Religious Colombo: The Secret City Hiding in Plain Sight

West, C.M.


When we read and hear about Colombo, Sri Lanka, we don’t often read and hear about religion experience.  However, when we step outside on to the streets of Colombo religious experience is obvious and ubiquitous.  This project reviews the scholarly and anecdotal record and compares it to the social and spatial life of the contemporary inner-city.  As well as temples, churches and mosques, the spatiality of religion extends to the street, markets and homes of the city: religious experience is more than worship and sanctioned ritual.  It is felt through all the senses in Colombo.  For example, the cool shade of a bo tree allowed to grow through the hot pavement; the colours and styles of dress; the aromas and flavours of the richly syncretic cuisine; small acts of kindness; and the sounds of observance: voices and instruments connecting the humans, their material realm and the cosmological world.  When religious experience and innovation determine the spatial and the social to such a high degree, why is it that history does not acknowledge their presence?  This blindness to ‘urban religion’ is evident in the literature on Colombo, but also in urban studies more generally.  Situational analysis of the social formation, the urban environment and religious experience represents a way to move past axiomatic views of religion, cities and their relationship. This study also reflects on how a more anthropological understanding of the capital, Colombo, might offer alternative perspectives of the nation and its complex social identity in the post-conflict era.

Keywords: Colombo, religion, social, spatial, urban