Clock Towers in Sri Lanka


A friend resident in Canada sent me an email about the Kandy clock tower which awoke long ago memories and a smile at a more recent event associated with this landmark.

Kandy experienced the worst floods in its living memory in August 1947. I remember as a very young boarder in a school in Kandy being marooned with most others, unable to take off for the August holidays. We did not mind the forced stay since school was out and fun, games and ballroom dancing were in; the last because it was the Matron’s prescribed method for keeping warm. We played 304 to our hearts content. Tragedy intruded with one of the boarder’s mother – single parent – arriving totally distraught as her house in Katugastota had been washed away. A teacher who was engaged to be married at the end of August lost her entire trousseau, engagement ring included. She lived at Peradeniya Road in Getambe. That’s when the small temple by the side of the Mahaweli earned its reputation for being extra auspicious or holy and the habit of dropping coins and asking for blessing started by travelers to and from Kandy. The temple stood intact in contrast to the destruction of much larger and even stronger buildings reduced to rubble by the raging waters. The Peradeniya Botanical Gardens and bridge across the Mahaweli were totally submerged.

Kandy’s clock tower

The story behind the Kandy clock tower is also tragic. It was built in 1950 by Haji Mohomed Ismail in memory of his beloved son Mohomed Zacky Ismail who lost his life in Kadugannawa on Aug. 14, 1947. Returning to Kandy from Colombo in an Austin 7 with his brother-in-law and a person working in his father’s shop, the car was crushed under a boulder that slid down in a continuous rain induced earth slip. The three plus the driver of the car were buried. A parcel from the car and its number plate were brought by the police to Mr Ismail Snr. a day later. A large building owned by Haji Mohomed Ismail, agent for Rowland’s, the car importers, stood at the tail end of Peradeniya Road where it continued as Ward Street. For Mohomed Ismail, the only consolation was to create a memorial to the four people who meant so much to him. He pondered over the matter and recognized Kandy was desperately in need of a clock tower. So it was built in this junction where a bus stand is. The roads that now radiate from this point are Dalada Veediya, SWRD Bandaranaike Mawata and Hiragedera Mawata. Shirley de Alwis who was the resident-on-site architect working with those who came over from England to construct the Peradeniya University Campus, designed the clock tower incorporating Kandyan architectural styles. The necessary bit of land was acquired by the Kandy Municipal Council. All the machinery and equipment needed for the project were imported from Britain. The building was complete in 1950 and declared open the following year by Prime Minister D S Senanayake in the presence of E L Senanayake, Mayor of Kandy. It is a historic landmark monument in the city.

The resurrected memory that evoked a broad smile was the story – true or false I know not – that once when President Premadasa was due to visit Kandy, the clock was seen to run erratic. There was no time for repairs, so a man was sent up to turn the hands of the clock. Prez Premadasa would surely have looked at the clock tower, these being almost an obsession with him, and been duly satisfied that the Kandy Municipal Council gave the town the correct time.

The man suspended up there had moved the minute and hour hands synchronized. Mercifully his two hands were not called upon to juggle an arm racing around the clock face marking the passing of seconds.  

Jaffna’s showpiece

An even more iconic clock tower is the one in Jaffna. In 1875 Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, was due to visit Ceylon. A committee was constituted in Jaffna called the Prince of Wales Reception Committee and they decided after the Prince’s visit to build a clock tower to commemorate the royal visit. The Committee had raised Rs 10,000 of which Rs 4,000 was spent on receptions to the Prince. The balance along with more raised money was set aside for the clock tower, the designing of which was delegated to Architect J G Smutter during the governorship of James Longden in 1882. It was badly damaged a century later during the civil war. Prince Philip on his visit to Sri Lanka in 1998 offered British assistance of one million. Thus its wondrous reconstruction. The commissioning of the stately clock tower to keep time for the Jaffna man was by the British High Commissioner Linda Duffield on 19th June 2002.

Colombo richer by three

Colombo boasts three old clock towers: the Khan Clock Tower near the Pettah market and the Koch Memorial at Kynsey Road next to the Faculty of Medicine. The former was built by a Bombay Parsi family that had trading interests in Ceylon and owned oil mills. Built in the early 20th century it was in memory of Framjee Bhikkhajee. It was commissioned on January 4, 1923 on the 45th death anniversary of the Khan businessman. The Koch clock tower is also a memorial – this time to Dr E C Koch, second principal of the Colombo Medical School. It was completed in 1881.

The Colombo Clock Tower at the Chatham Street junction is better known. It began life as a lighthouse in 1829 but was incorporated with a clock face in 1860. When its light to ships at sea was found to be inadequate, the lighthouse part of it was decommissioned in 1952. Thus only the clock was now of use. A more efficient lighthouse was built on the sea front of the Fort. The fame of the Chatham Street clock tower is that it was built by the builder of London’s Big Ben.

An amusing incident centered on this construction comes to mind. The Island newspaper some years ago would pull the public’s collective leg in its annual April Fools’ Day publishing gimmick. One such had the headline that this Fort clock tower was leaning and soon would be as famous as the Tower in Pisa or would collapse! Beggars were quoted as saying they realized its slant was increasing and others judged it by the change in size and position of its shadow. I panicked! This was before we experienced bombings and were totally petrified by the Central Bank bombing. Incidentally why did Upali Newspapers Ltd discontinue their April 1 tease? People now too serious to enjoy some fun? Or more likely with all the murders, rapes, drug smuggling, abductions et al, there is no space in the newspaper for such diversions.

The President’s clock towers

As we all remember, Ranasinghe Premadasa as both Prime Minister and President ordered the building of clock towers in very many cities and even hamlets. There was a time when our extended family would go on holiday to many parts of the Island and each time we saw a cluster of new houses we would exclaim, with respect of course, "Pemadasa was here!" These were his effort to give everyone a roof over their heads, owned by them. When we passed clock towers we would intone with peals of laughter: "Premadasa was here also." Our laugh was justified in many cases since the clocks were hardly accurate.

Thus Sri Lanka has 151 clock towers of which 89 were found to be out of order. Then came a declaration: "In order to beautify our cities, the government has initiated a project to award the maintenance of clock towers to private sector parties, government or non-governmental bodies." The arrangement was to be a symbiotic one: the government to have clocks maintained with no cost to it and those buying or leasing out clock towers to acquire a strategic site for advertising. Digitalization came in with Dialog Telecommunications digitalizing 152 clocks , the first being the clock tower in Dambulla in 2008.

The wonder of trees, the glory of flowers, we tend not to see when whizzing past in vehicles or even walking past nature presenting a show. Clock towers are even more neglected by us. The Kegalla clock tower bang in the middle of the town is often looked at to check the time traveled from Colombo or Kandy or vice versa. The tower at Ambalangoda, also in the middle of the town, has special significance for me. Every time it is passed, I experience a spasm of sadness since it was here that we used to pick up a friend on our way to Nuns’ Island, Parappaduwa, Dodanduwa. She was a great benefactor of those resident right from the founder, Ayya Khema down to several others. We struggled to keep the meditation retreat functioning and this woman was a constant visitor to the island hermitage. She met with a road accident and the Committee that was overseeing Nuns’ Island lost its right arm.

Having researched on clock towers for this article and being reminded of the Kandy clock tower that we grew up with, I for one have promised myself to take more notice of these sentinels to the passage of time.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...