Kathiresan Street: a confluence of culture and religion | Sunday Observer

Kathiresan Street: a confluence of culture and religion

11 March, 2018
Devotees heading towards the kovil
Devotees heading towards the kovil

Colombo is a city beautifully layered with multi-ethnic influence. Certain parts of the city display various expressions of culture. One such outstanding area is found in Colombo 13, where people coexist in splendid harmony. Kathiresan Street has been part of the history of Colombo for decades. It is an artery of the main business bazaar area that leads to Pettah and the adjacent streets which have many wholesale shops. I decided to walk along this unique street with Thinarshan who has connections here for almost 25 years. We began our journey of discovery from the roundabout (parallel to Sea Street, the jewellers’ domain). At first glance on a sunny Saturday morning the road is somewhat quiet, in comparison to the busy weekdays. Cars and motorbikes pass by. The first feature that boldly strikes you is the amount of business name boards, which seem to have blossomed over the past decade.

One of the first people we meet is a shy fruit seller. This Tamil youth of Indian origin has had this stall for 10 years. As we approach him he is apprehensive, but I make him smile by taking a photo. For the thousands of Tamil speaking businessmen and their staff (predominantly male) this stall offers a healthy snack. The young man cuts away at watermelons and papaya. Right next door is an oil merchant. Trading in oil has been a popular business for the Jaffna Tamil community.

On my visit to the North last year, similar trading shops were found there. The time is almost 12 noon and the strong spicy flavour of food resonates from nearby. Thinarshan’s father S. Arunthavaras has been running their family catering business which he inherited from his father. The Jaffna eatery known as Jeyashree Café has been around since 1968, serving rice and curry on the banana leaf. As we enter the venue the fragrance of deep fried fish temptingly permeates the air. An old waiter grins at us. Food from the Northern Province has its own culinary heritage that reflects a nice balance of spices. After having a ‘soft drink’ we continue, with an invitation for lunch.

A few feet away is a greeting card shop operated by K. Yogeshwaran, who happily recollects the memories of his youth and the activities of the majestic Hindu Kovil that subsequently lent her name to this street. Kathiresan Street was formally known as Chekku Street - the term comes from the Tamil word chekku, the process of grinding and extracting oil, a business done by the Chettiar community centuries ago. We noticed a shop that sells palmyrah products. The woman at the cashier’s desk, on seeing my camera slowly gazes away. The shop has an assortment of items, but the interior is mildly gloomy. Across the street, tied to a fence is a white ram (goat).

This creature is somewhat like the unofficial mascot of Kathiresan Street, and displays a sturdy set of horns. Its owner sits on a stool and waves at us from inside his house. As we all know certain animals including the cow are venerated in Hindu culture. A few feet away we spot the large façade of the Kathiravelayutha Kovil. On either side of its entrance two sculptures of divine sentinels adorn the doorway. The gopuram (tower) rises magnificently into the sky, bestowed with hundreds of intricate statues of Hindu deity. I have seen the chariot festival of this temple before, and it is a colourful festival.

Kathiresan Street is home to three churches. The first is the Church of St. Anne consecrated on December 3 1972. It was to this sacred abode that Mother Theresa first came to Sri Lanka in September 1984 and launched her missionary order. The MC- missionaries of charity continue their good work in silence, serving the outcast and the poor. I was cast into deep contemplation at this church, since the opposite street, Sea Street is loaded with much gold. We now pass by a large retail shop that sells items used in food preparation. Families of all communities are busy shopping here. The Street has a few lodges, rudimentary accommodation at a reasonable price. A small shop specializes in framing photographs. An old man is at work using a tiny hammer, sustaining the memories of others. The second church we enter is the Catholic sanctum, Velankani Church (dedicated to Blessed Mary). The old sexton (church keeper) Francis Fernando, a gentleman with a white beard looking like one of the apostles of Christ, joyfully reminisces his life having been born in 1935. On the left hand side of the road are a few shops selling artificial garlands and other items used in Hindu religious worship. Thulasi Mahal has been around for years. They sell a specialized ghee that is used to light oil lamps. Next door some children from the Muslim and Sinhala communities are playing. I observed even at the three wheel stand men from all communities drinking tea and engaged in conversation. Another shop selling religious artifacts has Hindu deity placed next to Buddha, a classic expression of reconciliation.

The last church on the furthermost end is St. Thomas Church. The sanctuary has two entrances. This is one of the oldest churches in Ceylon, established in 1815, by Sir Robert Brownrigg, then Governor. The present Anglican vicar is Rev. Fr. Andrew Devadason who says “At Kathiresan Street all faiths live in harmony. While we value the ancient heritage of this church we ensure that our lives are a witness to God’s love”. This premise sits on a hillock, overlooking the harbour. During the Portuguese period the area had many Tamils of Malabar origin (South Indian), who collected a sum of 860 rupees and began building the church. The Portuguese called this area San Thome Pitiya (after St. Thomas). Later, the defiant Dutch conquered this hill when they laid siege on Colombo. They had three burial sites here and called the graves as Genthos. With time the phrase Santhomepitiya degenerated to Genthopitiya and today it is referred to as Ginthupitiya. The warden of the church P.D. Ramachandran walks with us, pointing to the ancient graves.

The famous writers of the Ondaatje family can trace their roots here, two centuries ago. Many speculate that the disciple Thomas had visited this area centuries ago in his missionary voyage to Asia, as scholars have found a Nestorian Cross here decades ago. The Nestorian cross is a symbol of the influence of St. Thomas (such crosses were found in Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu).

It is 2 pm and we retreat for lunch to Jeyashree Cafe, which is full of people. A meal of rice with cuttlefish and fried fish is a relish. The venue is popular among members of all communities. Kathiresan Street is a place where people live as one extended family of Sri Lankans. It is not just a busy street; it is a beautiful road bestowed with harmony.