Photo Essay : The Castle Hotel calls last drinks

The big multinational swallowing up the local watering hole is a common story all over the modern world, on February 29 in 2016, it was Sri Lanka’s turn. 141 years after its opening, the iconic Castle Hotel and Bar in Colombo, served last drinks.

The colonial building is believed to be over 200 years old and started its life as a printing press. When interviewed by Hotel manager H.D. Mervyn Wickremesinghe believed the building became the castle hotel in 1875 which catered to international guests. In recent decades, the Castle has become the community bar to the local working-class in the area of Slave Island.

Castle Hotel Slave Island
A customer walks into the castle hotel.  On the 28th of February 2016 the Castle Hotel called last drinks. While the building itself may survive with the likelihood of being turned in into offices the last arrack’s have been served and last songs sung. One of the Colombo’s most iconic drinking spots has been closed.
Street Cricket Colombo
Men playing street cricket outside the Castle Hotel on Slave Island. The Castle hotel which operates primarily as a pub, very basic hotel rooms are also available upstairs. Next door to the Castle Hotel is a large apartment development being conducted by the Tata Group. After the acquisition of land by the Indian multinational conglomerate,  the hotels future has been uncertain.
Castle Hotel Slave Island
A person sits at a table in the foyer as a drunk man lays down passed out inside the Castle hotel entrance.

Of all the bars and pubs in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo there are few that match the character, history and working class realities of the emerging Sri Lanka than this iconic venue.
The colonial grand façade, imposing a Y-Shaped staircase at its foyer entrance, gives insight to the Castle Hotel’s ‘hey day’ which would have catered to foreign guests and troops during the World Wars.

Since then, the upkeep of the hotel has been in a decline and its character and charm representative of its predominantly working-class clientele. Loyal customers from snake charmers, tuk tuk drivers, low level office clerks and ironically, even the labourers working on the site that would eventually see the end of the bar, would be found having a drink at the Castle on most nights.

Monkey tamer and snake charmer
A snake being held by its charmer looks at a Monkey which is sitting on its owners lap as their owners have a drink and socialise inside the Castle Hotel.
Castle Hotel bar counter
Men lining up for drinks at the bar counter drinking at the Castle Hotel.
Castle Hotel Slave Island
Men sitting at a table drinking inside the Castle hotel which operates primarily as a pub or local drinking den, hotel rooms are also available.

The future of the hotel has been uncertain after Indian multinational conglomerate ‘The Tata Group’ purchased the highly valuable land to develop modern offices and apartment complexes. There were talks the hotel would remain in its current form, however, it was always going to be a matter of time before the last drinks would be served.

Beers were cheap, arrack plentiful and short bites, spicy. The resident stray cat would hunt around for scraps on the floor. Like any good pub, stories were shared, grievances voiced and opinions were made known in the presence of complete strangers. Drunks, alcoholics and general louts would be ushered out with some decorum and respect, when they had one too many.

Castle Hotel Slave Island
A man smokes a cigarette as he drinks beer at a table with friends inside the Castle hotel.
The Castle Hotel
Two men share a having a drink inside the Castle Hotel
Castle Hotel Slave Island
A man orders an arrack (local drink) at the counter inside the Castle hotel which operates primarily as a pub but hotel rooms are also available upstairs. Slave Island is home to numerous small houses occupied by some of colombo’s working class, as gentrification & development encroaches land in the now highly valuable slave island is slowly pushing out locals from the area. Slave Island is a suburb in Colombo, Sri Lanka located directly south of the Fort area of Colombo
Castle Hotel Slave Island
A man skols or drinks down a large large bottle of beer as a drunk man wearing a sarong walks past inside the Castle hotel

It recent years, this humble venue gained a reputation online as a ‘dodgy pub’ – though in my experience, you are more likely to find dodgier clientele and shady customers (for lack of better words) in the bars and clubs of Colombo’s 5-star hotels.

The Castle didn’t pretend to be something it wasn’t and it was, by far, more representative of Sri Lanka than the Westernised hotels down the road. Its guests were treated with respect and without the judgement they may experience outside.

As modern Sri Lanka rides the economic wave of a post-war economy, the consequence of gentrification emerges.

At the Castle hotel, what you saw was what you got, it was real and it was gritty, but it was honest.

Castle Hotel Slave Island
An empty room with a disconnected old TV set sits on a table inside the Castle hotel which operates primarily as a pub, hotel rooms are also available.
Castle Hotel Slave Island
A man walks into the main entrance of the Colonial styled Castle Hotel

Words and photography by Asanka Brendon Ratnayake.

Asanka Brendon Ratnayake is a photojournalist and travel photographer based in Melbourne Australia covering Australia, Asia and the indian subcontinent. Follow him on instagram 

(C) Asanka Brendon Ratnayake


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