Galle Fort: Fortified, yet open to all | Sunday Observer

Galle Fort: Fortified, yet open to all

30 October, 2016
The Flagrock Bastion facing the sea

In 1505, the Portuguese arrived in Ceylon, unintentionally, their fleet having been driven to shelter by a storm. They established a small trading port on the coast but it was not until 1588, when the coastline underwent a siege from the dynasties of the Sinhala Kingdom, that the Portuguese withdrew to Galle and built a small fort there.

Nearly a century later, the Dutch took over the fort after a fierce battle and restored it. They built bastions and modernized the fort.They had constructed a large portion of the present 36-hectare Fort which extends about 700 metres, north to south. The ramparts and bastions seen today existed during the Dutch period.

Visitors stroll in the narrow streets in the Fort

Galle still retains its characteristically Dutch architecture with gabled buildings, with large verandahs constructed on rounded pillars. A few houses still retain their massive doors which were in four sections, with iron fittings surmounted by carved and monogrammed fan-lights. The Dutch also built an ingenious system of sewage drainage which utilized the flow of the tide to flush the sewers.

The Dutch improved the fort by constructing an encircling rampart with 14 bastions, the three most important being the Zon (Star), Maan (Moon) and Ster (Sun), which separated the peninsula from the mainland. Inside the fort they devised a grid system of straight but narrow (now motorable) streets and built houses in a distinctive architecture.

But, eventually, it changed hands again, this time with the British in charge. They built the first-ever lighthouse at the star bastion and strengthened it further, but many of the Dutch constructions are still intact.

One can hardly travel to the Southern coast without paying a visit to its most historic city, Galle. It is a good place to begin discovering the South, since it is easily reached by rail or road from Colombo. Recently, we had an opportunity to travel to Galle on the Southern Expressway which can sometimes surprisingly be more time consuming than the coastal drive.

The most prominent landmark in Galle is the 36-hectare Fort, of which southern and western ramparts afford spectacular views of the Indian Ocean, just a few feet away. The original gate to the fort remains, inscribed with the Dutch VOC (Vereenigde OostIndische Compagnie) arms with a rooster crest. The outer arch of this same gate, with its 1.3 metre thick walls, bears the British coat of arms.

Dutch reformed Church, Groote Kerk, built by the Dutch in 1755

The present main entrance to the fort is situated midway along the northern rampart and was opened by the British in 1873. As you walk through the narrow streets within the Fort, the Dutch flavour is still evident. One can see a strong Dutch influence in the architecture, along with some wonderful old British residences, and reflecting the majority Muslim populace, various mosques and Arabic touches.

Strolling around the ramparts and the cobbled streets, one sees the lighthouse, National Maritime Museum, columned verandahs through open doorways, mysterious inner courtyards and churches that take you to the era when battles were fought at sea and enemies were locked up.

By early morning, we were at the Dutch built Fort in Galle admiring the marvellous works of a bygone era. We parked our vehicle in a corner of Lighthouse Street and began to venture inside the Fort. Walking is the best way to explore and discover the Fort.

Walking around the chip-tile laid narrow streets, we peeped into the houses in the fort. The ancient buildings have been renovated and people delight in showing visitors their homes. Doors are open during the day, and if you peep in someone is sure to invite you in, to admire an antique screen that partitions the houses and floor tiles that came from Kerala more than a century ago, or some priceless ebony wooden lounge and furniture. A lot of foreigners have bought property here, so it is a multicultural environment.

A walk through the Fort excites one’s curiosity. Space is scarce, and houses are packed close together with narrow frontages, yet, inside they conceal numerous rooms and hidden gardens. Most of the Fort’s current local residents are Muslim, a reminder of those early Moorish traders, and the glistering white Meeran Jumma Mosque stands close to the lighthouse.

Admiring the Dutch houses, we toured the Fort, strolling its narrow streets and visited its two museums, the National Museum and the great Warehouse now occupied by the National Maritime Museum. Staying awhile within the walls we caught a hint of the secrets of its past and present. During the Tsunami, part of the Warehouse had been destroyed and later, restored to its former glory.

Then we came to Leyn Baan Street which leads to the busiest area of the Fort. We saw a group of children play cricket in the chip tiles-laden ground and proceeding further up the lane we came across a magnificent private museum which houses a number of antiques, from coins to an old printing press. It is worth a visit. Adjoining this is an art and craft boutique where we saw elegant wood carvings for sale. We also met a wood carver who makes stunning wood carvings on the spot. We walked along the many streets in the Fort, such as, Pedlar Street, Lighthouse Street and Queen Street which are different in character.

Children play cricket on the lawn in the Fort

We also walked along narrow and empty streets that reveal much about the life of the people in the Fort. We visited Dutch houses, the Dutch Reformed Church Groote Kerk, built by the Dutch in 1755 and one of the oldest Protestant churches still patronised in the country.

The lighthouse that was built during the British era is believed to have been burnt down and the present one constructed in 1938 on a restored stand where canons had been placed on the sea side. We climbed the limestone and granite rampart wall and looked out into the Galle Bay, a natural harbour, as the colours of the morning were reflected in the water.

The popularity of Galle as a tourist destination is most evident when many European and Asian tourists in casual wear were seen mingling with the locals walking along the rampart walls of the Fort which provide an excellent relaxing atmosphere with a cool sea breeze.

We are told that in the mid-1990s the Galle Fort has experienced a positive change. A number of foreigners began to purchase the Fort’s aged Dutch houses and restored them. The Galle International Cricket Stadium located at the base of the star bastion overlooking the Galle clock tower became a venue for Test cricket matches since 1998. With an increased demand for accommodation for visiting cricketers and fans, many of the Dutch buildings in the Fort have been converted into modern hotels, villas, bungalows, guesthouses and boutiques.

Today, much of the granite and limestone ramparts and green lawns in the Fort face the threat of losing their beauty because the cricket fans and visitors use alternative routes through the grass lawn, removing the stones to reach the top of the rampart walls during cricket matches. Perhaps, this may lead to environmental and aesthetic damage to the Fort.

In 1988, the Galle Fort was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its colonial heritage. Entry to the Fort costs nothing and visitors can enter freely through its two gates.

You can walk the streets inside the Fort, but regardless of how many times you visit, you will never completely get to know the Fort and all its secrets.

The Lighthouse built in    The crest of the Dutch East India   A wood carver working at his shop
1938 in the Galle Fort     Company, dated 1669                       at Leyn Baan Street