Heritage, tourism, and the untold secrets of Colombo

The iDiscover Colombo Map and App promises it all!

A city guide unlike most others, iDiscover Colombo – an illustrated neighbourhood map – unveils the layers of the city through the eyes and experiences of its people.

Launched on Saturday, 17 November, in the cool interior of the Grecian-styled, Botanik Rooftop Bistro and Bar, the release promises the discovery of “hidden gems, insider secrets, and untold stories of the past and present” within the city.
Traversing four urban hotspots – Fort, Pettah, Slave Island, and Cinnamon Gardens – both the app and map allows users to (re)discover the burgeoning metropolis in a truly immersive manner.

Commencing with a brief introduction to the architectural history of the Colombo Fort area, the event also featured an insightful panel discussion and a brief Q&A with the audience.

Displaying detailed city plans of the Fort Area from as early as the 16th Century, Varuna de Silva from the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects shared unique insights with a spellbound audience. Briefly diving into an etymological exposition of the name “Colombo”, the architect shared that one such theory is that the Dutch named the area after the famous explorer, Columbus.

With pictographic evidence, Varuna then outlined the changes to the Colombo Fort over the years. Stating that the area closely resembled the Galle Fort in the early 20th Century, he then proceeded to comment on the development the locale had experienced in the recent past.

Noting with disapproval that the “map of Colombo has really gotten distorted over the past few years”, he expressed displeasure over the landmarks lost in the heat of development. Speaking of the historic Lalchands building on Chatham Street – the only building on the avenue that displayed real Dutch heritage prior to its demolition – the architect concluded his presentation with a resonant call to protect architectural monuments.

The itinerary then featured a brief talk by the founder of iDiscover, Ester van Steekelenburg.

Introducing the work of her organisation, the Dutch native explained that their aim is to make heritage and culture relevant for younger generations – to make them “connect with old stuff and with older generations and stakeholders”.
Speaking about the map of Colombo, which will soon be sold locally, Ester carefully pointed out that this is no ordinary travel guide. Referring to local involvement in this process, the guide is an experience-based exploration of Colombo, curated by locals and the Colombo Heritage Collective.

In the process of gathering information, individuals in the four areas outlined above, were asked questions which probed their recollections, fondest memories, and favourite places. The map, therefore, highlights locations that have a place in the hearts and culture of locals.

Comprising a collection of untold stories, both the app and map can now be found online.
Following Ester’s presentation, moderator Hasti Tarekat – the Founder of Heritage Hands On – dove into a panel discussion which comprised contributors to the map-making process. Here, Halik Azeez and Kesara Ratnavibhushana were the main participants.

Speaking about their experiences in contributing to this project, unique insights from this discussion arose – one of which was that conservation may not be a goal shared by all.

This is because, as Halik pointed out, the perception on heritage and conservation may differ from person to person, owing in large part to the difference in social and cultural backgrounds.

Kesara also shared that the kind of photography he oversaw wasn’t understood by many of his subjects. This meant that he had to encounter many questions about the project from weary locals.

Ester, who was also on the panel, was then asked about her impression of Colombo as a visitor. Stating with warmth that the city has many layers, she also remarked that in areas like Pettah and Slave Island, there’s so much history that’s “not visible to the eye, if you don’t know where to look”.

Concluding the discussion, Hasti asked the panellists whether heritage had a future. In responding, Halik admitted it was a difficult question to answer.

Stating that there is significant gentrification in the inner Colombo area, which is populated by predominantly low-income neighbourhoods, these locales have been replaced by high-rises through a sort of violent change.

Concluding on the note that there is a nostalgic reaction to losing culture and history, the photojournalist, more commonly known through his Instagram handle @colombedouin, noted ironically, that while colonial forces tore down local cities and built their own, these are the very things we now consider a part of our heritage.

While the launch event concluded, thereafter, guests and all those in the area were invited to a photographic exhibition which allowed a glimpse into the lives of local men and women.

Instagram: @idiscoverapp
Facebook: i-Discover App&Map

By Archana Heenpella
Photos: Indika Handuwala