Galle, 116 km (74miles) located at southwest corner of the island is the largest town in the region. To arrive at Galle, we drive along the Galle road (western coastal road).
Colombo / Mount Lavinia (Colonial Mount Lavinia Hotel) / Moratuwa / and then a fine stretch of beaches – Wadduwa (beach) / Kalutara (beach) / Beruwala Bay Beach / Bentota Bay Beach Resort (prime beach resort – beach & lagoon) / Induruwa (beach & turtles) / Kosgoda (beach & turtles) / Ahungalla (beach) / Balapitiya / Ambalangoda(beach & devil dance masks) / Senigama / Hikkaduwa (beach resort & corals) / Thiranagama / Dodanduwa.
The Biblicical history of Galle
According to Sir James Emerson Tennant Galle was the “Tarshish” referred to in the Bible. It was to Galle that King Solomon sent emissaries to procure the jewel that won him the heart of Queen Sheba. Owing to its strategic position on the sea routes between Arabia, India & Southeast Asia, the natural harbour & the picturesque seaside resort area surrounding it, Galle had become the centre of trade in olden days where sailing vessels laden with merchandize from Egypt, Persia, Arabia, South India, Malaysia, Singapore and the Eastern China converged. Host of nationalities lived and traded in Galle. The traders bartered their goods with the produce of the island, i.e. spices, ivory, gems and pearls. By the term “spices”, Arabs meant foodstuff including spices, all varieties of pulse & grain. In the markets of the city there were gems comprising of sapphires, rubies, cat’s eye and semi precious gems as tourmaline, amethysts and moonstones. The people of Galle prospered with the sale of exquisite curios made of tortoise shell, ebony, porcupine quills and elephants’ tusks. The Cripps Road inscription reveals the polyglot and poly-ethnic character of Galle. Even in early British times the earliest Embassies were situated in Galle. The first Consul from USA was resident in Galle.
The town got its name as ‘Gaalla’ in the native tongue as a result of the large number of bullock carts that took shelter therein following the long slow journeys from remote areas of the island. The favorite station with greater numbers of carts and bulls were called ‘Maagalla’ or Magalle.
Travellers Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo & Fa Hein
Besides traders & merchants, there are records of visits by legendary voyagers, such as traveler Fa Hein from China and traveler Marco Polo from the West. Perhaps the earliest recorded reference to Galle comes from the great Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, who observed Moorish vessels in the harbour in 1344.
Standing on a peninsula with a naturally sheltered anchorage on the east side, Galle has both a fine harbour & excellent natural defences. The old town, or Fort, occupies most of a south-pointing promontory. The new town with bus & train stations, shops & banks is in the mainland across the Galle road. In the peninsula link broadened by the British from reclaimed land is esplanade & Galle International Cricket Stadium.
Lorenzo De Almeida
In 1505 a Portuguese fleet with Lorenzo De Almeida, the son of the Viceroy of Goa at the helm, set sail to intercept Moorish vessels carrying cargoes of spice, but the fleet was blown off course & landed at what was to become the colonial gateway to the south. It is said newcomers christened the harbour Punto de Gale, after the crowing cockerels (gallo in Portuguese, gallus in Latin) that they heard. If that is a fanciful story, the symbol on a slab over the inner side of the original entrance on Queen’s street is ubiquitous. The symbol is a cock. The British later called it Point de Galle. However, the city was already named “Gaalla” by the Sinhalese even prior to the Portuguese era in Lanka.
In 1587 the Portuguese built a small fort, which they named Santa Cruz & followed up the construction with a series of bastions & walls. By and by the Portuguese held sway in western sea coast though on & off suffered defeats in Colombo & surroundings at the hands their arch enemies, King Mayadunne, the great warrior King Sitawake Rajasinghe at Sitawake kingdom, his rival commander, the formidable, peerless & ambidextrous Vidiya Bandara at Kotte kingdom & King Senarat & King Vimaladharmasuriya in Kandyan kingdom in the hills. The Portuguese wreaked havoc on Buddhist temples & by way of sword & fire forced the spread of Roman Catholicism on the populace in the western coastal belt. The Portuguese socio-cultural imprints are particularly strong in the language, religion, education, administration, food, dress, names, music and drama. The surnames Fernando, Perera, De Silva, Mendis, De Soysa, De Mel, Peiris & and personal names Don, Dona Peduru, Franciscu, Juvan, Singho, are some of them. Baila music was first introduced here by the Portuguese. But then in spite of the beautiful Sinhalese folk music & beautiful traditional Sinhalese music (late Sunil Shantha & with apologies to others who are not indicated herein), no music in the island makes the Sri Lankan toes tingle as Baila do.
In 1640 the Dutch defeated the Portuguese & persecuted them until they left these shores. The Dutch constructed huge ramparts and an enchanting Fort which forms a landmark in Galle that gives splendour to the town. They planned a township occupying most of the promontory (36 hectares) inside the fort with criss-cross roads and low roofed houses with massive walls and large doors and windows. They constructed an underground system of brick paved sewers, which was flushed by the action of the tides in the sea that surrounded the walls of the fort. They built a large church, which is called The Dutch Reformed Church that stands well even up to this day. The sheer scale of the town facing bastions here is brutally impressive, if not particularly aesthetic-a fitting memorial to Dutch Governor Petrus Vuyst (1726-29), who was largely responsible for their construction & whose cruelty & abuse of power was such that he was eventually recalled to VOC (Dutch East India Company) administrative headquarters in the East in Batavia (present Jakarta) & executed. Unlike to Portuguese, the religion to the Dutch was of secondary importance. Profit was its prime objective. Voila vote religion – ‘love of gain’. The charter of VOC in 1602 stated ‘Nature of government is such that it cannot suffer two equally great controlling powers, any more than a body can endure two heads’. Similarly, the civil power always had full and unfettered control over the ecclesiastical. Dutch stayed for 156 years.
In 1796, following the Dutch capitulation in the Napoleonic Wars, the British took over the Galle fort. Galle continued to serve as Ceylon’s principal harbour for much of the18th century. But then the improvements to Colombo harbour commenced to erode the trade & commerce in Galle. By the early 20th century, Galle lapsed into a tranquil decline, which by providence allowed the Dutch heritage in Ceylon to survive completely intact. It’s a delightfully quiet & easy going.
Recognition of Galle
In 1969, Galle fort was declared an archeological reserve by the U. N. In December 1988, UNESCO declared Galle Fortress as a World Heritage Site. A Parliament Act titled Galle Heritage Foundation Act was passed in 1994 in Sri Lanka. In the years following independence, Galle has recovered some of its lost dynamism. Today, once again Galle has become an important harbour of the Island.
The Fort today
The Galle fort is the best preserved colonial sea fortress in the whole of Asia. The massive ramparts & bastions today protect the area from modernization as effectively as they once protected Dutch trading interests from adventurers. Its low-rise streets lined with old churches & Dutch colonial villas with original street-facing colonnaded verandas & ornate gables, giving glimpses through open doors of plant-filled courtyards. Styles of art deco from the 1930s, & earlier art nouveau, are represented too, with Sinhalese touches. There are 473 houses in the fort, everyone counted by the staff of the Archeological Department which maintains an office in a converted Dutch building opposite the Old gate, which pursues a vigorous campaign to restore & preserve the fort’s architectural heritage. About 50 of the present buildings predate the British occupation with a further 104 constructed pre-1850. The recent real estate boom in Galle had converted the fort into a fashionable area. Colonial villas were bought up & renovated by foreign investors. New Oriental Hotel has been developed, branded & marketed by the name of Amangalle Hotel by Aman Resorts based in Singapore.
Two entry points: main gate & old gate
The Main Gate was built by the British in 1873 to handle the heavier traffic into the old city. This part of the wall, most heavily fortified with massive ramparts facing the landside was originally built by the Portuguese with moat & drawbridge & was substantially enlarged by the Dutch, who in 1667 split it into separate Star, Moon & Sun Bastions. The clock tower is quite modern & usually has a huge national flag flying from it.
The Old gate is on the Queen Street. The arch on the Fort side of the gate is inscribed with the coat of arms of VOC (Vereenigde Oost Indische Campagnie), showing two lions holding a crest topped by the inevitable cockerel), while the arch on the exterior, port-facing side is decorated with the British crest, “Dieu et mon droit”, & the date 1669.
A continuous rampart, surrounded on three sides by the sea, encircling the city (fort) is interrupted by 14 massive bastions. The two nearest to the harbour are Sun & Zwart, followed by Aurora & Point Utrecht bastions before the lighthouse, then Triton, Neptune, Clippenberg, Aeolus, Star & Moon. The best way to see the fort is to walk the length of the walls (90 minutes), & the best time to do it is around sunset. Only once-between Aurora Bastion & the Old gate-is it necessary to leave the wall. Part of the area between the Star & Aeolus Bastions is an off-limits military compound. South of the harbour Zwart (Black) Bastion is believed to be the only surviving part of the original Portuguese fortifications. During the Dutch period the 109 cannons were mounted on the 14 bastions.
It houses eight religious institutions that include Temples, Y.M.B.A, Y.W.C.A churches, Mosques, Zaviyas and Thakkiyas etc, that have pioneered and propagated religion and upheld all cultural values, morals, traditions, customs and other activities for several centuries.
For a peep into life in the days of the Dutch East India Company, look into this small museum at 31 Leyn Baan Street. Housed in a restored Dutch mansion of the time, it contains paintings, prints, documents, furniture & ceramics from the Dutch colonial era.
National Cultural Museum
Natural Cultural Museum is housed in an old colonial stone warehouse on Church Street as you enter the Fort. Exhibits include a model of Galle & the fort’s Dutch & Portuguese inheritance.
The old lighthouse with the lantern at the height of 92 feet above low-water, built in 1848 was burnt down in 1936. The new light was built in 1940 at Utreeth Bastion in the same street, lighthouse street called ‘Zeeburgstraat’ ‘Middelpuntstraat’ during the Dutch period. The lantern is 92 feet above low-water level.