Oriental markets are colourful, boisterous, chaotic and multifaceted. You never know what treasures you can find, and you never know which pickpocket can find you. Regardless, a walk through any oriental market6 is an experience not to be soon forgotten.
North American malls are nothing but enclosed, heated or air-conditioned, multilevel and organized markets copied from open markets.
Pettah, Colombo’s major bazaar is crammed with vendors, selling everything, you can think of – and each street has its own specialty. In an area of 24 blocks, thousands of tiny shops sell anything imaginable and some very unimaginable. Any tourist to Colombo should not miss the opportunity to visit Pettah, with a local guide.
It’s thrilling experience that gives an instant insight into what makes Sri Lanka tick, yielding more fascinating glimpses of local life in a morning’s walk than does a week’s touring of the country by air-conditioned bus.
The market is always full, wall-to-wall, with shoppers and shops bursting at their seems with produce from Nuraya Eliya (Upcountry as the locals call it), meat, live poultry, imported goods, tea, bales of garments, shoes and cosmetics. Porters push their barrows packed high with boxes from everywhere.
Walking through Pettah is rewarding, but hot, and if you decide to buy something, be sure to bargain. If you do not, you will be paying much more than the just price.
Pettah is the entrepot of Sri Lanka. Country folk travel to Colombo to purchase kitchenware, expensive computers, textile, jewellery and gems.
Fruit sellers shout periodically about their wares and roadside vendors of junk wait patiently for customers.
The transition from an estate to a thriving bazaar took place when British civil servants, trained in Madras, arrived and decided to build homes further from the Fort in a district, Cinnamon Gardens.
(Sri Lanka is the biggest cinnamon producer of the world. In fact, it was cinnamon that attracted the Portuguese to settle here, followed by the British who could not resist a colony to exploit when they saw the opportunity).
The entrance to the Pettah market is marked formally by a tall monument in the centre of a roundabout, known as the Khan Clock erected in 1923 to commemorate Grandee Franjee Bhikkajee Khan.
One of the buildings in the market, built by the Dutch as the home of the governor is now a museum depicting life in Sri Lanka during two centuries – 17th to the 19th.
However, before you decide to visit the museum, go and examine the fruits on display, at least six species of ripe bananas. Then there are mangosteens, rambutans, mangoes, pineapples, watermelons, imported apples (from China and Australia), citrus from Pakistan, grapes from Iran, raisins from California, and tamarinds.
Next to the fruit section, you will find spices, dried herbs and ayurvedic ingredients. There are literally hundreds of spices for mixing curries (in Sri Lanka every housewife blends her own curry), and herbs to cure every illness imaginable. In fact, Sri Lanka offers tired western executives exclusive resorts furnished with a range of ayruvedic herbs, and one personal doctor for every guest, plus a team of four cooks to prepare prescribed menus after consultations. Pettah is a lively market, loud as all oriental markets are, but thrilling beyond your imagination. Don’t miss it, if you ever happen to be in Colombo.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu