Kayman’s Gate – historic bell tower in Colombo City
By Arundathie Abeysinghe
Located at the intersection of Main Street and Fourth Cross Street in Pettah, the commercial hub of Colombo City, Kayman’s Gate (in Sinhala, Kaiman Dorakada) is a historic solitary grey bell tower which was an entrance to former Colombo Fort. St. John’s River, a canal that connected to Beira Lake was located outside the Gate. Waste from Colombo Fort had been dumped to this river.
An integral symbol of Old *Ceylon, “Kayman’s Gate” is derived from the Dutch word “Kaaiman” meaning crocodile as a large number of mugger crocodiles (who flocked in large numbers to eat leftover meat and bones thrown out by Colombo City dwellers who lived inside the fortified bastion) swarmed the moat of Beira Lake.
Colombo Fort was built and consolidated by the Portuguese during the Portuguese Colonial Era in 1554 as a defensive fortification of their trading post in Colombo which was later captured by the Dutch. During the Portuguese Colonial Era, the primary entrance to Fort was situated at the eastern rampart – (Poorta Reinha – “Queen’s Gate”).
Kayman’s Gate Bell Tower is a rare evidence of Colonial Era of Sri Lanka, the only evidence of ancient Colombo Fort as the ramparts and gates which existed during that period are not there at present. Kayman’s Gate had been the east entrance to Colombo Fort during the Portuguese Colonial Era built with the objective of protecting trading interests in Colombo City. During the Portuguese Era, there had been a drawbridge which had been lowered from the gate connecting Fort with the outskirts of Colombo City.
During the Portuguese Era, the Fort has had 12 bastions and intervening ramparts supported by a moat in the east.
Kayman’s Gate Bell Tower dates back to the 16th century when it was originally hung in a Portuguese Church that was dedicated to St. Francis in the *Kingdom of Kotte. When Kotte was abandoned in 1656, the Dutch who later reoccupied it found a bell amongst the ruins of the Church. Later, the bell was relocated to newly-constructed bell tower at Kayman’s Gate. According to folklore, the bell had been used as a night curfew bell ‘to mark the closing of the Castle’s gates and lights out’.
When Colombo was captured by the British in 1796, they had occupied Pettah after breaching Kayman’s Gate. They had demolished or filled in the walls, barricades, canals as well as moats which existed in Fort. They had also demolished Kayamn’s Gate too, but the Bell Tower had been preserved.
When the walls of the fort were demolished, the bell had been used to summon worshippers to prayer at *Wolvendaal Church and the Bell Tower had been part of the Church property.
The bell is still hung in the Bell Tower and is inscribed as follows:
“Ave gratia plena dominus tecum benadicta tu in mulieribus”
(meaning “Hail full of grace the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women”.
Although, not well-maintained and unnoticed by many in Pettah, Kayman’s Gate is surrounded by a high fence and there is a sign at the premises proclaiming that it is an Archaeological Monument protected by the Director of Archaeology.
Popular Sri Lankan Singer Sunil Edirisinghe’s song Paaru Palamen refers to Kayman’s Gate as follows in Sinhala:
“Kayman Dorakoda Idapan
Man Enathuru Selestina”
(meaning “Selestina, please wait at the Kayman Gate till I come”).
According to scholars, the Bell Tower had been built by the Portuguese in 1554. Later, the premises of the Bell Tower had been used as a site for public hangings until late 19th century.
- Ceylon – Sri Lanka gained Independence from British Colonials in 1948. In 1972, Ceylon became a republic within the Commonwealth and Ceylon was thereafter known as Sri Lanka.
- Kingdom of Gampola – Gampola is a town situated in close proximity to Kandy in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. Gampola was established as the capital of Ceylon by King Buwanekabahu IV (from 1344 – 1345 and from 1353 – 1354) in the mid 14th century.
- Kingdom of Kotte – This was a kingdom which flourished in the 15th century in Ceylon. The term “Kotte” is believed to have derived from the Sinhalese word kotta and Tamil word kottei, meaning fortress. The word Kotte was introduced by Nissankamalla Alagakkonara, the founder of the fortress. According to legends, Kotte had been founded as a fortress by Minister Alakeswara (1370 -1385) of *Kingdom of Gampola.
- Wolvendaal Church (Wolvendaalse Kerk) – Located in Pettah, this is one of the oldest Protestant Churches still in use in Sri Lanka and one of the most significant Dutch Colonial Era buildings in Sri Lanka.