Towering and majestic, the grand old trees that dot Colombo’s sidewalks are so much a part of the city’s identity that they are often overlooked by those who walk or drive past them every day. The number of trees has, over the years, dwindled, but those that remain stand witness to a period in which Colombo was hailed, by those all around the world, as ‘The Garden City of the East’.
According to a survey conducted of Colombo’s trees in 1985, there is evidence that many of the trees that grace the city’s sidewalks are exotic trees, and the first of their species to be brought to Sri Lanka – then Ceylon – as part of the British regime’s plan for the city. There were, of course, native trees in the mix, such as the muruthanai and the once abundant yellow cotton, but the larger number were exotics, such as the jacaranda and the rain tree.
This indicates that the British, when setting out to make Colombo into a garden city, were mindful of the varieties of trees chosen, as well as their placement, so as to ensure that the city would be graced with colour all year ‘round, whether in the form of shoots, flowers, or new or falling leaves.
Colombo was once nearly named the ‘Garden City of the East’, after an European architectural concept, which sought to create cities with the best qualities of rural life. This meant fresh air, less poverty and therefore less illness. But all the good intentions gave way to a singular piece of legislature that saw the complete destruction of the city’s potential as a ‘garden city’.
Under this sinario, Sri Lankans can make Colombo colorful all year round, but not necessarily to match the view of the British city of the colonial era. Perhaps possible in our country only if the multi-religious people first get used to living together as one nation.