Groundviews

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.