Sri Lanka Planetarium

Prof. Stanley Wijesundera Mawatha, Colombo 07


The Planetarium is one of those places in Colombo that's stayed more or less the same since 1965, give or take a bit of furniture revamping and their new website. The building still looks fantastic, the feeling you get when the lights dim is still exciting, most of the graphics are unfortunately still outdated, and the ticket is still just cheap.


Colombo’s temple to the stars is not among the city’s A-list attractions. In fact most Colombars probably pay just a single visit to the planetarium when, at primary school, they are force marched into the university and into the impressive pyramidal auditorium for a 1.5 hour explanation of the solar system. For the most part the show seems to leave them bored or sneezing (the place is rather dusty) and few who receive this early exposure to the stars and planets venture back to this rather neglected spot.

However as I’ve slowly been trying to cover Colombo’s free (ok inexpensive) amenities on Sunday I purchased a Rs 25 ticket and sat down for the show. While expectations on entering the dusty edifice were not high in every way my day at the planetarium was better than anticipated.

Leave alone the domed auditorium and the ‘Colossal Universal Projector’ the Planetarium’s shaded and pleasant surroundings in themselves justify the price of admission. There are clutches of shaded benches and slightly neglected gardens where you can easily devour a book or two, or perhaps sit with your thoughts and a lunch packet(its on the university premises so plenty of good cheap lunch packets to be had).

Still the main attraction is of course the planetarium itself. Constructed in 1965 –in the midst of the space race and housed in an amazing modernist/futurist crowned pyramid structure, it looks like it was left behind in the Colombo Campus by some advanced concrete enamored alien life form. It was built by West Germans.

This was meant to be a vision of the future, constructed in an age when people fervently believed that by 2012 we’d have moon bases and make regular trips to space hotels. Rather ironically today it’s actually a perfectly preserved piece of the past. Those original space-age fantasies are still decades, if not centuries, from being realized and the planetarium built in 1965 was largely forgotten by 1985. The zoo, Viharamahadevi park, and the Museum all house little nooks where nothing seems to have changed in decades however nowhere has remained as utterly static as the planetarium. No significant alterations, improvements or upgrades seem to have been made in my lifetime yet amazingly the place continues to function. Two shows a day(10am and 2.30pm) are projected onto the smooth domed ceiling.

Given the depth of the stasis I was expecting a frayed house of early space-age horrors. The same ancient tapes of Sputnik/Vostok launches playing on loop, deadly drifts of dust and a show put on for no one. Now the dust and lack of patrons were as expected what was surprising however was that the show was definitely not a canned loop from the 60’s. Somewhat amazingly in the midst of total neglect, in a corner of Colombo that seems frozen in time the planeterium’s staff actually record and put on fresh shows daily!

To an audience of 10 (at 2.30 on Saturday) a man with a lazer pointer and woman with a soothing Sinhala voice conduct a tour of the solar system, adding new information such as the launch of our nation’s first satellite and the landings of the latest Mars probe.  Most impressively the night sky as it will actually appear that evening (every day its different) is projected, very convincingly, onto the ceiling

Rather than a canned, dated presentation you are told exactly what time sunset will be and how to spot the major constellations, planets and stars. Unless you’re really an expert on the solar system you’ll actually learn something - did you know there’s an nebula in one corner of Orion’s belt? Or how to use the Southern Cross to orient yourself in the dark? It’s  actually educational and with virtually no one in attendance the whole show is basically put on for your benefit.

Educational value aside however a rather crucial aspect of any planetarium is the quality of the projection and the clarity of the graphics.  Now the Colombo Planeterium is clearly not employing the latest projection/sound technology but the stars look good enough. Some of the sections- shuttle launch, mars probe do look rather pixelated. There is however one scene - star rise over an open plane with a solitary tree that’s really quite breath taking.

Even in a world where we can watch excellent high definition Youtube videos on the stars and planets at will there's something quite magical about the planetarium experience.   More than anything it's utterly relaxing- almost hypnotically so. The cane chairs which recline to give you a view of the ceiling leave you feeling like you're about to get a massage, there's no ac but a sort of  ancient de-humdifying system keeps the place very pleasantly cool, there's that melodic Sinhala voice and galaxies upon galaxies of stars.  It's trance inducing and like all of Colombo's best free attractions the  place really does transport you. If not quite to out of space certainly to somewhere far from Colombo.  Just imagine yourself leaning against a tree, looking up at a cloudless night sky in the  starry emptiness between Pollonaruwa and Trincomalee.

Once you're done you also emerge out into what really could be another time.  A long dark corridor with decaying exhibits(sputnik, moon landing) leads to a  little tuk shop,  stationary store  and some soporific government offices that look like they never quite manged to enter the 1980's...

There isn't a computer, or even a digital calculator in sight and Colombo's bold vision of the future takes you on a journey to the past. Make of that what you will.

TIP

The shows are in Sinhala but it is Sinhala for 4th graders so it's not too difficult to follow. Weekdays are usually booked by schools so try to call to reserve seats, or else go for the weekend show.

Address

Prof. Stanley Wijesundera Mawatha, Colombo 07

Directions

Either find it at the end of Independence Walk, or in the corner of the Faculty of Arts campus.

Contacts

Open Shows at 10.00AM and 2.00PM

Price Range

Less than 200

Ratings Breakdown

Overall Rating
3
Quality Rating
4
Service Rating
4
Ambience Rating
4


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