The pride of a nation and the country in the eyes of the world is enhanced by its civilization, its culture and its natural beauties. Endowed with these qualifications with a 2500 year old history supported by ancient archaeological treasures, Sri Lanka is rated as a bio diversity hot-spot of the world.
A recent visit to the Galle Fort World Heritage Site, the writer came face to face with evidence of ‘disintegration’ of this historical location.
The Galle Dutch Fort is a rare historical jewel protected by dark, thick stone walls – with the endless ocean on one side. The roads inside the Galle Fort have hardly changed, like the squares on a chess board crisscrossing in regular patches. Straight and narrow lanes branch in and out inviting the visitor to a delightful walk into the 17th century.
dutch clock tower at Galle Fort
Today’s Peddler Street was called “Moorse Kramerstraat” by the Dutch, Lighthouse Street was “Zeeburgstraat and Middelpuntstraat”, Hospital Street as `Nieuwe Lijnbaanstraat and Lijnbaanstraat (New Ropewalk Street), Old Ropewalk Street as Oude Lijnbaanstraat (Old Rope-Walk Street), Church Street as Kerkstraat, Parrawa Street as “Parruasstraat” and Chiando Street as “Chiandostraat”. Through this memory walk one would however miss the 17th century familiar vendors who traded in cinnamon, lace, elephants, tortoise and turtle shell ornaments besides the famous down south sweetmeats like “bondi aluwa” hanging in garlands from the shoulders of vendors.
Built by the Portuguese in 1620, the Galle Fort was fortified by the Dutch in 1667. The historical walk would also revive memories of places within the Fort as Sao Lago (Sun Bastion), Middelpunt (Moon Bastion), Cavaliar, Sao Antonio and Zeepunt (Star Bastion), Porte da Muro (Wall Gate), Porte da traisao (Treason Gate)Santa Cruz and Zwarte Fort (Black Fort), Akersloot Bastion, Halve Maanrje (Utrecht Bastion or Half Moon), Nieuw Werk (Klipenburg Bastion) Nieuwe Punt (New Point), Halve Bolwerk (Half Bastion)- Aeolus Bastion, Triton Bastion, Neptune Bastion, Aurora bastion, Rocky Bastion, Negotie-mantoor (Trade Office).
This original rare old antique engraved print from: “Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indiën” (Old and New East Indies) by François Valentyn / Valentijn, published in 1724-1726.
Ancient monuments within this historical complex included the Lighthouse, the clock tower, the first Dutch Reformed and Anglican churches, the Meera Mosque, the Buddhist Temple, and the Commander’s Residence. Worthy of mention is the Dutch Reformed Church with its baroque facade and the usual double scroll mouldings on its gables which testify to indigenous influence. The military architecture of the Fort is European in design. The unique Galle Fort is still the best preserved fortified city in South Asia.
The historical importance of this monument is unchallenged. The origins of 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.
The fortification of the Galle Fort as a seat of administration was seen during the Portuguese, Dutch and British periods. The neglect of the Fort began after 1948 with vandalism being prevalent.
Considering its importance as an outstanding architectural and archaeological monument in Asia during the colonial period and to prevent its further degradation the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Committee on Monuments and Sites (COSMOS) registered Galle Fort as a World Heritage Site. Subsequently, the Government of Sri Lanka enacted legislation under the Galle Heritage Foundation Act No. 7 of 1991 for the conservation and management of the Galle Fort and environs.
17th Century Map of the fort at Galle 1790
Since then the Galle Public Awareness Programme was launched with assistance from the Netherlands Government in association with the Departments of Archaeology and Museums, the Ceylon Tourist Board and the Amsterdam and the Netherlands Departments of Conservation. A Maritime Museum was opened on March 28 1999.
Archaeological experts and other organisations interested in the preservation of this World Heritage site are raising alarm at the facilities afforded to foreigners to purchase land within the Galle Fort by even removing the one hundred percent tax levied on such purchases. By 1998 over 50 houses had been bought by non-Lankans including 30 Dutch colonial period houses. Are the alarm bells ringing far too late – or is there hope yet for the survival of this historic monument?
Foreigners are also accused of resorting to devious methods to hoodwink government officials to obtain liquor licenses and permits to operate their various businesses. The GFWHPS also points out that foreigners have also encroached on our southern beaches where they have purchased houses with beach frontage. Whilst appealing to the Government to strictly enforce laws to protect our World Heritage and Archaeological Sites the Society warns that the dark side of western culture which promotes evils such as vice dens and paedophiles will be the cancer that will destroy local civil society in these areas as well as future generations.The Galle Fort World Heritage Protection Society (GFWHPS) has made an appeal to the Government urging their immediate attention to protect our World Heritage Sites. They allege that foreigners who purchase sites within the Galle Fort have contravened the Antiquities Act which is a non-bailable offense.
Experts, archaeologists and environmentalists point out that even the richest nations in the world have imposed restrictions and impediments in UNESCO declared Heritage, Archaeological and valuable sites. Whilst querying whether the quiet transformation of this historical site will prove to be the final chapter of its long history, they inform the government that what they are now bartering for foreign economic gains is the national heritage of our future generations.