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A Not So Short History Of Bambalapitiya

We take a look around the burgeoning bourgeois hodgepodge that is Bambalapitiya.

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Fun fact: I was born at the Joseph Fraser Maternity Hospital in Bambalapitiya.

While Indi galavants across the Colombos on his walks, the next being Colombo 4, I thought I'd take a look around the burgeoning bourgeois hodgepodge that is Bambalapitiya. If you read the map, you’ll probably notice a lot of English names among the Amarasekaras and Vajiras, but what’s the deal with all the Muslim road names?

Why So Multicultural?

Take Fareed Place. A Minister and once High Commissioner in Pakistan, Sir Razik Fareed's mansion with its orchid gardens was sprawled across the end of the street. Wapchi Marikar, his grandfather, was responsible for building the General Post Office (where Colomboscope was held) and the Colombo Museum. That’s what’s up.

Oh, and Muslim Ladies College was basically built on land and buildings donated by Fareed. Even his sister, Razeena, has a road named after her, i.e. Razeendale Gardens. It's a private road that leads up a garden path and can be used as a shortcut to college. Why was she important? Well, she was the first female Muslim Justice of the Peace in Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time), having been appointed by the British Government before Independence.


photo by Alefiya Akberally via Groundviews

But it’s not just your regular mainstream Muslim, Bambalapitiya is also home to a much smaller Muslim community, i.e. the Borahs, a people from Gujarat and Punjab, India, who migrated to Ceylon to do well in trade, industry and business. You can notice their influence with road names like Adamaly Place. The community built their own Mosque on Marine Drive. During Muharram, you can see Borah women in colourful purdahs walking along Galle Road en route to the mosque.


A sketch from 1853 depicting St Paul's, Milagiriya

Bambalapitiya is actually very multi-cultural, with quite a few churches in its midst. The Portuguese built a church to Nossa Senhora Dos Milagros (Lady of Miracles) on Galle Road. The Dutch tore it down and raised a “Reformed” church, naturally. The British converted the church to a Presbyter, christening it "St. Paul's". 

Holy Family Convent back in the days of sepia

In 1903, the Bambalapitiya parish felt the need for a girls' English school. Archbishop Melizan invited the Sisters of the Holy Family to do just that. What started as a small school at “Clock House” on Lauries Road, would, in five years, find permanent residence at the “Retreat Bungalow”, extending over the years to become the sprawling space that it is today. It is now known as Holy Family Convent.

On April 1, 1970, three Bamba boys from De Fonseka Place, all three old Royalists, played an April Fool's joke. “Mother Superior expired. No school today" a board on the main gate read, that morning. Mother Superior would have to call up the girls who stayed back and angry teachers, letting them know she was still alive and would see to it that the culprits were punished. Alas, she still had to close the school that day. 

Iced Coffee, Saivar Kadeys and Tie & Dye

Up until the noughties, and before Colombo’s barista boom, you’d find a lot of HFC girls flocked around a bus halt that, to this day, reeks of coffee. With age old equipment and hardly any business, Island Coffee only exists because it’s one of the main producers of local coffee. The shop is a product of the socialist import substitution and it hasn't changed (or improved) since those days. They still serve a sweetened iced coffee for Rs 30.

But where are the Hindus at?

Well, apart from being entertained by arangetrams and katcheris at the Kathiresan Hall and Kovil, you’ll find them at the “Saras” or Saraswathi Lodge.

In the old days, rebellious schoolboys would gather here to smoke cigarettes and sip plain tea before heading off to Majestic or Savoy for the matinee.

Saras used to serve food on banana leaves. Sadly, today, it's stainless steel.

Of course, there a Sinhalese-Buddhist presence in Bambalapitiya, with the age old Vajiramaya Temple and the prestigious centenary Visakha Vidyalaya (originally named Buddhist Girls' School).

Where you’d probably find a multicultural achcharu is the Bambalapitiya Flats where residents would meet at the bus stop, every morning, as they headed off to school or work.

I don't know how well that sense of community has carried on, over the years, but this place was home to quite a few noteworthy characters in its time. It will soon be demolished to make way for a 70+ story building of some sorts. Sigh, talk about an upgrade.

You can still see the same shops that opened up with the flats, like Highland, Anoma’s Hair Salon and a co-op run by people from the area. These will probably disappear along with the flats, but there is a cultural contribution that stems from the flats that will survive - a rather peculiar art form.


Swanee, her children and granchildren

'Tie and dye” was pioneered by a young mother of three in her home at the Bambalapitiya Flats. Inspired by blue seas and orange skies, Swanee Jayawardene would expand upon Ena de Silva's work with pebbles tied in fabric and coloured. She would later innovate a technique known as "Explosion" batik that incorporated both batik and tie and dye methods to create quite a psychedelic look. 

Saivar Bars & Tuition Class

One of the lesser known gems of Bambalapitiya is the Greenlands Hotel's Bar. They're open during the usual 10AM - 2PM, 5PM - 10PM timings, and serve arrack, beer, gin and the usual. It's not as cheap as a wala but very affordable by Colombo city standards.

It's very quiet and attracts a much more mature crowd, mostly those taking up lodging upstairs.

More of a recent development is the famously accomplished Shakthi Institute. Its popularity has led to it being expanded by upcycling containers that would otherwise be used for shipping! Tuition classes are still all the rage, with parents sending their children here, and some seem quite happy to be in the co-ed environment. Quite naturally.

Photographs, 'Papers' and MC "Godayas"

Just next door to the flats is an old studio that is still operational. Once a cottage, the Lekha Studio was, at the time, equipped with modern technology, manned by a photographer who lived with his family at the back of the studio. The lawn and foliage used to be well maintained, but film isn’t making a comeback and neither is their gardener. 

History aside, here are two of my favourite places in Bamba. Commonly known as “The Zippo Shop”, Uyana is where serious smokers get their supply of paraphernalia, but it’s also got a great library of music and you can get CD copies.

It’s even got a funky mural on its shutters by Roo. that comes out at night.

Once sufficiently lit, you might find amusement in the home of the infamous MC Godaya, Majestic City, a world unto itself. Pretty much the closest thing to a mall in Sri Lanka, this is where boys go to loiter about, flirting away the hours between classes, or the hours skived from classes. It’s got dodgem cars, magic corn, a mediocre food court and a cineplex. What’s not to love?


Note: A lot of the anecdotes have been sourced from the lovely FB page I Love Bamba. Show some love by liking the page!

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