Kayman’s Gate, Pettah: Standing in forgotten solitude | Sunday Observer

Kayman’s Gate, Pettah: Standing in forgotten solitude

Portuguese soldiers in Ceylon
Portuguese soldiers in Ceylon

Walking into the busy business area of Main Street, takes you to a totally different segment of vendors. Along these crowded pavements you can strike a bargain for the many fast moving items. The traders sell everything from shoes, mobile phone covers to imported fruits. Their vibrant slogans of verbal advertising is an interesting mix of English and street jargon. The hand cart pushed by the ‘nattami’ - a hard working labourer is sometimes a risk. The wooden carts are overloaded and move pretty fast.

As you navigate your way to the end of Main Street at the crossroad to 4th Cross Street, stands a solitary grey bell tower. This ancient monument stands as a silent sentinel, from a bygone era. This bell was an integral part of old Ceylon. Her joyous sounds acted both as a curfew warning and a call to divine prayer. This bell tower is the last monument from the era of Kayman’s Gate, Ceylon.

The Colombo Fort was built and consolidated by the Portuguese in 1554 as a defensive fortification of their trading post in Colombo, and subsequently captured by the defiant Dutch in 1656. Under the Portuguese, the Fort's primary entrance at the eastern rampart was Poorta Reinha (“Queen's Gate”), a large tunnel guarded by drawbridge and moat. A moat was a common feature in defensive architecture and a similar moat can be seen at the Star Fort in Matara town even today.

'Kayman's Gate' derives from the Dutch word Kaaiman, meaning crocodile. During that period, Mugger crocodiles were found in large numbers in the Beira Lake and would gather at the moat to devour leftover meat and bones thrown out by the citizens who lived inside the fortified bastion. Mugger crocodiles are found in India, and males can grow from 13-15 feet and feed on birds, fish and small mammals. These crocs are ambush hunters. Some opine that these predators were brought and thrown into the moat.

The lake was built by the Portuguese to provide protection to Colombo from our resilient local kings. According to legend the King of Sitawaka, Mayadunne attempted to attack and ambush supplies of the foreign invaders but failed to drain the lake.

His son Prince Rajasingha 1 succeeded in 1587 to drain the crocodile infested lake by cutting off several canals but failed to defeat the Portuguese as they brought marine based reinforcements from India. The fate of the mugger crocodile was unknown.

Slave Island

After the Dutch laid siege which captured the lake, it was expanded and several islands created, such as, Slave Island (today located in Colombo 2, with a predominant Muslim and Malay community). The slaves from Goa, India, worked in Dutch houses during the day and by night fall were gathered and brought to the island to sleep. Some islands were large enough to have a village and a plantation of 600 coconut trees.

Many believe the term Polwatte (garden of coconut palms) in Kollupitiya, Colombo hails from this era, as the Anglican Church situated there is still called St. Michael’s Church, Polwatte by Christian devotees.

The aspiring British took control of the Beira waterway, removed the crocodiles and developed the area surrounding the lake for recreational activities such as, rowing.

Ceylon's first botanical garden, Kew Gardens was opened in Slave Island in 1810 to cultivate seedlings provided by the Royal Botanical Gardens in London.

Regarding the Beira Lake, Portuguese priest Father Fernão de Queyroz writes in Conquista Temporale Espiritual de Ceylão (1687), “When Vijayabahu [ruler of the nearby Kingdom of Kotte], laid siege to Colombo in 1522, the Portuguese captain pursued the attackers, killing and wounding them, till they reached a river [the Kolon Ganga, a tributary of the Kelani Ganga], which was later dammed to form a lake to enhance the fortification of the city”. The dam is long gone, but today’s Dam Street located in Colombo 12 reveals where it previously stood.

Beira Lake

The name Beira Lake may have originated from the name of the Dutch engineer De Beer, who built the moats in Colombo. Some argue it is from the Portuguese words Beira - meaning edge of a lake. The south-north canal linking Beira Lake to the sea via the moat was later named St. John’s River, and then, after being filled in during the British occupation, it became St John Street.

Konings Straat (“King's Street”; originally the Portuguese Roa Directo, and present day Main Street), linked the old city of Pettah with the Fort, and terminated at Kayman’s Gate. It is believed, that by 1870, the Fort and its formidable defences were completely demolished. Until late 19th century, colonial rulers used the site of Kayman's Gate for public hangings.

The Kayman's Gate bell dates back to the 16th Century, where it originally hung in a Portuguese Church dedicated to Saint Francis, in the once regal Kingdom of Kotte. The late DIG Gamini Jayasinghe once told me how he had visited this area and to his surprise found ghostly silhouettes of Franciscan Monks walking in line around 4 am in the mist laden morning! Although Kotte was abandoned in 1565, the Dutch later reoccupied it and found a bell amidst the ruins of the church.

This bell was relocated to a newly-constructed bell tower at Kayman’s Gate, where it was used as a curfew bell to proclaim the closing of the Castle’s gates and to put out the lights.

This was standard practice to prevent spies and potential intruders. Following the demolition of the Fort's ramparts, the bell was rung to summon worshipers to prayer at the Wolvendaal Church.

This church was built by the Dutch during the period 1749 to 1757, and is today administered by the Christian Reformed Church. In that era there were said to be savage wolves in the precincts of Colombo 12 and thus the Dutch named it Wolvendaal - meaning dale of wolves. Today, the bell tower of Kayman’s Gate stands in forgotten solitude, her famous history overpowered by urbanization. 

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