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

Black and White Photography Challenge Day 1 of 5

I have been nominated by Mark Dadswell( & Jeff Crowe ( for the B&W challenge.
So lets go back to when my career started nearly 5 years ago.
3/2/2010 – A large number of supporters of defeated 2010 Presidential Candidate former Army General Sarath Fonseka cheer at a rally where Fonseka denounced the results and claimed that the election results were fraudulent. – Hyde Park Colombo Sri Lanka.

Hyde Park Sarath Fonseka Rally

Lonely Planets : ‘Best in travel 2013’ book

Lonely Planet Best in travel 2013 book at Dymocks
Lonely Planet Best in travel 2013 book at Dymocks


While killing some time i walked into a bookshop (yes, they still exist) & came across the usual Lonely planet collection of books & noticed the ‘Best in travel 2013’ book. I knew my work was used in some of the marketing material during the release of the book but didnt think they would use any in the print but they did.
They choose to go with one of my images from the Nawam Maha Perahera in Colombo outside the Gangaramaya Temple near the picturesque Beira Lake.

Kandyan themed drummers walking towards Gangaramaya Temple.
Kandyan themed drummers walking towards Gangaramaya Temple.

So there you go, killing time proved to be useful for once.

Digging through the archive : Shooting from the scoreboard at Pallekele International Cricket Stadium

This post was originally posted on my column over on Island Cricket

Shooting from the Pallekelle Scoreboard

If there is one thing I dislike about covering cricket, it’s the stationary nature of the assignment. Occasionally, photographers do move around, but if you work for a newswire service, as I do, you’re generally stuck at your makeshift desk shooting, editing and uploading your shots.

During the ICC World Twenty20 2012 Super Eight match between the West Indies and New Zealand in Pallekelle, I chose to divert from the norm, and head elsewhere for a change. With the sun setting behind the picturesque Hunnasgiriya mountain range, I decided to venture up the scoreboard for a wide-angle shot of the ground and the sunset.

Scoreboard attendant looks out of the scoreboard

After opening the front door to the scoreboard, you’re confronted by a narrow set of stairs. As I head up, I come across large narrow rooms. On each floor are scoreboard attendants manually inserting numbers, names and moving a big wheel with numbers on it.

I would compare a manual scoreboard to an office building. Instead of the accounts department on the third floor, you have the ‘extras and bowling figures’ department. On the fourth, fifth and sixth floors are the attendants in charge of the batsmen’s names, and up at the very top is the total score.

Once I had taken the sunset shot that I was after, I hung around for a little while longer to take photos of the young chaps hard at work. The oversized signs, numbers and the ingenious mechanics of it all were intriguing.

Utilising a PA system inside the scoreboard, the attendants follow the instructions of the scorekeeper in a meticulous manner. Each attendant is in charge of a section of the board — overs, players’ names, runs, fall of wicket ect. This army of local lads from Kandy were at first shocked to see a photographer inside the scoreboard taking photos of them, and not of the match. They wanted to take a few shots with my camera. In return, I got to be a scoreboard attendant rotating the big wheel.


Scoreboard attendant pushes the scoring wheel

When you consider the manpower required for the whole operation, you begin to understand why many traditional scoreboards around the world have been demolished. I would imagine that the accounts department would deem it not so cost-effective. In an age of spider cams, hawk-eye and mammoth electronic scoreboards, it’s nice to see all the Sri Lankan Test venues still using the humble, yet iconic manually-operated scoreboards.

Two scoreboard attendants look out of the scoreboard

Digging through the archives: Following Sarath Fonseka Part 1 (pre-election)

With Former Army General Sarath Fonseka been released from prison on Monday the 21st of May 2012 I thought it was an apt time to revisit the time I spent following him during his presidential campaign in 2010 for my digging through the archives series.

Now for those unfamiliar let me try & summarise very quickly a bit about the man. The former Army General played a pivotal in ending Sri Lanka’s 26 year civil war.  Once the war was over, President Mahinda Rajapakse some argue in an attempt to sideline him from political activity gave Fonseka the post of ‘Chief of Defence Staff’, not long after Fonseka quit the post & officially announced his candidature in the 2010 Sri Lankan presidential election that he subsequently lost.  Two weeks after his loss he was arrested & found guilty for “committing military offences”; charges could best be described as dubious & varied from corrupt arms deals to plots to overthrow the government while in uniform. To date his has pleaded his innocence.  Fonseka was imprisoned for 3 years but was given a presidential pardon after serving just over 2 years & released on Monday.

For me id be lying if there wasn’t some sentimental feeling about his release, back in 2010 I had left Australia to try & forge a career as a photojournalist, I took up a post at the Sri Lankan Sunday paper ‘The Sunday Leader’. My first major assignment was to follow Fonseka on his presidential campaign. For over a month I travelled around the island from rallies in the outstations to the major cities, from press conferences to ‘kissing the babies’ opportunities.  It was exciting for a young ‘PJ’ , especially coming from Australia where I find election campaigns or politics in general dull by comparison; this campaign had a heavy weight boxing match spirit to it. In a sign of defiance against the Rajapaksa regime Fonseka not only formed his own party but had the backing & support of the major opposition party the right leaning United National Party (UNP) & oddly enough the Marxist ‘Peoples Liberation Front’ known as the JVP.

While there was minor difference in policy, the presidential battle was becoming increasingly spiteful & acrimonious. Election violence was becoming progressively worse with “pro-governement thugs” threatening & terrorising opposition supporters. The homes of opposition party members were being firebombed, buses of fonseka supporters were shot at & political rallies in themselves became violent battlegrounds between supporters.   People were getting killed & severely attacked on a daily basis.

As the campaign drew to its end you couldn’t help but feel something big was going to happen, it was a very tense time, many sleepless nights, clutching onto my phone in anticipation for a big story to cover. From a photographic perspective it was a great learning curve in terms of covering large gatherings & rallies, as a foreigner one thing that stood out for me was how passionate supporters of the various parties are, in Australia its seems rather contrived by comparison.  Capturing this ‘passion’ was equally as important as getting a good photo of Fonseka himself.

Election day arrived, people went to the polls & I sneaked my way into the polling booths (media arent allowed inside the polling halls). By midday I had got my photos & had been warned enough by army personal not to enter any more polling booths. By mid afternoon I was back at the newsdesk going through my work from the month. The only things left in the campaign were taking photos of the victor & the loser the following day…so I thought.

Part 2 to come…