The earliest written mention of the port may be that of Faxian, a Chinese traveler of the 5th century CE who referred to the port as Gaolanbu. The Sinhalese called the port Kolamba, which the Portuguese thought was derived from the Sinhalese word for mango trees (kola, “leaves”; amba, “mango”). A more likely explanation is that kolamba was an old Sinhalese word meaning “port” or “ferry.” In the 8th century CE Arab traders settled near the site of the modern port. From the 16th century onward the port was developed by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British, who each in turn established themselves on the island. In 1815, when the Sinhalese chiefs deposed the king of Kandy in the heart of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and ceded his territory to the British, Colombo became the capital of the island. Western influence in the city has diminished since Sri Lanka gained its independence in 1948. The oldest districts of the city, which are nearest the harbour and north of Beira Lake, are known as the Fort and the Pettah (a name deriving from the Tamil word pettai, meaning “the town outside the fort”). The Fort is still a focal point of government and commercial activity, although less so than in the past. The Pettah has become a district of small shops, markets, and sidewalk stalls, with all the characteristic features of an Oriental bazaar. The built-up area of Cinnamon Gardens, which is south of Beira Lake, was an important cinnamon-growing region during the Dutch period.
Colombo’s important buildings include the Secretariat, the Town Hall, the Clock Tower, St. Lucia’s Cathedral, and the Galle Face Hotel. Other distinctive buildings in the city are the Wolvendahl Church, built by the Dutch in 1749; a complex of hospitals; the University of Colombo (1921); several Buddhist and Hindu temples; and the residences of the head of state and of the prime minister. The city’s manufacturing industries are based on the processing of raw materials exported through the port. General engineering industries are connected with public utilities and with the sale, service, repair, and assembly of motor vehicles and other machinery; light manufacturers process food, drinks, and tobacco. Numerous factories are located on the city’s periphery. Colombo is also the commercial centre of the island; the head offices of local and foreign banks, the Insurance Corporation (which has a monopoly of insurance), brokerage houses, and government corporations are all located in the city.
Trains connect Colombo with other major cities on the island. There are also bus services within the city and to all parts of Sri Lanka. The international airport is located at Katunayake, and Ratmalana airport handles domestic flights. Colombo has numerous parks and playing fields. Among them are the Galle Face Green by the sea, the Vihara Maha Devi Park, and the Ridgeway Golf Links. Cricket and football (soccer and rugby) grounds are located throughout the city; tennis and track events are also popular. Sea bathing and surfing can be enjoyed at Mount Lavinia Beach, which is about 7 miles (11 km) south of the city. The National Zoological Gardens of Sri Lanka are located at nearby Dehiwala. Pop. (2007 est.) city, 672,743; (2004 est.) urban agglom., 2,490,300.