Living Anachronisms: The ‘Old Dutch Stables’ – Now, The Princely Press of Pettah

A weekday morning in Pettah. The incoming Southwest monsoon had brought with it a shower of rain, and dark clouds hanging heavy in the sky portend more to come. The narrow streets are muddy, the dust that usually coats it streets, dampened and turned turbid by rushing feet. 

Pettah is usually a fusion of rushing porters, loud vendors and hurried commuters—and today is no different. 

But in the mid to late 17th Century, the landscape was. 

Pettah, then known as the Dutch Ouad Stad (Old City), was not the busy commercial area it is today, but a residential one, in which Burghers and other communities that served in the Dutch East India Company lived. 

Pettah has long since transformed, and very few of the edifices from the Dutch period remain. These include the Dutch Museum, formerly the residence of Governor of Dutch Ceylon, Thomas van Rhee–and this hidden gem, a living anachronism—a building believed to have once been part of the Governor’s Stables.

 But the entryway belies the history that lies inside.

You will not find the ‘Old Dutch Stables’ unless you know what you are looking for. Dwarfed between multi-storeyed buildings, this structure, which is now home to the ‘Princely Press’ is dilapidated and in a state of disrepair. Photo credits: Roar Media/Kris Thomas

Upon entering, you find a long corridor lined with old teak glass cabinets, containing various paraphernalia.  Photo credits: Roar Media/Kris Thomas

It is here, that Nihal Senarath, Wickramasinghe and ‘Bala’—the three proprietors of the ‘Princely Press’, sit here and chat about this, that and the other. 

On either side of the corridor are a multitude of doors that have been walled up. 

About ten feet in, is this relic of massive masonry—an arch, on elaborately decorated columns, with a horseshoe engraved on its keystone. Photo credits: Roar Media/Kris Thomas

“This building is over 200 years old, we think,” Wickramasinghe said. “And that horseshoe, right there, means that this was the stables for the Dutch Governor.”

This is contested—archaeologist Chryshane Mendis arguing that there is no proof that the building was the stables of Dutch Governor Thomas van Rhee—in the absence of evidence proving otherwise, the myth is commonly perpetuated and widely accepted. 

The corridor is dark and only dimly lit by shafts of sunlight and the neon glow of fluorescent lights and lamps. The ‘Princely Pres’s is over 70 years old, but does not own the building. They rent it from a wealthy businessman who owns several other plots of valuable land in Pettah. Photo credits: Roar Media/Kris Thomas
The printing press. This is where the action would happen—on a normal day. But right now, the main printer—printing all four primary colours at a steady rate of 10 prints per second—is broken. Photo credits: Roar Media/Kris Thomas 

When I asked Wickramasinghe why he doesn’t repair it, he laughed in my face. 

The ‘Princely Press’ prints business cards, bill books and a variety of other small stationery items and documents. It has not evolved with time and stands out like a relic from the past.  Here, a man rotates the handle of a binding press, which is not in use anymore. Photo credits: Roar Media/Kris Thomas 
The faded yellow walls are an indication that the ‘Princely Press’ was once a colonial building. The walls are unpainted, peeling and covered in grime and dirt. The press is in a constant state of chaos and clutter of paper and paraphernalia cover the area. Photo credits: Roar Media/Kris Thomas 
A man, handling the paper cutter. Above him is a portrait of the founder—M. K. Lewis. These walls shelter the only room in the building that maintains any semblance of order. Photo credits: Roar Media/Kris Thomas 
While some part of the ‘Old Dutch Stables’ has, over the years, undergone cheap repair and renovation, the original structure remains intact. But in the absence of preservation—for how long more? Photo credits: Roar Media/Kris Thomas 
Whatever the origins, it is clear the ‘Old Dutch Stables’ are worth preserving. Photo credits: Roar Media/Kris Thomas 

While there is some dispute over the origins of the building—Mendis citing R. L. Brohier, in his Changing Face of Colombo, to point out that many of the residents of the Ouad Stad who owned horses had stables at the back of their homes—also pointing to the fact that the horseshoe was then a common symbol of luck, it is clear that the ‘Old Dutch Stables’, now home to the ‘Princely Press’ is a Colonial building worth preserving. 

Pettah has gone through many changes, and will continue to evolve with time. What happens to living anachronisms like the ‘Old Dutch Stables’ now the ‘Princely Press’, remain to be seen.

Related Articles