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Beira Lake

Description

In the heart of Colombo, Sri Lanka, lies a captivating water body, Beira Lake, that has witnessed centuries of history. Beira Lake, a picturesque urban oasis, is not just a body of water; it's a repository of tales that have shaped the city's identity over the years. In this article, we embark on a journey to unravel the mysteries surrounding Beira Lake and explore its evolution through time.

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Unravelling the Name

The name "Beira Lake" is steeped in history, yet its exact origins remain shrouded in mystery. Before 1927, the locals commonly referred to it as 'Colombo Lake' or simply 'The Lake.' Various theories attempt to explain the etymology of the name. One intriguing suggestion is that it could have been named after a Portuguese engineer named 'Beira' or a Dutch engineer named 'De Beer.' A stone plaque bearing the inscription "De Beer 1700" lends credibility to the latter theory. Another hypothesis is that "Beira" in Portuguese refers to the "Bank or Edge of the Lake," while the Dutch word "De Beer" symbolises the "Anchoring Point." Adding another layer of complexity, it's also possible that the lake was named after a province in Portugal sharing the same name.

From Moat to Urban Oasis

The history of Beira Lake is deeply entwined with the colonial era of Sri Lanka. The Portuguese, who controlled Colombo, constructed the lake as a defensive moat to safeguard the city from potential native threats. In 1518, when Portuguese dominance expanded over Colombo, the looming menace posed by King Vijayabahu VII and the Sinhalese forces necessitated enhanced protection. This need arose because the Portuguese had complete control over Colombo. The marshy terrain surrounding the fort had to be excavated to create the moat, but the project faced significant challenges due to its scale and limited water supply.

Amid another attack by King Vijayabahu VII, Portuguese Captain Lopo de Brito stumbled upon a stream between Mount Dematagoda and Mount St. Bastian. This discovery was a turning point as the stream was redirected into the existing moat, leading to the formation of Beira Lake. Colombo Fort was situated on an island separated from the mainland by a lake connected to the ocean. Boats became the primary mode of transportation for passengers travelling between the fort and the mainland.

The initial size of the lake was approximately 1.61 square kilometres, with connections to the east through Kayman Gates and to the west via St. John's Canal. It was surrounded by the Mount of St. Bastian, the Mount of Wolfendal, and the Mount of Kochchikade. The additional defence came from Portuguese forts in the northern and western areas.

In his book "Conquista Temporale Espiritual de Ceylo," Fr. Ferno de Queiroz aptly described the lake during that period. He wrote, "The lake around the City of Colombo has a length of 10 and a half kilometres. In some areas, during the summer, the water was only up to the waist, creating a path to the city of Colombo."

In 1578, King Mayadunne of the Kingdom of Sitawaka attempted to drain the lake to deprive the invaders of their supply of food and water. Although his son Rajasingha I successfully closed several canals in 1587, the Portuguese managed to receive troops from India over the sea, preventing their defeat.

The Dutch, who later took control of the lake, expanded it by reducing the size of the fort by one-third, leading to the formation of several islands, including the well-known Slave Island. Some of these islands were large enough to support settlements and plantations. When the British assumed control, they eradicated the crocodile population and transformed the lake's vicinity into a hub for recreational activities like rowing and sailing. The area became a focal point for various social activities, including grand celebrations commemorating significant British triumphs.

Beira Lake's journey through time has been remarkable, evolving from a defensive moat to a thriving urban oasis that enriches Colombo's cultural heritage. Today, it is a testament to the city's resilience and ability to adapt to the changing tides of history.

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