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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.

Mighty city

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,

Hoi-polloi

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 not.

Crocodiles

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 the ferry)

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