A stroll through Colombo’s green lungs | Sunday Observer

A stroll through Colombo’s green lungs

26 January, 2020
A HISTORICAL LEGEND: A marble statue of queen Viharamahadevi stands amidst the green vegetation at Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo 7
A HISTORICAL LEGEND: A marble statue of queen Viharamahadevi stands amidst the green vegetation at Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo 7

Cinnamon Gardens, better known today by its postal code designation of ‘Colombo-7,’ is Colombo’s most fashionable residential district. It takes its name from the aromatic spice that originally drew the Portuguese and the Dutch to Sri Lankan shores. At one time, this whole district was covered with spice plantations. No cinnamon is grown here today, but the name has struck. (An even earlier name for the area was Kumbi Kele, literally jungle of ants).

The district’s wide avenues are shaded by huge overgrown trees. Pretty gardens and neatly trimmed lawns surround old houses. It is this area that has earned Colombo its reputation as a ‘Green City’. The greenest place of all is Viharamahadevi Park, which demarcates the southern limit of old Slave Island, a name that conjures up a dark past of Colombo. Once the largest cinnamon plantation in the region, this expanse of green – the city’s largest – was formally named Victoria Park during the colonial period.

The park was created on the orders of the Colonial Secretary as a recreational area for the residents of Colombo. In 1866, the park was named Victoria Gardens in honour of HRH’s Golden Jubilee. The World War Memorial in the park is a silent sentinel to the multitude of lives laid down for a cause.

At the entrance, I caught a glimpse of a plaque which says, “After military occupation during the World War, this park was restored by the Colombo Municipal Council and declared open to the public, on August 24, 1951 by S. Sellamuttu esqr, Mayor of Colombo”. Today, the park is maintained by the Colombo Municipal Council, which incidentally has a woman Mayor after 150 years.

However, it was renamed Viharamahadevi in 1956 after the great Sinhala queen of historical legend. As the story goes, Viharamahadevi was cast adrift from the Colombo area by her father, the King of Kelaniya, in the centuries predating the Christian era, as a sacrifice for a royal indiscretion. She came ashore some time later at Magama (near Pottuvil, in the Eastern Province), and was taken as queen by King Kavantissa. They became the parents of the great King Dutugemunu, who on his mother’s urging regained possession of Anuradhapura from the Chola conquerors and united Sri Lanka under one crown for the first time. Viharamahadevi’s marble statue can be seen amid the park’s lush vegetation, though the park is now more famous for the serene Buddha statue at the entrance. One of its major attractions is the tree cover, boasting of about 1,000 trees belonging to 89 varieties of exotic tropical plants, trees and ferns. To name some, ebony, mahogany, fig, sal, eucalyptus and other trees make their homes here. A visit very early in the morning may be rewarded with the sight of fresh vegetation, flocks of songbirds and large fruit bats which can be seen roosting in daylight hours, hanging upside down from tree branches. The open-air theatre here offers frequent theatre and musical shows, free of charge, apart from political meetings.

In the centre of the park under the shady canopy there are intermittent resting points, with benches and seating areas. Romantic young couples are attracted by the seclusion and quiet of this park and the shady branches of many tall trees. Many urban visitors from the city’s suburbs spend time at the park particularly on weekends and holidays. Foreign tourists also visit the park strolling under the shady vegetation.

The entrance to the park is marked by a large gold-plated seated statue of the Buddha in a lotus pedestal overlooking the Town Hall building. Behind the Buddha statue are oval and rectangular ponds and a series of water fountains, which spray plumes of water several metres into the air during the day.

I first strolled through Viharamahadevi Park about 35 years ago, when I was working at the Sunday Times newspaper whose office is located opposite the Viharamahadevi Park at Hunupitiya Cross Road. I was impressed by the lush green cover provided by a canopy of over a hundred different species of large trees. I have been witnessing the poor maintenance of the Park since my first visit in 1987. The Park had been neglected for years. But that has changed dramatically in 2014.

The parkland of nearly 25 ha received a facelift or ‘beautification’ drive. New trails and walkways for joggers and cyclists have been created, most of them paved with interlocking bricks, and light posts have been installed every few metres along the paths. The Civil Defence Forces officials are assigned to keep the Park neat and tidy all the time.

The suspension bridge and pond beneath it have been upgraded, and the children’s play area completely redone. It now includes a large toy train for the kids. The ponies and horses wait to take children on rides around the ground. The traditional food vendors are given permanent stalls to sell everything from pickles, boiled chickpea to ice cream cones.

I was impressed to see the park transformed into a beautiful park that Colombo can now be proud of. Although the high-rise skyscrapers may encroach the surrounding areas in the near future, it provides a clean and safe environment for rest and recreation in a busy city where leisure space is at a premium.