Galle – The walled city
The seaside town of Galle is 116 Km., from Colombo by road or rail, down the southwest coast. Both routes are picturesque, following the coastline closely for much of the way.
The walled city has stood since the early sixteenth century, through the Colonial periods of the Portuguese, Dutch and British and in our present times is proclaimed as an Archaeological Reserve and been identified as a World Heritage site.
The Portuguese took Galle from the Sinhala kings in 1587 and erected the first fortifications, a single wall fronted by a moat which extended from the sea to the harbour.
The Dutch landed in 1640 with 12 ships and 2,000 men under the command of Wilhelm Jacobsz Coster who defeated the Portuguese after severe fighting and a four-day siege. Akersloot Bastion is named after the birthplace of Coster, the Dutch commander who captured Galle.
The Dutch later converted the Portuguese fortaleza into a single bastion which they named Zwart Bastion and built a formidable line of defence, ringing the walled town by ten bastions, which endure to this day.
Through the rolling streams of time and change, Galle still retains as few other towns in Sri Lanka; an atmosphere of the past. The town was graced with considerable civic amenities and military features.
Despite recent face-lifts and new facades to many of the houses and the introduction of modern civic amenities like electricity, telephone systems, water and drainage services, the streets remain narrow and many are known by their original names such as Leyn-Baan street, Zeeberg street and Moderabaay street. A peep into the old houses reveal them to be spacious and airy, with large, ornamental doors and windows, pillared verandahs and cool inner courtyards and gardens.
Nothing bespeaks the town’s prosperity in British times as the splendid mansions – with the names Closenburg, Eddystone, Barthfield, Armitage Hill or Nooit-Gedacht- a few of which, though wrought with time’s changes, still exist.
The best preserved is Closenburg, the gracious and spacious bungalow built by the agent of the British shipping company, P & O: its roof trusses still display the P & O sunburst. Armitage Hill bungalow occupied a site rustically lovely- out of Galle town.
The drive to Baddegama is a delightful experience and leads out to the fine church consecrated in 1825, by Bishop Heber – Bishop of Calcutta. The church today is decorated in a purely indigenous style and at mass the Ceylon Liturgy is said in Sinhalese, sung to Sinhalese music. The fine pillars of the nave, each a single piece of ironwood timber should be noted and the view from the tower is worth the climb.
Around the city of Galle
Drive back through Dodanduwa, visiting, if permission can be arranged, the Buddhist island hermitage in the Ratgama Lake, a retreat of infinite peace and beauty.
Unawatuna bay provides safe swimming and snorkeling, protected as it is by a reef. Rhumassala Kanda is associated with the legend of the traditional Ramayana story. When the warrior Lakshman was wounded, a Himalayan herb was required for his cure and Rama des patched the Monkey-god Hanuman to fetch it. But Hanuman forgot the name of the herb, so to be on the safe side he tore off a hunk of the Himalayas, carried it on his back and dumped it, where it now lies!
Galle is the sort of place from which one must take away a souvenir. You may make a pick of Galle lace, -handmade, like the Brussels or the Honiton types. Where but in Galle may you plunge your hands into a bucketful of limpid moonstones or the more precious and rarer of gems, the blue sapphire or the ruby! These can be beautifully set according to your whim or wish!
Galle Fort was built first by the Portuguese, then modified by the Dutch during the 17th century. Even today, after 400 years of existence, it looks new and polished with reconstruction work done by Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka. Today Sri Lankan government and many Dutch people who still own some of the properties inside the fort are looking at making this one of the modern wonders of the world.
The Dutch fort also known as Ramparts of Galle withstood the Boxing Day tsunami which destroyed the Galle town. There are many Moor families who live inside this fort along with Sinhalese, Dutch, English, Portuguese and Germans. More details regarding the history of the fort can be found at the visitors centre and at the Dutch period museum inside the Fort.
Today, the citizens of Dutch fort in Galle are trying to make this a free port and a free trade zone. If successful no taxes are levied on the companies and individuals who reside inside the city.The tax system proposed inside the fort says there is no withholding tax, no tax on capital gains, no corporate tax for ten years from the start of the business, no VAT, and no profit tax.
Galle is located at the extreme southwest corner of the island, where the shoreline turns east towards Matara and Tangalle. The Fort, like most of the forts in Sri Lanka, is built on a small peninsula, belonging to the sea as much as to the land. There are treacherous rocks in the water near the fort, and a treacherous current, so a pilot was needed to approach it. The seafloor here is littered with shipwrecks. The only way to attempt a conquest was to attack it from the landside, where the Zon, Maan and Ster bastions are impenetrable.
There is a museum inside the Dutch fort which is in a Dutch Colonial building in Church Street is the Cultural Museum adjoining the Amangalla Hotel. The artifacts reflect the art and culture of the Southern Province. The National Maritime Museum is also situated inside the Galle fort. It is situated in a renovated Dutch building.
The rampart between the Zon and Maan bastions has been broken through in the British time to create a big entrance gate, to replace the old, smaller one near the harbour. On the inside of this older gate is the coat of arms of the VOC, where the British have put it, after putting up their own on the outside. The road leading up to the old gate used to be a causeway, with on the left the water of the bay and on the right a swampy area. Along the wall of the ramparts connecting the Zon, Maan and Ster bastions was a large moat. Everything on the right is now dry land on which cricket is played. On the left is a small beach where fishermen bring their catch ashore in the evenings. There is no longer a harbour to speak of.
UNESCO heritage site
Before the Dutch took Colombo from the Portuguese, Galle was their headquarters. Contrary to the Colombo Fort, the one in Galle was not only not demolished, but is one of the best preserved examples of 17th century colonial fortifications in the world, and is on the UNESCO list of World Monuments. The reason for its remarkable state of preservation is that this once busy trading town, visited by the East-India fleets and many regional traders, fell upon slack times after the Dutch had left. The development that did take place focused on the new town of Galle, outside the Fort.
An ‘ambalama’: a public resting place at the old town center
The Fort is really a walled city, with a rectangular pattern of streets full of the low houses with gables and verandas in the Dutch colonial style. An irony of history is that most of the inhabitants of old Galle, occupying the houses of the Dutch, are the descendants of the Muslim traders that the Dutch despised so much for their petty trade that violated their monopoly.
The Muslims have adapted many of the houses to their own likings, closing up the verandas with woodwork to prevent their women from being seen from outside.
Recently it is no longer allowed to alter any of these houses, some renovation is taking place, and private museums with handicraft shops have even been established.
There are also several interesting buildings from early British times, and an early 20th century light tower. The fort was started by the Portuguese in 1588, but there is nothing recognizably Portuguese left. Probably parts of the thick walls, that you can walk on almost all around the town, in the sunshine and the cool breeze, with the red-tiled roofs of the houses on the one hand, and the blue ocean on the other.
The Dutch, with a force of some 2,500 men under Koster, captured the fort from the Portuguese in 1640. Fortification went on until the early 18th century. They also built an elaborate system of sewers that were flooded at high tide, taking the sewage away to sea.
What to see inside the Fort
A canon mount on the ramparts
Across the water are the walls of Galle, and behind them one can clearly see all the important buildings of the Fort. The hotel is in ongoing danger of destruction to make place for industrial development on the shoreline beneath it, but it has managed to hold out for now.