Woodland that became Colombo
by Tissa Devendra
Cinnamon Gardens ladies at work
My familiarity with the subjects of Botany and Sinhalese Grammar faded away when I abandoned both subjects [or vice versa] after my fling at the SSC exam long ago in 1945. However, many years later, as a District Land Officer tramping hilly footpaths, precarious tank bunds and thorny jungle tracks, on field inspections, I observed that many Sinhala villages I visited derived their names from trees in the surrounding countryside. The present article is a ‘recollection in tranquility’ deriving from those experiences and relating to Colombo’s urban jungle where I spend the evening of my days. I am no scholar in either of the two disciplines I refer to earlier, and apologise for any misinterpretations, and look forward to scholarly comments on my un-scholarly observations.
The area that is now referred to as ‘Colombo’ seems to have been, in ages long ago, a cluster of loosely linked villages – each carrying its unique tree-derived name. At this point I must deviate to repeat my earlier observation that there seems to be something in the Sinhala psyche [or atavistic beliefs] that draw them to name their villages after the most impressive trees in the locality. Although these villages, and the trees that named them, disappeared from Colombo under the creeping flood of urban sprawl, they left their names behind, though now attached to a mess of asphalt, bricks and mortar. I wonder whether this article will serve as a requiem to these lost hamlets.
I begin with ‘Colombo’ which name most probably derives from ’Kolon-tota’ – harbour by the ‘kolon’ tree [a la Ben-tota, Gin-tota, Hamban-tota] I find this derivation more plausible than the other theory that it was plain ‘kola-amba’ – leafy mango, without any suffix eg. gama, wela, pitiya. Interestingly, there is ‘Colombage-ara’ townlet not far from Embilipitiya. The Portuguese seem to have renamed their fort after the dove – a most inappropriate mascot for that bloodthirsty invader.
Another area named after the same tree is the suburb of ‘Kolon-nawa’which has now achieved notoriety for neighbouring the massive garbage mountain of ‘Mee-thota-mulla’ a lost ferry shaded by ‘mee’ trees. Our family once lived in a little old lane “Mee-gaha-pedesa” named by local residents after a grand old tree at the turn off from “Thimbiri-gas-yaya” where, for centuries, perhaps, a massive stand of ‘thimbiri’ trees stood on the bund overlooking a swathe [yaya] of paddy fieids . Leading away from here is ‘Kirula Road’ [recently renamed after a former MP] whose name derives either from the ‘kirala’ trees that overhang waterways or the ‘kiralaa’ bird that nests in marshy weeds and flies at dusk crying its haunting refrain. Not far from here is ‘Kirilla-pone’ which, most likely, has the same derivation – though some pundits claim both localities derive from a Royal Crown [kirula] once hidden here. The adjoining neighbourhood is ‘Nara(n)hen-pita’ which refers to an orchard of ‘naarang [mandarin] trees that would have flourished in this area long ages ago.
Not far from the harbour is ‘Kota-hena’ carrying memories of the chenas cultivated by farmers from the surrounding village. ‘Gin-tu-pitiya’ with its famous kovil is named after the semi-aquatic palm ‘gin’ [as in Gin Ganga and Gintota near Galle.] ‘ Masang-gas Veediya’ later Anglicized into Messenger Street, is where masang trees had flourished with their seasonal bounty of sweet little berries .
Within the heart of the city lies ‘Demata-goda;’ – grove of demata trees. Also Polwatte [coconut garden] where a Church and a Mosque now stand. This is in ‘Kollu-pitiya’ land of the leguminous ‘kollu’ seed bearing shrub. Southward from here is ‘Bambala-pitiya’ which is an alternate version of the old ‘jambola-pitiya’ where luscious jambola trees grew.
In the ‘interior’ we have ‘Kitul-watta[ garden of kitul trees] adjoining the Kanatte cemetery. Near Jayaskerarama Vihara is ‘Ketawala- mulla’ named after a tree or shrub –ketawala – whose identification has eluded me. ‘Bo-rella’ [ expanse of ‘bo’ trees] is not far from here. There is, however, an alternate theory that the name derives from tne ‘bora-ela’ [muddy stream] flowing nearby.
In the heart of the city is ‘Kurundu-watta’ [Cinnamon Gardens] the elite residential enclave. It was, originally, the cinnamon plantation of the Dutch. Skilled workers in the cinnamon industry were encouraged to settle here’ In the course of time they acquired wealth and rose to social and political prominence. Musaeus College, sited appropriately in Cinnamon Gardens, is the best instance of their philanthropy.
Colombo’s most prominent suburbs also derive their names from tree –‘Dehi-wela’ (field of lime trees], ‘Nuge-goda’ [grove of banyans] and ‘Ratmal-ana’[place of rath-mal blossoms].Then there is ‘Mora-tuwa’ recalling the sweetly fruited ‘mora’ trees – although as usual, there is an alternative theory claiming its origin from a huge ‘mora’ [shark] netted by some fishermen of yore.
Where there are woods, there is wild life. So it was in old Colombo. The Dutch built their biggest Colombo church in a wooded area where jackals hunted at night. They named the place ‘Wolvendaal’- the valley of wolves [there was no Dutch word for jackals]. The Dutch also observed the many crocodiles that infested the many canals and waterways they built. The Fort of Colombo was encircled by a moat. One entrance by drawbridge was rather elaborate and named “Cayman’s Gate” to warn people of the dangerous caymans [crocodiles] that frequented the moat. The moat and its caymans are long gone but Cayman’s Gate remains to remind us of the wild life that once haunted forested Colombo.
Surprisingly enough Colombo’s environs were yet pretty wild in the early British period as there is an account of an “intrepid” Englishman shooting dead an elephant where the Regal Cinema now stands. From the fierce and huge to the harmless and little – there yet remains a nostalgic reminder of this truly ancient locale yet called ‘Ibbanwela’[tortoise marsh] now a patch of withered grass strangled by tarred roads, near the Mahaweli Ministry. Finally, from the little to the microscopic – there was ‘Koombi-kelle; – the ‘wilderness of ants’ where stands today the Anglican Cathedral.
Thinking of my city’s ancient roots I slipped into a reverie of a twilight lit by twinkling fireflies, a gentle breeze fluttering the leaves of a ‘bo’ tree , the twittering of bats in fruit trees, the eerie howl of distant jackals, and the plaintive cry of a ‘kiralaa’ winging its way across the darkening sky – memories of a woodland paradise now lost for ever in the mists of Time.