distributory
of Kelani waters. It is all so complicated, I mean all the things that
happened and happen in and around Thotalanga. That the Kelani river just
close to its exit to the ocean dominated the area for miles around and
fashioned it is certain.
Kelani was the Northern bulwark of the mighty city against invaders.
It was a challenge to cross the amazing volume of water. But the
indomitable British monitoring their invasion at the tail end of the
18th century from Negombo did it and that led to the capitulation of
Dutch territories. But the hassle of crossing it, they would never
forget . So, one of the earliest tasks they set about doing was to find
more feasible ways to cross it.
So, once in power here, as early as 1822 they constructed a Pontoon
bridge, a wizardly contraption they had experimented in other colonies.
It consisted of a fleet of boats along which were laid planks. Now even
'vehicles' such as carts and rickshaws could go over it.
With the Pontoon bridge, Thotalanga already famous or infamous
intensified its role as a dwelling area of "those who serve the upcoming
city". Menial workers thronged in its environs, attracted by many a
utility as water and even gas lights which began to illumine the city.
Even the very bridge provided Hisata vahalak or shelter to some while
the total area buzzed with life,
Becoming mainly the habitat of hoi-polloi of the large city,
naturally vice too spread. Thotalanga Jema or Sima brandishing a
Keteriya became a dreaded character and even a Red Light district began
to wink. Today's authors find this Thotalanga a fertile ground for many
a dramatic novel, smelling of prostitution and thuggery and low human
enterprise. Kaluwarai purahanda" (Full moon is dark) seething with women
involved in using their body for a living, is one such novel. Let us
leave this shady side and enter a more positive arena.
The colony voyaged its way. Britain grew in might and even became an
Emperor of an iron world. So, it was no wonder that when in 1865, during
Queen Victoria's time a magnificent bridge began to span the Kelani.
Today, pensioned, it was named Victoria bridge after the good queen.
The area now advanced materially, yet not making much of a moral impact
on Thotalanga. But the area around, today bracketed as Colombo North
grew in importance.
Even during Dutch times it had been favoured as a residential area of
the favoured, rather away from Thotalanga.
This was because the rest of Colombo except for the central was a
forested area at this time. Around massive trees the big black ones did
their rounds freely. Hills and streams and forests interspersed the
terrain. The first churches were built in areas adjacent to Thotalanga
such as Kotahena, Modera and Mattakkuliya after the immediate area
around the jetty became a sea of their shrines and Mercy houses and what
Area identical with Colombo North today that consisted of Thotalanga
was more livable. There were groves of flowering trees as Bloemandhal
(road by this name still running) and streams that ran into the Kelani
or out of it. Of course, there were swamps, even crocodile infested
ones. The Dutch had one of their drawbridges here, for entrance from
Kandy and Kayman Gate was the name given. Today Kayman Gate stands like
a ghost from the past, not in the form of a drawbridge but in the form
of a bell tower christened after Kaymans or crocodiles.(Kayman(Cayman)
is an American-Indian word for croco). Even elephants roamed here
leading to names as Nagalagama, which some today construe as Nagalagam,
a Tamil name.
It was a typical Sinhala village while Moslem and South Indian
traders flocked to the ferry, from the 13th century Kolon Thota or the
port of the Kolon ganga grew in importance as it attracted many a
foreign trader. Dr. R.L. Brohier gives a vivid picture of this port
where Arab traders and those from other countries jostled with Verti
clad Chetti merchants, raucously bargaining as vessels floated in.
The Sinhalese were not yet adept at the game but they too were
entering the field especially in the provision of sand and wood to the
buildings sprouting in the city. The Wijewardene family of Sedawatte
(River bound village where production of Seda or silk was experimented)
caught the game early and became top entrepreneurs later going on to the
newspaper world out of which womb was born Lake House. Transported from
the interior along the Kelani, these building materials loaded in barges
were unloaded at Peliyagoda and ferried across in barges (paruwa) to
Thotalanga. Thotalanga grew to the most bustling, not to say, chaotic
place in Colombo.
A few miles away from Thotalanga many a sociological dilemma was
taking place. An elite Colombo was growing there. Imitating the Dutch,
whose top officers had built their spacious abodes along the streets of
Colombo North. After their exit not only Englishmen of top hierarchy
took abode there but even the native bourgeois.
This led to the wonder that was "Thotaaatha" (the further environs of