Viharamahadevi Park (Old).

The city’s one green lung

Viharamahadevi Park (VMDP) is Colombo’s only major public park. As such it’s a rather important place, providing the sole significant green space and lung for the city’s 1 million + inhabitants. Like any major park it features trees, lawns, ponds and paths so those confined to a city’s concrete sprawl can have a taste of the great out doors. In addition to all the standard features of a  city park it also has a host of extra amenities; a giant golden Buddha statue, a neglected aquarium, a kids playground, a rideable toy train, a suspension bridge, an ancient fighter jet, Colombo’s only amusement park, horses and, on a good day, elephants. Well I suppose if your city only has one park it may as well have everything in it. However despite being chocked full of seemingly good things to do there’s something off about Colombo’s showpiece public space.

The reality is that the park formerly known as Victoria has been neglected for years. The aquarium no longer functions, the giant, vaguely death defying slide a generation of Colombars sped down has been barricaded, the suspension bridge closed off and it seems the toy train puffs no more. But worse than the malfunction of these once beloved distractions is the fact that the basic green space is strewn with litter and the prone bodies of the homeless. This is somewhat odd as the government has poured money into urban ‘beautification projects’ and VMDP sits at the very heart of Colombo 7 – the nation’s residential district ne plus ultra. While the rest of Colombo (well, predominantly the wealthier Colombo South) has been fairly thoroughly spruced up the city’s premier green space looks worse than it has for years.

The park’s poor state clearly hasn’t gone unnoticed by the powers that govern. Last year, responsibility for its upkeep was transferred from the municipal council – its traditional and logical custodian – and handed over to the Navy. The government’s logic being that the more efficient sailor boys would do a better job looking after it than the tuk tuk drivers, opposition members, and other assorted riff raff who commonly populate the CMC. However, over a year after the Navy takeover, the park is still in poor shape. In fact, some of the Navy’s rejuvenation work – slashing back vegetation and cutting down several old trees – seems to have made the park less pleasant. More work is on-going though and the latest scheme it seems is to turn the grounds outside the Colombo town hall into an extension of the park creating a larger more accessible green space.

There does appear to be a comprehensive plan for this re-development So, given continued attention and the government’s tendency towards lavish expenditure on public projects there’s every reason to believe that a new and better park will emerge from the stumps and hacked off branches of the old one.

For now, however, VMDP is in bad shape. Some of the water features appear to be stagnant and as the park’s substantial homeless population do need to yield to certain bodily requirements you’ll encounter serious malodoresness in parts.

Homosexual Park

Speaking of bodily requirements, VMDP has also long been synonymous with courting couples. Courting being a broad term that covers everything from chaperoned walks and light hand holding to heavier than heavy petting, and X-rated action under the shade of unblushing trees. In a city where the overwhelming majority of young men and women live at home and enjoy little privacy, the park has long been the best and least expensive venue in which to satisfy certain fundamental urges.

Despite the unquenchable and inevitable nature of these urges park authorities have waged a determined war against ‘courting.’ Constant efforts are made to harass under umbrella acrobats, and coconut tree contortionists – the Police have even made arrests.

This draconian de-coupling has always riled liberally minded Colombars – isn’t love a natural right? – but there is a real issue here. Colombo suffers from a dearth of public spaces. The park therefore is invaluable for shelter seeking canoodlers but it’s also the only free place in a city of 1-3 million (depending on where you draw the line) where children can run and families can stroll, in the absence of fumes and deadly traffic.

Authorities therefore must strike a balance between the needs of VMDP’s two core user groups.  Their current idea seems to be to only allow couples into the park at certain times. Therefore couples or mixed sex pairs sometimes simply cannot enter the park, we couldn’t quite ascertain at which times. Even if all you plan on doing is walking from Green Path through to Town Hall. This seems like an infringement of the right to movement through a public space and also determined courters can enter singly and then, er, hook up. Still, the gatekeeper’s are so keen on enforced decoupling that when YAMU visited as a  mixed group of three men and one woman we were almost barred (God knows what they thought we were about to do).

Again the conflict between childhood innocence and young adult fumbling is a serious issue but creating a homosexual entrance park can’t possibly be the solution. A code of conduct, ie heterosexual groups permitted however no hand holding or even amorous gazing on pain of being thrown in the stagnant pool, might be an idea. However, enforcement is the issue and the park already seems to have enough issues.

Despite the rather negative review it’s important to bare in mind that this is Colombo’s only major park.  With its spread of mature trees view of the town hall, Nelum Pokuna and fair showing of bird life it’s far from an unpleasant place to spend time in. Reading a book on a vacant bench during the uncrowded afternoons or a lunch time picnic by one of the less stagnant ponds is unfailingly pleasant as is cutting through the park when navigating the large distances between Colombo 7’s boulevards.

So ultimately we recommend that as many Colombars as possible make their way into the park.  More than anything that’s the only way ordinary citizens can keep track of what exactly the government is doing with our only park. We cant exactly delegate that responsibility to the park’s habitual users – children, cavorters and the homeless, can we?

Any update on visits to the park and what progress/regress you see are appreciated.

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