In the middle of a Colombo street, four shirtless men are beating drums as a rush of people surge past them. Clutching a long wooden stick, its tip ablaze, an elderly man sways to the percussive beat, his eyes shut and his head tilted to the heavens.
As he balls one hand into a fist and raises it to the sky, the worshipper releases a deep bellow, then lowers his head, opens his eyes and takes off dancing through the dense crowd. He disappears beyond a coloured chariot which is slowly making its way down the street, parting the crush of people.
Aadi Vel is being celebrated in the Sri Lankan city and a street parade is taking place outside Kathiresan Kovil, a beautiful Hindu temple which has a dimly lit interior embellished by brightly coloured flags. This temple, dedicated to the war god Murugan, was built in the mid-19th century following an influx of immigrants from southern India.
The annual Aadi Vel Festival is a Hindu event to mark the Kataragama deity’s victory over evil. The majority of Sri Lankans — some 70 per cent of its 20 million people — are Buddhists. But this is a country that has been shaped by many other nations, chiefly India, England, Holland and Portugal, leaving it with a diverse range of religions, including significant populations of Hindus, Muslims and Roman Catholics. This is reflected in Colombo’s array of religious structures, which range from Buddhist temples to Catholic churches, mosques, Hindu shrines and Protestant churches.
Colombo’s most renowned religious structure is Gangaramaya, a Buddhist complex built in the late 1800s next to the city’s Beira Lake. Its most unusual feature is the Seema Malaka shrine, an assembly hall for monks, which is built over the lake and connected to land by a bridge.
The original Seema Malaka sank into the lake and this modern version was designed in the 70s, its pitched roof and wooden facade giving it a similar appearance to a Japanese Shinto shrine. The main temple is an eclectic structure which fuses architectural styles from India, China and Thailand.
Each month, Gangaramaya is a focal point of Poya Day celebrations, which take place on the day of each full moon throughout the year. Worshippers dress in white as they make offerings to Buddha, who they believe asked his followers to give thanks on every full moon day.
While Gangaramaya is not particularly old in comparison to some of Colombo’s other religious structures, Buddhism has been a key plank of Sri Lankan society for more than 1800 years. Buddhism came under threat in the early 16th century, when some coastal areas of the country were occupied by the Portuguese, who had become a major colonising force in Asia.
It was the Portuguese who brought Roman Catholicism to Sri Lanka, just as they did in countries across Asia, Africa and South America during this era. Yet the most famous church in Colombo is not a Catholic place of worship but rather a 267-year-old Protestant building, Wolvendaal Church, constructed by the Dutch.
As part of a 1638 agreement with a Sri Lankan king, Rajasinghe II, the Dutch were tasked with driving out the Portuguese, who had been in control of swathes of Sri Lanka since the early 16th century. In exchange for this, the Dutch were to get trading rights. But that wasn’t enough for them and, after conquering the Portuguese, by the mid-1600s they controlled most of the nation.
In 1749, the Dutch built Wolvendaal Church in what was then an untamed patch of land on the outskirts of Colombo. The area was so wild it was inhabited by packs of jackals, mistaken as wolves, which prompted the naming of the church. These days the quite well-preserved Wolvendaal church still serves the local Protestant congregation.
With its terracotta roof contrasting against whitewashed walls, the building is a popular tourist site. Its interior is equally attractive, thanks to its stone floors, ancient chandeliers and impressively crafted wooden pulpit. The minimalist architecture and interior makes these features stand out even more.
There is nothing understated, however, about Colombo’s Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, with its distinctive red-and-white striped facade. In the heart of the city’s buzzing Pettah market area, the mosque’s interior is a maze-like design with many halls, offices and prayer nooks. It was built in 1908, at a time when the city’s Muslim population began to grow.
Many of these worshippers are descendants of the Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka in the 15th century, particularly in Colombo, due to its busy port. But the Portuguese treated Muslims harshly during their reign and many Arabs left the big port cities to live in the countryside.
While Sri Lanka is far from being trouble-free, Colombo now is largely a safe city where religions generally coexist. This is of benefit to tourists, who can peacefully admire its many and varied religious structures.
Colombo’s Poya Day festivals are wonderful spectacles for tourists to witness, with worshippers flocking to Buddhist temples across the city each month on the day of the full moon.
Perhaps Sri Lanka’s most famous temple is the Temple of the Tooth in the central highlands city of Kandy, a beautiful hill retreat that’s just over three hours by bus from Colombo.
For some respite from the crowds and traffic of down- town Colombo, travel 15km south along the coast to the traditional beach resort town of Mt Lavinia.
Courtesy: The West Australian