- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 02/07/2012
- etymology, Sri Lanka
As a youth, I spent six months living and working in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. No doubt it was a function of my age, but I still believe that there is no country in the world which has such evocative place names: Ambalangoda, Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, Jaffna, Nuwara Eliya (‘City of light’ in Sinhalese), Batticaloa (‘Land of the singing fish’).
The variety and musicality of these place names stems from the island’s history: most of the great sea-faring nations (read: rapacious colonisers) have traded with or invaded Sri Lanka, from the Dutch to the Arabs to, of course, the Portuguese and the British. Many place names are thus heirlooms of previous regimes, which have passed through many different languages, before being ‘reclaimed’ by Sinhalese. Milagiriya, for example, was once the Portuguese for ‘Our Lady of the Miracles’ (milagro in Portuguese).
The name of the capital city, Colombo, is particularly representative of this tendency. Its original name was Kao-lan-pu, a Chinese appellation the meaning of which is unknown. The port then became known as Kalan-totta, a reference to the nearby ferry over the river Kelani. The Arabs changed this to Kolambu which was adapted into Sinhalese as Kolamba (Ibn Batuta, in the Thirteenth Century, refers to the port as Kalanpu.)
When the Portuguese arrived in the Sixteenth Century, they thought that Kolamba was derived from the Sinhalese words kola ‘leaves’ and amba ‘mango’, although it is perhaps more likely that it came from an old Sinhalese word for port. In any case, the Portuguese changed the name slightly in order to make it a kind of homage to Colombus, despite the fact that he never came anywhere near the island.