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Articles Blog

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Karyn Planett

From Tamil Tigers To Asian Tiger

On May 19, 2009, the President of Sri Lanka announced the final defeat of the “Tamil Tigers” and an end to the civil war that had ravaged the country and its population since 1983. Days later, a government economic minister declared, “The victory is great and now we have to win the economic war.” Rarely has a country emerged from so extended a period of conflict with such single-minded purpose.

Barely two years after the end of the separatist movement, three quarters of the 300,000 people displaced by the conflict have been repatriated; billions in local and foreign investment have been committed to rebuilding the country’s shattered infrastructure; in one year, the Sri Lankan Stock Market grew 100%; Sri Lanka has one the best performing economies in Asia after India; and tourism has returned to the beaches of what is being called the Thailand of South Asia.

Nowhere is this new vitality more on display than in Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, Colombo.

Is This The Emerald City?

Colombo enjoys one of the best natural harbors in Asia and sits astride the major east-west trade route (a fact that attracted interest from the Portuguese, Dutch, and British over the centuries) and is one of the biggest container ports in the region. Defying the worldwide economic slowdown, the port has reached its capacity and is currently undergoing a major expansion project.

The twin World Trade Center towers—South Asia’s second tallest buildings--dominate Colombo’s skyline, but other architectural landmarks speak more to Sri Lanka’s colonial history. The Fort is an area defining the original Portuguese stronghold and still houses the presidential palace. Pettah Market and the Khan Clock Tower lie just outside The Fort and identify a neighborhood of local shops where each street features a single product category. Many of these are still run by Muslim traders, although you may want to make a point of visiting the Tamil-controlled gold market on Sea Street.

The Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque is one of the most visited tourist sites in Colombo, but the Galle Face Green is where you’ll find the local population. This mile-long, palm-lined, recently-refurbished promenade is alive with music, food stalls, sports, and strollers—especially on Fridays and Saturdays.

Who Were Those People?

Nearly three fourths of Sri Lankans are Buddhist Sinhalese, or “Lion People.” The Sinhalese originated in northern India and arrived here in the fifth or sixth century B.C. by sailboat. It was they who set about digging a sophisticated irrigation system as well as immense artificial lakes.

The next largest group is Hindus--Ceylon Tamils whose ancestors were Dravidian and came from southern India and Indian Tamils who were brought in less than 200 years ago to work the plantations – coffee, tea and rubber.

This nation’s flag was designed to acknowledge these distinct groups and their proportional representation in the current population. The Lion represents the Sinhalese and commands the largest portion of the flag. The saffron stripe represents the Tamils, and the green is there to identify the Muslims who inhabit this land, descendants of medieval traders.

The first Europeans on the scene were the Portuguese who waded ashore from their caravels in 1505, called the place Ceilao, and left behind Catholicism. The Dutch arrived in 1658, changed the name to Ceilon, and introduced new canal and fort designs. Then the British in 1796, who developed the cinnamon trade, called the island Ceylon, and introduced a society that enjoyed such things as manicured golf courses, private clubs, and the curious concept of adding milk to cups of hot tea.

What Was Wrong With Ceylon?

In 1292, Marco Polo declared this to be the “finest island of its size in the world.” This… spoken by a man who knew many of the world’s finest islands! Ceylon, as it was called until 1972 when the Sinhalese name “Sri Lanka” was resurrected, is a teardrop-shaped island that seems suspended in the Indian Ocean just off India’s southeastern shores. Sri Lanka’s name comes from a Hindu epic, which means “Resplendent Isle.” Two hundred seventy miles from north to south, its 23,332 square miles measures a bit larger than the state of West Virginia.

Whatever you call Sri Lanka, you’ll certainly be dazzled by her patchwork of green countryside, her miles of golden beaches, remnants of Britain’s touch upon this landscape, and her graceful people wrapped in a swirl of colorful saris and sarongs, adorned with golden bangles and nose trills.

High in the cool mountains, from 2,000 to 7,000 feet up, are the major tea plantations. On these slopes, Tamil women carry wicker baskets that are strapped to their heads and climb these terraces as sure-footedly as a gazelle might. They spend their days picking “flush” which are the tender buds with two attached leaves. These “flushes” are then packed off to factories where air is circulated around trays of leaves, causing these leaves to wither and dry up to only 3% of their previous moisture content. These leaves are then rolled, blended, and shipped off to eager customers the world over who await their afternoon plate of sweets and cup of piping hot Ceylon tea.

While roaming about Colombo, you might enjoy a cup yourself!

                                                                                       Karyn L. Planett