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The Galle Fort

By Avisha De Sarem

It’s like taking a stroll through history itself. With every step you feel the stories of those who came before you. Like the centre of a spider web, connecting cultures, continents and centuries gone by.

In the mid 1800’s the sprawling fort of Galle was one of the most cosmopolitan towns in South Asia. This majestic edifice in the Southern port city of Galle, the largest fort in the country, was built by the Portuguese in 1587 at Point de Galle, after they were blown off course from the Maldives in the early 1500’s. This marked the beginning of a game of gargantuan endurance of successive imperial reins.

The Portuguese captured Galle from the Sinhala kings in 1587, only to succumb to the Dutch in 1640. A hundred years later, the Dutch imported slaves from Mozambique to build an enormous fortress to accommodate the regional headquarters of the Dutch East India Company- the world’s first multinational company. The Dutch expanded and strengthened the Fort and it is their influence and architecture that is most prominent in the Fort today. The Dutch remained for almost 150 years, until the city was taken by the British in 1796 and Galle became a strategic hub for ships sailing between Asia and Europe. A combination of historical & architectural significance led Galle Fort and its surroundings to be declared a World Heritage site in 1988.

Photograph by Dominic Sansoni www.threeblindmen.com

Two hundred years later it is in the midst of a cultural and architectural renaissance. Remarkably intact, the Fort’s charming collection of Dutch and British buildings - edged with breezy verandas and central courtyards are designed as an oasis from blazing tropical heat. Galle has a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population who live side by side. Mosques, churches and warehouses are being scrubbed, buffed and reinvented as jewels of Sri Lanka’s hottest tourist destination.

Take to the Fort by foot and prepare for an unforgettable visit back in time to the best-preserved living colonial fort in Asia. Wander through the narrow streets and stumble upon the many private museums and antique shops. A few steps deeper and cafes emerge from behind restored columns; interior design shops mingle with bookstores and fashion boutiques. Take a turn and walk among the locals as they promenade the ramparts. Rising up from the azure of the Indian Ocean rimmed with coral beaches, every evening the barricades - lined with ancient towers, baronial-style gateways and the iconic lighthouse - fill with young lovers hiding under umbrellas, children playing cricket on makeshift pitches and groups of tuk-tuk drivers lounging in their crayola-coloured three wheelers.

There are two main gates in Galle Fort. The Portuguese built the walls in front of the Fort. The Dutch have reinforced them by building several bastions – Star Bastion, Moon Bastion and Sun Bastion to name a few. At the harbour side gate you might notice that the outer walls contain the logo of the British while the logo of the Dutch East India Company, VOC,( Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie,) is on the inside walls.

Worthy of mention is the Dutch Reformed Church with its baroque facade and the usual double scroll moldings on its gables which testify to indigenous influence. The Dutch Museum houses a large collection of items used during the Dutch Period and is situated near the Oriental Hotel, which was built all the way back in 1694. The first Marine Museum of Sri Lanka is housed near the Old Gate.

The bread fruit tree (a flowering tree from the mulberry family) inside the Fort is believed to be the oldest such tree in Sri Lanka. Popular belief is that the Dutch introduced bread fruit to Sri Lanka assuming that the highly ‘heaty’ nature of bread fruit would make the locals gravely ill. But Sri Lankans ate bread fruit with coconut, naturally a prolific part of the traditional island diet, which, luckily enough, neutralized the adverse effects of the fruit. Ultimately it became a delicacy among the population. (Perhaps a testament to the enduring nature of the locals, bread fruit is still so popular that there is no part of Sri Lanka where bread fruit trees cannot be found.)

The origins of ancient Galle though lost in antiquity still survive through artifacts, which confirm its existence in pre-Christian and Roman eras. Through medieval ages, the Galle Fort emerged as Ceylon’s major southern international port attracting Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Persian, Roman and Arab traders. Once famed for its wealth and cosmopolitan airs, a recent restoration spree thanks to string of innovative hoteliers and a generous donation from the Dutch government, Galle is being transformed into one of South Asia tourism hotspots.

Galle is a setting of historical, archaeological and architectural significance. A rare historical jewel protected by thick and blackened stonewalls - with the endless ocean on one side and the famed Galle Cricket Stadium at its entrance. The roads inside the Galle Fort have hardly changed, like the squares on a chessboard crisscrossing in regular patches. Linear narrow lanes twist and turn inviting the visitor to a delightful walk into the 17th century.

This article was originally published at:

Tripin Publication 2013 - www.tripinsl.com

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