Colombo’s Changing Cityscape

This post was written by Emily Marshall



Reconstruction and development in Sri Lanka has centred primarily on rapid economic development since the end of the war in 2009 (Bopage, 2010; Goodhand, 2011).  This can be seen in the current drive to transform Colombo into a “world-class city”, as a “preferred destination for international business and tourism” (Secretary of Defence and Urban Development).  The improvements can easily be seen in infrastructural developments across Colombo including roads, shopping centres, restaurants, public spaces such as parks, pavements and redeveloped buildings / heritage sites.  Whilst the state has won much praise for the new infrastructure, the dark side of the infrastructural development in Colombo has not been well-documented or publicised, so there is a lack of social awareness surrounding issues such as land acquisition and the loss of communities, cultures and lifestyles.  With this in mind I attended a café discussion called ‘The City and its People: Documenting the changing landscape’ organised by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) which featured 3 keynote speakers talking about the ways in which they document the changing city landscape so that social history is not lost within the current drive for modernisation.

Chandragupta Thenuwara

The first speaker, Chandragupta Thenuwara, is a well-known artist in Sri Lanka who combines artwork with social accountability, communicating the environmental and social effects of state control through his installations.  His presentation explored the messages behind his work, in particular his work portraying the militarisation of space through ‘camouflage’, such as painted barrels, and other symbols of state control within society.  An interesting interview with Chandragupta can be seen here.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Barrelscape, 1998, Painted barrels arranged on the road.
Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Barrelscape, 1998, Painted barrels arranged on the road.
Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Barrelscape, 1998, Painted Barrels
Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Barrelscape, 1998, Painted Barrels
Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Neo barrelism, 2007 Installation with painted PVC yellow pipes, Lionel Wendt gallery, A view of the exhibition 'neo Barrelsim'
Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Neo barrelism, 2007 Installation with painted PVC yellow pipes, Lionel Wendt gallery. A view of the exhibition ‘neo Barrelsim’

“The barrels block my view”.  The stimulus behind Thenuwara’s ‘Barrelsim’ came from the armed conflict in Sri Lanka which saw the landscape heavily transformed by the use of barrels.  Thenuwara explored the presence of the barrel through his artwork, expounding it was not a neutral object, but one loaded with connotations of power, subjugation, and ethnic division.  Thenuwara’s work has continued to explore society, ethnicity and (urban) landscapes through the medium of camouflage, such as camouflaged barbed wire imagery which has become a powerful symbol representative of internally displaced people (IDP) camps and deep-rooted ethnic issues such as the politics of inclusion/exclusion based on ethnicity, and ethnic identities.

‘Beautification’ by Vikalpa | Groundviews | CPA via Flikr
‘Beautification’ by Vikalpa | Groundviews | CPA via Flikr
‘Beautification’ by Vikalpa | Groundviews | CPA via Flikr
‘Beautification’ by Vikalpa | Groundviews | CPA via Flikr

Thenuwara’s most recent installation at the Lionel Wendt explored the ‘beautification’ of urban areas.  The ‘Beautification’ installation used the gallery space to critique Sri Lanka’s post-war urban development strategy of ‘beautification’ (through the military), which according to Thenuwara has created dehumanised sterile spaces with no traces of the past, communities, or culture.  Thenuwara’s compelling argument is that beautification is the new camouflage.

Priyanthi Fernando

The second speaker was the ‎Executive Director at Centre for Poverty Analysis, Priyanthi Fernando.  For years Priyanthi has done what many in Sri Lanka are too afraid to do, and taken to the roads by bicycle or on foot, documenting the ‘before and after’ changes in the city on camera.  The photo focusing on the loss of land, livelihood and homes of the Dhobi (washermen) community highlighted the need to not just document, but also preserve the cultures that are almost being washed away by the new facelift Colombo is having.

Bulldozed area in Perahera Mawatha, where the Dhobi community used to reside. The remains of a Kovil can be seen on the left.
Nawam Mawatha, the new home of the Dhobie community
Nawam Mawatha, the new home of the Dhobie community

Some communities who have been forcibly evicted have been relocated, whilst others have not.  The Dhobies have been relocated, but their new location is away from the main road and the ‘eyes of passers-by’.  The Dhobies say that whilst the facilities they have got are relatively good, they are living in a state of uncertainty, with another forced move on the cards in two years.   Living with such uncertainty can lead to a plethora of negative consequences including the build-up of tensions, stress, or anxiety, and thus needs to be considered in future urban planning initiatives.   More information about the Dhobi communities is available on Priyanthi’s blog, here.

Abdul-Halik Azeez

Finally, the third speaker, Abdul-Halik Azeez (@ColomBedouin), spoke about the augmentation of #instameetSL, a group from Colombo who use Instagram to document and preserve the changing city environment from multiple perspectives.  The presentation focused on pictures recording the areas of Pettah market and Maradana Railway Station, some featuring houses part-way through demolition, and others focusing on people, with Abdul bringing the photos to life by telling the stories behind them (see below).  For further information and photos by Abdul, have a look at the Picture Press website, which is a photojournalism initiative where ‘great photographs meet compelling narratives’.

‘Tree Workers’ by @ColomBedouin via Statigram
‘Tree Workers’ by @ColomBedouin via Instagram

“I was taking a picture of this tree when Dassanayake (center) politely told me not to.  It was a sacred tree he said.  I think he said it was a Sal tree.  Sal flowers are very popular to place in worship of the Buddha, he said, people from all over seek this tree out for its produce.  Apparently it is particularly effective in helping out couples trying to have children.  Dassanayake is a practicing Buddhist, but he speaks fluent Tamil with the Abans cleaning lady close by, he drives a truck for the same company.  His taciturn shoe-repairman friend, a Christian, sat under the same tree minding his own beeswax.  The tree is located right outside the Asiri hospital. You find many interesting people here making a living out of the cracks in the economy of Colombo’s emerging new upper middle class who are increasingly laying claim to the city.  Just a few moments before I met Saman, who is a ‘rent-seeking’ unsanctioned ‘parking assistant’.  He will help you park, trusting you to tip him for a service you at times do not even require. Business must be good though, because Saman has been at it for 18 years.  Colombo is changing though and increasingly people like Saman and Dassanayake’s friend are finding it hard to eke out a living.  Many informal entrepreneurs like them have been cleared out of the city as the government pushes forward a beautification project to turn Colombo into something like Singapore.  Saman politely asked not to be photographed because he didn’t want trouble.  A TV crew interviewed him a while ago and he got all the wrong kind of attention as a result.  Survivors have to keep low key I guess. Please tag your photo narratives about changing Colombo under the hash tag #ChangingColombo  Add #ContemplatingIndependence if you’re also exploring thoughts of ethnic harmony and ‘freedom’ #Colombo #SriLanka #Development #StreetPhotography” (@colombedouin, via Instagram)


Concluding Remarks

The presentations ran into discussions ranging from the necessity of citizen empowerment to challenge undemocratic forms of urban development, to the lack of social awareness within certain sectors of society due to the notable absence of publicised information on the issues of relocation and land acquisition processes.

It would seem the infrastructural improvements, which have primarily been carried out by the military, have taken place in a highly centralized manner with little evidence that the poor are either consulted or are intended as beneficiaries.   The planning process has resulted in many of the poorer citizens being relocated, losing their homes or, in many instances their businesses, communities and livelihoods.    This trend is going to continue to play out across Colombo, and indeed Sri Lanka, so whilst preserving history, cultures and communities through documenting changes is imperative, further research and awareness raising is crucial to mitigate the negative impacts on the country’s poorer citizens, and ultimately inform urban development policy.




Bopage, L. (2010), Post-War Sri Lanka: Way Forward or More of the Same?, Ground Views, 23rd May, available at

Goodhand, J. (2001) Sri Lanka in 2011: Consolidation and Militarization of the Post-War Regime, Asian Survey, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 130-137