Old Dutch Hospital in Colombo: Now open to the public

Image from The Seventeenth Century Dutch Hospital in Colombo by C.G. Uragoda and K.D. Paranavitana

Being Poya with nothing much else to do, we strolled over to the newly restored and opened Old Dutch Hospital, which Colombo’s oldest building and now a shopping and dining ‘precinct’.

A plaque at the entrance notes that restoration work was done by the Army and that the project was basically the brainchild of the Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who as head of the Ministry of Defence also directly oversees the Urban Development Authority (UDA), responsible for a lot of the beautification of Colombo. This at times involves the bizarre and wanton destruction of the environment.

The Dutch Hospital restoration, however, is just beautiful. We don’t know when the Hospital premises were last open to and seen by the public, but it was only when restoration work began a few months ago (the area the Old Dutch Hospital is located in was heavily fortified and guarded during the war, given the close proximity of the Central Bank and World Trade Centre) that many first caught a glimpse of this heritage building. Work is still on-going at the rear and in many of the business establishments within the premises, but it’s now possible to amble around and admire the architecture and ambience of the edifice.

Image from The Seventeenth Century Dutch Hospital in Colombo by C.G. Uragoda and K.D. Paranavitana

The building is quite large, and the what’s most striking is the sheer thickness of the walls. This was a hospital, but it’s built like a fortress. Upon entering it, you forget you are in the very heart of Colombo. The World Trade Centre twin-towers are visible only when you look up and because the walls are so thick, there’s no sound of traffic in the courtyards or in any of the eating of shopping areas. Well-known names from Colombo’s retail, entertainment and catering sectors have set up shop, and a few more are under construction. The Ministry of Crab, clearly destined to become one of the places to go to and more importantly, to be seen at, is yet to open but ‘Work in Progress‘, a restaurant / coffee shop run by Hilton Colombo serves up a very interesting menu in a very nice space (the hanging lighting fixtures are particularly interesting!).

It’s quite hot during the day, but in the evening and night, this would be a wonderful space to relax and unwind. Since during lunch time the premises are bound to be packed with those from the surrounding offices, the best time to visit would be in the morning, late afternoon, or evening.

However, as much as the Old Dutch Hospital in Colombo is a tremendous draw to both tourists and locals alike, it is very sadly not the state of affairs in other parts of the country. In a city where public optics matter so much post-war, and social relations are still very strained with the heavy presence of the Army, recent reports in the media and by august groups like the Friday Forum suggest government servants and the military are engaged in the destruction of similar Portuguese heritage sites in Jaffna.

Tragically then, what is so wonderfully, and lovingly restored in Colombo is being irrevocably and vengefully destroyed in Jaffna. It just doesn’t make any sense. Beneath a veneer of development, these actions by government officials sow the seeds of future violence. The underlying politics of reconstruction in post-war Sri Lanka are vexed and not openly debated. Many, including us, will enjoy the beautiful and welcome space of the Old Dutch Hospital. Post-war, Colombo is looking, and indeed becoming, increasingly cosmopolitan. And yet, as we have flagged earlier, even in Colombo, no one dares question the plans of the MoD / UDA, or seek to know more about how things are done, which for governance and public accountability is even more important than how things look.

Forget that, and never mind how resplendent the Old Dutch Hospital in Colombo now looks, we seriously risk going back to those horrible years when its foundations would have rocked to the sound of truck bombs.

  • LalithS

    It is nice to see the Old Dutch Hospital put to some use after many years used a Temporary Police station.

    We can easily brag about our contribution to this project when Mr. J.R. Jayawardane handed over this project to renovate to Mitsui Corp of Japan. The Project Manager was Mr. Keni Kito. He called me up and told me to come to visit the site of their newest project. I met him in his project office at the back of the Old Parliament and he said, “Let go for a walk”. I thought he was walking to the Queens House which they were planning to renovate at that time. No, we just jumped over some fences and old construction material and came to this neglected building with lots of bush and fallen down beams and rafters.

    There we met a care-taker who said most of the valuable Teak timber from the buiding
    was taken away at night with someone’s blessing. Mr. Kito immediately quarantined the area and put his own security guards to watch the premises. First we photographed the doors, windows, beams, rafters, hinges, locks and other accessories so that we could come with measurements and drawings. Then we sorted out the reusable and refuse and cleared up the area so that we could bring heavy machinery to start excavation and start putting the place together.

    We got the contract to do all the Timber and wood works. The Doors and Windows were
    done in Jak timber and for the upper floor Halmilla timber was used. The rafters are
    Palmyra rafters from Trinco and Mannar area. The Hospital street side veranda columns were hand crafted by the fine carpenters of Panadura and Moratuwa. The 30 feet long 12” X 12” Beams across the two walls came mainly from Bandargama area. We couldn’t load these in local Lorries and Mitsui provided us with long haul flat bed truck with a crane.

    The wrought Iron hinges and lock were given to actor MP Ravindra Randeniya who owned a Brass ornament selling business in Kelaniya. If I am not mistaken.

    [A plaque at the entrance notes that restoration work was done by the Army and that the project was basically the brainchild of the Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who as head of the Ministry of Defence also directly oversees the Urban Development Authority (UDA), responsible for a lot of the beautification of Colombo. This at times involves the bizarre and wanton destruction of the environment.]

    This is not correct. The UDA would have done a cosmatic treatment and beautified by applying a coat of paint and laqauring the door and windows. But the main renovation was done during the UNP regime. If Mitsui Construction company HQ is still on the Parliament Road in Sri Jayawardanepura. They might be able shed some light into this matter.

    • Dinuk

      Yes indeed many of the blue prints for the ‘developments’ that the military business dup (Gota and Basil) are taking credit for were actually conceived of at other times -like the development around the Beria Lake and Independence square that Mangala Samarasinghe planned when Chandrika was President.
      The Rajapkse Bros ideas of development are pretty basic – CAR RACING and sports complexes that will mean filling up 5 irrigation tanks in Hambantota – since Basil knows nothing about development or economics and does not have much education or cultural capital. Huge amounts of funds have been spent to carpet roads and pavement in COlombo for drag races and Night races while the city has no decent public bus transport service. Colombo is to be a giant race track – whihc other capital city in the world has this kind of nonsense? Colombo’s communities have not been consulted on the noise pollution and speed breaking that this entails. The current mode of development is not-people friendly and is about the creation of the two tier society in Lanka – one for the rich and another for the poor. One set of rules and consumption patterns for the rich and another for the poor. Military business preempts criticism of this sort of development!

  • James Bond

    The new Chinese theater complex is to be renamed Rajapakse’s Nelum Pokuna and Green Path in Colombo 7 Rajaapake Nelum Pokuna road, but it will always be Green Path to its residents and once this regime is gone we will see that it reverts to Green Path. But check out the Chinese Performing arts theater complex! It is rather an eye sore – cheap red brick, squat, and heavy – quite un-flower like. And they destroyed many trees to build this – let them grow back and cover it up! The performing arts will sink rather than float in this red brick contraction under the burden of State patronage. Arts is after all about cultural critique, not politics as usual!
    There are more Tamil speakers than Sinhala speakers in Colombo and if at all the theater should have been called Nelum Kulam. But really it should have been named for an artist, Lester James Perios or someone else who has contributed to the art of performance. Rajapakse Bros, the Hambantota mafia want to take the opportunity to rename some of the posh parts of Colombo 7, to show that they have arrived! Poor fools, everyone knows that they do not have what it takes – savior faire, knowledge of the arts and humanities and “cultural capital” which come from education, cultivation of the mind, and taste (rather than conspicuous consumption and display) as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed it! The Rajapakse’s will never be like the Bandaraniyakes or Jayawardenas and a merely polluting Colombo!

  • Dagobert

    One for the rich & other for the poor.
    Nevertheless, the rich pays a sizable tax for their consumption in the bill.
    JR commenced with Mitsui and thereafter what happened?

    I do not agree with the filling of irrigation tanks for sports complexes. That sounds a bit silly.

    Which other capital?? Monnaco & Maccau.
    What the City needs are good public toilets & Medium Size public transport busses to fit the roards.
    The current locally turnedout bus chasis are too bulky for the Country’s roads.

    • Christine

      The city of Colombo is an absolute pleasure to be in.
      But our glorious country lacks decent Public Lavatories. I am appalled to see men unashamedly urinating on peoples walls and into open drains. This problem HAS to be rectified and the people re educated.
      I live down a private lane in Colombo and dread walking up the road as streams of urine are often seen and have to be carefully avoided.
      This disgusting habit needs to be stopped fast before race tracks and other superficially beautifying measures are taken

  • Rehan

    The UNP would have initiated many of the development work which is being completed today. But the fact is that under the current regime many projects are completed at full swing. The Colombo Dutch hospital was renovated and was made popular by the current government and the credit should go to them. For me I don’t care who initiated the project or who takes credit as long as the country is benefitted.