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Sri Lanka - Two Cathedrals


Arriving at the main railway station, Colombo Fort, armed with a rudimentary map of the city I planned to walk to the huge Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Lucia. Passing some interesting looking churches of other denominations (in classical and English Perpendicular/Lancet mix), and dodging considerable traffic, some forty minutes later I still could not see it, and, having been directed by locals to a 1960s looking RC church in a secure compound just off the main arterial road to Negombo, I admitted defeat and felt lost.

Since my arrival in Sri Lanka, I had found the endless interweaving traffic alarming and the little tuk-tuk taxis especially so, as viewed from the comparitive safety of the air-conditioned tourist coaches I was in! However intrepid ChurchCrawlers and Ecclesiological Society members cannot give up that easily, and ignoring my safety in persuit of the cathedral I hailed a tuk-tuk. Ten minutes later after having consulted several other tuk-tuk drivers in Sinalhese, my driver believed he knew where the cathedral was and we set out into the clogged streets of the capital. From the back seat I could only admire the skillful use of brake, accelerator and steering wheel by my driver as we overtook, undertook, turned left and right across the traffic queues, and my apprehension turned into a strange relaxation. Even more impressive, we suddenly turned up a side street which opened out into a massive open square and what could only be the cathedral gleamed in front of me. What looked like "15 minutes - about one mile" on the map must have been nearly four miles.

St Lucia's is big. The exterior is painted white, except for the grey facade with details picked out in white, and there is a dome with silver roof over the crossing. The facade recalls St John Lateran in Rome. It has three main portals, and central pedimented bay supported on four Corinthian columns. The facade is squared off behind with balustraded parapet and seven large statues.

Most guidebooks to Sri Lanka do not mention the churches. Catholicism was introduced by the Portuguese, and following the arrival of the British in the C19 Anglican, Methodist and other denominational churches and chapels were added. The RC churches are usually Classical or Baroque, whilst the Anglican and others are reminiscent of the early C19 "Commissioners'"Gothic style in England (although much more recent in date) in a simple lancet or Perpendicular design. The only details I could find out about St Lucia's Cathedral was "1870, nave holds 6000 people". I tried to imagine an average attendance at a Bristol Rovers home match crammed into the cathedral, it is large but I feel that even with the slim locals 6000 would be pretty uncomfortable!

The entrance on the day I visited was a small door in the south aisle wall (above). By it you can see a concrete shelter where security guards sit. One word of warning about the two of them is prudent here as I believed I was conned out of 400 rupees to allow me to enter the cathedral. It was done so politely and with great charm and skill that although I suspected a con, I went along with it as nothing was going to stop me getting in now!

Inside the Italian feel continues. Gallery over the external entrances, six-bayed nave and aisles, crossing with dome and transepts, and short single bayed sanctuary bay with flanking chapels. Saucer domes and transverse arches in the aisles, plain tunnel vault ceiling to nave. Arcades with square panelled piers and taller attached fluted Corinthian pilasters to "support" the entablature. Small clerestory windows cut into the vault. The crossing has four fluted detached Corinthian columns with pilasters behind. The sanctuary bay is slightly narrower and lower than the nave and this East wall is disappointing with two small windows flanking the reredos and a roundel above it. In Europe there would be a more exuberant baldichino or reredos than here.

KANDY St Antony

My first exotic holiday included a three day tour of the island with a night at the fantastic time-warped Hotel Suisse, grandeur of Empire still preserved. In fact Kandy is the former capital of Ceylon, and is visited for Sri Lanka's premier Buddhdist shrine, the Temple of the Tooth. The town is prettily sited by a lake, the Temple on its shores. With British superiority, the principle Anglican church stands right outside the temple. Whilst the rest of my tour explored the delights of a batik factory and received gemstone hard-sells, I explored the streets of Kandy before our planned evening visit to the temple. A long street leads to the cathedral from the main through road, past a pretty lancet Methodist chapel and the military barracks.

The cathedral is Italianite, the facade dated 1877. The west bay has entrance vestibule with upper gallery, further five bays to the nave, wide, with a flat panelled ceiling. The side walls have blank arches or open arches to side chapels (2nd and 4th bays N & S only). Narrower two-bayed chancel and semi-circular apse. The arches have Doric features, the bays seperated by Corinthian pilasters which carry the entablature around the entire building. Above rectangular windows under arched pediments; these windows are blank in the apse and have murals instead. Behing the apse is another chapel, not accessable to the public. Unfortunately as you may have guessed my interior photos did not come out sadly but a friend hopes to get me one through a contact who lives in Kandy ! Watch this space....

The cathedral has reversed orientation but these notes assume the ritual placement of the main altar at the east end. So to the "north" of the cathedral is a small courtyard with other diocesan buildings. These include a small bell-tower for the cathedral which continues the Italian Renaissance style.

3rd Cathedral...4th...

Whilst in Colombo I also hoped to visit the modern Anglican cathedral. This however was shown on my map to be south of the city centre, further out than St Lucia! As the hotel gave me the wrong train times and I sat for 2 hours on the station platform at Aluthgama, plus wasted further time finding the catholic cathedral, I was unable to get there and get out of Colombo if I was to avoid the rush-hour and get back to the coast for dinner!.

Apart from the cathedrals above there are also the following Roman Catholic dioceses on the island. I assume that means there are also at least nine other cathedrals to see. The sees are:-Anuradhapura; Badulla; Chilaw; Galle; Jaffna; Kurunegala; Mannar; Ratnapura; Trincomalee-Batticaloa.


There cannot be many tourists that visit Sri Lanka and search out the churches. However they are certainly rewarding, although after the exuberant exteriors, the interiors are a little disappointing. I believe I have more reasons to return besides the sun, sea and food all of which I recommend.

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Page updated 2nd January 2000