Everything else.. Little Stories, Mighty Cities: How Popular Cities Got Their Names

Little Stories, Mighty Cities: How Popular Cities Got Their Names

2020 Jan 13

Sunny tropical Taprobane, as rich as it is in diversity and history, its cities too carry beautiful stories. In this article we look in depth into how some of the cities of Sri Lanka were named. The diverse names were heavily influenced not only by the aborigines, Aryans and Tamils but also by international conquerors from Britain, Portugal, Holland and France. The names of many places come from other languages from across the globe such as Portuguese, Dutch, English and even Greek.

Here is a chance for us to remember how well connected the people of ancient Sri Lanka were. While we may often believe that we were simply a lone island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, thriving in our own agricultural methods, we must constantly remember that it was not so. Sri Lanka had connections and at a far greater scale than which we, in the 21st Century, can understand or research upon.



Sounds very Sinhalese? Not really, in the modern famous Milagiriya, there was a Roman Catholic Church built by the Portuguese while they were here. This church was called the Church of Our Lady of Miracles which was translated into Latin and Latinised languages, into a word sounding similar to Milagiriya. In 1656, after being captured by the Dutch colony, the Milagiriya church gave way to a Sinhalese school where instruction was made available in the religion of the Reformists. In 1848 the Rev. Joseph Thurstan was chiefly responsible for superintending the construction of the new church which was dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle. Shortly after the British built a new church on these grounds in 1848 and named it St. Paul’s Church, Milagiriya – the church is now an important landmark in Colombo.



Nuga, which means Banyan tree clearly gives us the impression that there were many banyan trees. Nugegoda, while meaning ‘village of banyan trees’, can also mean ‘above the banyan tree’, indicative of the brutal history of punishment in Sri Lanka where a person was hanged ‘above’ a tree during the Kotte kingdom, which is much more of an interesting fact! The town now is much commercialised and is a hub of a lot of lively marketing, shopping and educational institutes.



The internationally treasured city of great ancient architecture and history has a few theories on how the name was formed. Pulainari, is mentioned in Tamil inscriptions found in Polonnaruwa from the Chola period. The name is a contraction of its ancient name Pulastya Nagara or Pulatti Nakaram, meaning city of the Hindu sage Pulastya. It was renamed under Chola rule as Jananathapuram or Jananathamangalam. Another interesting find was that the word ‘uhr’ comes from Hebrew which indeed means village. Quite a mind blowing fact!



When you speak of Ratmalana the only thing I ever think of is a very hot place and of course our beloved Ratmalana Airport, but really, did you know that this was an area which used to be called ‘Ratmal Uyana’, which means a place filled with red flowers. Imagine that, a garden of red flowers!



Nawala, means ‘elephant garden’, indicating that there were elephants in Nawala. Another interesting fact is that the elephants’ trumpets were heard on the day King Buwnekabahu VII of Kotte was shot by a Portuguese soldier in the late 1500s, when a massive uproar spread across Kotte and the kingdom was in turmoil. A Dutch historian even called it a “howling wilderness, caught and kraaled”, in reference to the hoard of elephants.



A very interesting fact is that names of Sri Lankan places is the suffix ‘pe’ such as in Minipe, Dompe, Kospe, Bope, or Veralupe. Every time ‘pe’ comes into play, it means the area was at the foot of a tree; except for the case of Minipe, which simply means precious stone.



Image from http://gr8schoolingsl.blogspot.com/2009/12/kings-of-kandy-vimaladarmasuriya-first.html

The story of Mabole goes back to King Rajasinghe II, who used the aid of the Dutch to get rid of the Portuguese. Out of gratitude, a large area of land was gifted from the Wattala area. This area came to be called ‘Maha Budale’ by the Dutch, in whose language it means ‘great gift’ The Portuguese were only able to pronounce it as an ‘r’, hence it became ‘Maha Borale’ which the British later shortened to Mabole.



Kirulapone which is also a very commercial city now means ‘Kirula Pene’, which means the top of the palace tower of which Kotte can be seen.



‘Mura Atuwa’ (guard posts). Many writers claim that when there were invasions from Jaffna, the people residing in the Moratuwa area kept watch from the high towers and helped guard the kingdom.



Dehiwala has many stories about the origin of its name. One of those is ‘Diya Wala’ which means a dip or hole filled with water. It is believed that in the past, this area had many ponds and lakes and thus, it became known as Diyawala (an area filled with water). Another speculation is that this area had many lime trees and so,people called it Dehiwala. It is said that king of Kotte filled all his lime requirements from this area. Dehiwala is also rumoured to have been a forest where cult practices took place, thus earning it the name ‘Devil Forest’.



Short and sweet, back in the day the Portuguese called the Colombo Fort St. Lorenzo, but the word Colombo is said to come from what the Dutch called it – ‘Colom thota’. The well-known ‘Kolamba rata’ is now the booming hot spot and hub for all major activities in the country.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here