23 June, 2024


Tamil Merchants In The Pettah – Post July 1983

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 9 –

As many Tamils in the Pettah see it, one of the aims of the violence was to bring ruin on them and have their places taken by Sinhalese supporters of the UNP. A particular sequence did not pass unnoticed. On 25th July the almost wholly Tamil-owned wholesale market in food grains in the Pettah (e.g. 4th & 5th Cross Streets, Keyzer Street etc.) was consigned to flames. On 3rd August Athulathmudali, minister of trade and shipping, called a meeting of retail traders and asked them if they could undertake the wholesale trade of rice and set up a wholesale rice market in Colombo. On 5th August, the papers carried photographs of Athulathmudali inspecting a new market down Duplication Road meant for 50 wholesalers. One could of course defend Athulathmudali as a practical minister promoting the Sinhalese to undertake wholesale trade in a new situation where Tamils lacked the security to do so. Yet one does feel disconcerted by the absence of any expression of sympathy for the Tamils then, and the indifference towards helping the Tamil traders who faced ruin to get back into business. They after all had the skills for the job. Perhaps, Narasimha Rao saved the Tamil Pettah merchants, and today an estimated 70 – 80% of the trade is controlled by them.

There are many ways in which Tamil commerce has been affected. The events too in general affected investor confidence in Sri Lanka for obvious reasons. Udaya Jewellers in Sea Street pulled out completely and are now well established in India. Several other jewellers reckoned Colombo to be an insecure place and insured themselves by shifting some of their capital to India. Lalitha while remaining in Sea Street had also succeeded in becoming an extremely successful jeweller in Madras. Similarly Ambiga Jewellers in Madurai. A similar trend was evident in Tamil eating- houses. Several of the eating houses in Trichy are now said to be owned by Ceylonese. Tamil jewellers also pulled out of areas like Panadura, Galle and Matara where their premises were attacked and they lacked the confidence to go back.

This created a vacuum which has been filled by Sinhalese and Muslim jewellers. Particularly successful after 1983 has been the Sinhalese jeweller E.A.P. Edirisinghe who started as a pawnbroker in Sea Street. 80% of his employees are said to be Tamil.

Similar trends are also evident in other areas. The once thriving Tamil transport industry has been crippled by security concerns arising from the Tamil insurgency. The vacuum has been largely filled by Muslims. Tamils who worked in the import trade have also suffered from security concerns which have restricted their operating in the Harbour. They often have to operate through Muslims or Sinhalese.

The top league of Tamil businessmen who could raise money even on the international market have bounced back. But small businessmen have suffered from difficulties in getting bank loans, usually from the People’s Bank. The difficulty arises from another phenomenon. According to sources in the Pettah, there have been a significant number of instances of default in repayment consequent to the Tamil loan recipient and the guarantor both going abroad – another possibility of escape that was not thought worth the bother before July 1983. Consequently, the small businessmen wanting loans find themselves having to find guarantors with immovable assets.

These difficulties have given rise to a new breed of young Tamil businessmen who function like high-risk stock market speculators. They lack the certainties of the older conservative businessmen who had an adequate and diversified capital investment to balance losses in one sector with profits in others. The new type lack capital and minimise overheads by operating from a corner with only a table, telephone and calculator. They virtually borrow in the morning, buy with it, sell in the afternoon and return the loan with interest in the evening, the whole transaction being accomplished without handling the goods. It is risky business. The developments are characteristic of a community denied a secure environment and living dangerously.

Part one – Sri Lanka’s Black July: Borella, 24th Evening

Part two – Sri Lanka’s Black July: What Really Happened At Kanatte?

Part three – Black July: ‘Api Suddha Kara’ – JR’s Failure To Declare Curfew

Part four – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Cover Up

Part five –  30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot

Part six  – Black July: The Testimony Of Lionel Bopage, Then General Secretary Of The JVP

Part seven – Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama

Part eight – What Was Behind Tiger Friday – 29th July? -The Significance Of The Pettah

*From Chapter 9 of  Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power  – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To be continued tomorrow ..

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Latest comments

  • 0

    There was no Black July 1983.

    Its all fabricated lies.

    What was there were 2 Black Augusts one in 1977 when Tamils chased away all the Sinhalese from Jaffna forever. The other was in 1990 when Tamils chased away all the Muslims from Jaffna forever.

    They are still not resettled!!!

    • 2

      Have u gone blind. Do not hide the history and dont be foolish

    • 1


      Sadly you inherited the animal half of the brain from your Ancestors

      Sinhabahu or (“Lion-arms”), was the son of a Vanga princess and a lion. He killed his father and became king of Vanga. His son Vijaya would emigrate to Lanka and become the progenitor of the Sinhala people.

  • 0

    Re Rajan’s:
    ‘As many Tamils in the Pettah see it, one of the aims of the violence was to bring ruin on them and have their places taken by Sinhalese supporters of the UNP. A particular sequence did not pass unnoticed. On 25th July the almost wholly Tamil-owned wholesale market in food grains in the Pettah’

    I remember an uncalled-for remark made to me & a friend sometime between 1977 & 1979 (it may even have been mid July ’83…I will check my diary in case I recorded it): ‘Do you realise that the Galle Road shops are mostly Tamil owned?’
    We were both taken aback as such a thing had neither occurred to either of us nor seemed necessary to point out.
    The piqued speaker however, went on later to set up a foundation for co-existence– which, incidentally, doesnt even seem to exist itself anymore, except on the Web.
    I wonder if the Galle Road shops are now owned reflecting the proportions of each community in this country!

    In the late 1970s I tramped around the Pettah & its environs photographing some marvellous streetscapes & old buildings. Many of the latter had multiple ownership & tenants, presenting legal problems for the authorities (esp when Premadasa became the relevant Minister) wanting to acquire, demolish & restructure the area. Some of us believe that advantage was taken of the chaos of July ’83 to damage such buildings beyond repair. In other words, the destruction was not ‘simply’ anti-Tamil by raging mobs, but part of a cynical, objective plan higher up. I would be very interested to know if anyone recorded the destruction in that area, know which buildings changed hands, & what, if at all, they were replaced by. I have long wanted to re-record the situation myself but, alas am no longer up to doing it.

    I produced a cyclostyled monograph end 1977 or 1978 about this part of what I called ‘Old Colombo’, with many photographs, & distributed it among young architectural undergrads. Some years later the librarian of the RIBA (London) obtained a copy & gave it to the editor of an ICOMOS architectural journal (MONUMENTUM). They edited out the bits on WHY such areas should be conserved & not wiped out as these were obvious to their readers—tho mostly not so to our own). Anyone interested can read the shorter version online… at

    Alas, it only has a fraction of the original photos.

  • 2

    Justice has been done to Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayaka and Athulath Mudali and they rot the HELL in Colombo Streets.

    JR and Cyril Maththew will rot in HELL.

    Ranil is rotting and will keep on rotting. Thanks to MR & GR.

  • 1

    Dear Manel,

    It has taken the academic community far too long to cause an objective study across the prejudice barrier to record the presence of religio-ethonocism in 7/83 and thereafter. Rajan Hoole records some of them here of the 1983 period but they are not absolute. With the closing of ranks of majority chauvinism in the political scene – the Sinhala mercantile and industrial class – have rushed into lay their claim
    – now to target Muslims as well.

    The 7/83 events created a situation for interested parties to shift the Pettah Wholesale Foodstuff trade elsewhere for several reasons (1) to break the backbone of the hundreds of smaller Tamil and minority Indian origin traders who also lived around in the Pettah, Modera and Kotahena areas (2) to shift it to the Sinhala majority area of the Narahenpita area so that the Tamils and others will be placed at a disadvantage (3) to free the large area so that a powerful and ambitious venal politician of the area of the time can cash in on the enormous Real Estate potential. Some of his close men did succeed in securing for themselves some of the abandoned properties.

    But the post 7/83 take over of the Pettah food market stopped when, it is widely believed, Tamil traders combined and provided the necessary “inducement” of a substantial nature to people who matter. Up until now the Status Quo continues shakialy. But the conspiracy to reduce or totally eliminate the Tamil and minority presence did not disappear after July 83. It continued.

    The unsettled conditions of 1987/89 resulted in the broad daylight killings of multi-millionaire industrialist and film distributor
    K. Gunaratnam, who was gunned to death in the gates of his own office complex at Armour Street, Colombo 12. Brothers Shanmugam-Subramaniam of the Pettah, who dominated the Potatoe-Onions, Sugar
    and foodstuffs trade from the early 1950s were also both gunned to death in their own safety of their shop at 4th Cross/Prince Street also in broad daylight. To date who did these killings, why and whose behest is not known. It is understood the Maharaja Brothers found the safety of Australia around this time when there was a clear programme to eliminate the significant Tamil players in the business world. Samuel Gnanam of St. Anthony’s Group – another leading Tamil businessman, found safety in India at that time.

    This programme continues while the spotlight has now turned on to the Muslim community. That is not to say the target on Tamil successful business persons has been dis-continued due to any reason of Loving Kindness or Compassion.


  • 0

    Pattakannu’s has moved from Pettah to Kolupitiya and thrives at that site. Other Tamil-owned Jewellery stores are healthy businesses in Kollupitiya, Bambalapitiya, Wellawatta and the south-eastern suburbs of Colombo. Wealthy Colombo-ites prefer to do business closer to the Southern end of the City than to go to Pettah. Although the Pettah has remained abuzz for business, it is no longer the center for the monied-class to shop.
    These demographic changes would have taken place without July 1983 being the driving element for the displacement.
    LTTE bomb attacks at the City Centre’s government buildings would have left the City and the Pettah less of a lure for shopping by the elites anyway.

    • 0

      Lalitha’s Jewellery moved to Duplication Road in Kollupitiya years ago ALSO to cater for the upper end of the sophisticated clientele. Perhaps Pattakannus too. But both have their original and predominant presence in the Sea Street area (Pattakannu’s are at nearby New Chetty St) Sea Street continues to be THE place for the vast majority of gold buyers still.

      It might be interesting that the current administration, in its desperate hunger to entice big overseas investors to get involved in changing the face of the area with juicy Real Estate proposals, is threatening to move all Sea Street shops to the former St. John’s Fish Market location close by. The Tamil-dominated trade has managed to get the powers to hold on. Wanna guess how?


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