Colombo Fort is the area where the colonial history of the city began some 500 years ago. However, many centuries before, the Egyptians, Arabs, Chinese and others had already used Colombo as a trading hub; at that time it was called Kolom Thota. The Portuguese landed here in 1505 and soon after they started building a fort, which explains the name. In 1658 the Dutch conquered the fort and partly replaced and upgraded it by a stronger one. There are no more remains of the fort left (except for a piece of a gate (the Delft Gate), which you can still see behind the reception of the Commercial Bank), because it was completely demolished around 1870 by the British, since the necessity of such a strategic military structure was no longer there and the city urgently needed to expand and develop; the British ruled the waves and trade had overtaken the military priority. Almost all Dutch buildings were destroyed and replaced by administrative, military and commercial buildings in the British colonial architecture. The harbour, which is situated in the northern part of Fort, has expanded ever since. From the Marine Room Restaurant of the historic Grand Oriental Hotel you can enjoy a nice view on the harbour.
The place where history meets modern times
Fort is a blend of the past and present. As the administrative, commercial and financial center for so many centuries, its history is still tangible. You can experience this by making a walk through Fort; you can see the mixture of the different building styles. For example, during the Dutch colonial period living and working all took place in this same small Fort area. Houses were built with verandah’s to protect the residents from the hot sun and monsoon rains, while streets where double lined with trees to create shade for the pedestrians. For this reason shopping complexes, like the Cargills & Millers building, had arcaded walking zones, because those days there was no a/c and there were no fans. Colonizers would work, live and entertain within this small piece of land. Cinnamon, coffee, tea and garments, coming from other parts of the country were stored in warehouses, waiting to be shipped to Europe. Now the warehouses in Fort are gone and being replaced by contemporary office buildings, you may call it financial and commercial warehouses, full of documents and computers. All big banks and companies in Sri Lanka have their headquarters within this tiny area. Skyscrapers like the 36 stories’s twin towers of the Colombo World Trade Center, several five star hotels and modern commercial buildings have now arisen next to historic structures, which are so characteristic for Fort, such as the Old Clocktower, the Cargills & Millers building, the Old Dutch Hospital, the Garfoor Building, the Lakem Plantation House, the Presidential Secretariat, the Presidential Palace and the Grand Oriental Hotel. Since 1980 the parliament and many government institutions have moved to the newly constructed administrative capital of Sri Lanka, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte. Only a few institutions have remained and are waiting to be moved to the new administrative capital. The Vihara Sri Sambuddhaloka Buddhist Temple is one of the two significant religious landmarks in Fort, because it is situated right on the junction of the Lotus Road and York Street, almost opposite the Hilton Hotel. It is easy recognizable by the big white dagoba. The other temple is a little out of sight at the dead end of the Chaithya Road, which leads you along the Indian Ocean to the newly built South Colombo Harbour. At that point, after a bend in the road, as a surprise the enormous dagoba of the Sambuddhaloka Chaithya Temple arises on four gigantic stilts. It was built in this way to show the entering ships that they were approaching a mainly Buddhist country. You can walk up to the top and enjoy the wonderful panorama over the harbour and the Indian Ocean. On the way, just before you arrive at the temple, you will find the Galle Buck Lighthouse, which replaced the Old Clocktower Lighthouse in the early 1950’s. There is a small Port Authority Maritime Museum at the foot of the temple. The artifacts are not particularly interesting, but the paintings on the wall will give you a good view of the arrival of the people who shaped the island’s culture. On the other side, the paintings show the changing Colombo harbour across the ages. The exhibition is free.
Fort in transition
The Urban Development Authority (UDA) has now put high priority to make Fort a main tourist destination in Colombo, together with Slave Island and Kollupitiya. Changes can already be seen and are still going on. The most significant developments are visible right opposite the World Trade Center, a symbol of modern Colombo. On that particular spot the oldest remaining building in Fort, the Old Dutch Hospital from 1677, has been turned into a precinct with shops, restaurants and entertainment. Northwards of this area the complex is now being extended to Chatham Street. In the meanwhile the Cargills & Millers building has been restored on the outside; however, the interior of this earlier department store is still in process of development. Further down in York Street the historic buildings have still been neglected; they are waiting to be done. The arcade is not really pretty yet, but we may expect that this passage to the Grand Oriental Hotel will be the next on the list to get attention.
The icing on the cake regarding the development of Fort is the ambitious Krrish Square Project. It comprises the bloc between Lower Chatham Street, Lotus Road and York Street. The historic Transwork House and the former General Post Office will be restored and turned into tourism objects, whereas in the remaining area four super skyscrapers up to 450 meters high will arise for commercial businesses, high-end shopping facilities and with luxurious apartments. The area will become a non-traffic pedestrian area with tree-covering squares and street furniture. In one of the skyscrapers a seven star boutique hotel of the Ritz Carlton Group is planned.
How to explore Fort
The size of the area is small, just 750 by 600 meters and thus the best way to explore is: on foot. Moreover it is difficult to find a suitable parking place for your vehicle. The Sambuddhaloka Chaithya Temple, however, lies a bit apart, so in that case a three wheeler may be better if the walk is too far for you. There are walking tours being organized by special guides, which will undoubtedly meet your expectations when you are interested in an expert explanation of the area.