22 May 2019

iDiscover Colombo: an app that maps the soul of the city

Celebrating local community, creative culture and shared heritage in the historic heart of the city.

The App&Map is a tool to tell the stories of places that matter to locals, like this shop in Slave Island that has been making photo-frames for generations (photo: Kesara Ratnavibhushana)

And then … a bomb went off

Not a single soul in Colombo’s market bazaar Pettah will ever forget Easter Sunday 2019. At 8am when mass at the popular St. Anthony’s Church was in full swing, a bomb exploded. We later learned that more than 250 people were killed on that day. This was not just an incident; it was a well-coordinated attack on what makes the historic heart of Colombo so special: the city’s unique multicultural history. In Pettah, you find not just this quaint white Catholic Church, but also the iconic candy-striped Red Mosque, two blue washed Hindu temples and a solemn golden Buddha statue within the same street. For centuries the port town of Colombo was a magnet for traders, they came from India, from China and all the way from Europe and all left their mark in the streets of the town. Still, today these temples, mosques and churches are more than just places of worship, they are cultural anchors, places for community celebrations and hugely popular pilgrimage destinations.  They are the soul of the city.

Unity in diversity

More than ever before the message of unity in diversity matters to the people of old Colombo. They live, work, pray and play side by side, just like they did centuries ago. It made this Netherlands cultural mapping project even more significant than it already was. iDiscover from Hong Kong and Heritage Hands-On from Amsterdam worked with local NGO the Colombo Heritage Collective to collect stories of people and places in four old neighbourhoods - Pettah, Fort, Slave Island and Cinnamon Gardens - at a time when the city’s heritage is at risk. Threatened by skyscrapers, shopping malls, bulldozers and now… bombs.

Community Cultural Mapping

The project asked the local residents to share places that matter to them, and together we mapped more than 150 sites in 4 neighbourhoods. Temples and monuments, but also street café’s and local shops. We put them in an app and on a map, to make locals more proud of their culture and heritage and help travellers to explore the city’s hidden secrets, responsibly and respectfully. 

Download the iDiscover App (Android and iOs) for free here.  

This project was supported by the Shared Cultural Heritage Matching Fund of DutchCulture.