The seaside town of Galle is 116 Km away from Colombo by road or rail, down the south coast of Sri Lanka. Both routes are picturesque, following the coastline closely for much of the way. You can also take the Southern Expressway if you need to reach the city by half the time but there is not much scenery to admire.
Today’s town has grown greatly and spreads into the surroundings but the Fort is the slowbeating heart of Galle‘s history. 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 has been identified as a living World Heritage Site. The etymology of the name Galle is explained as probably an altered form of the Sinhalese word “gala”: a cattle fold or posting-place from which the Portuguese named it Point-de-Galle. The simpler and more popular theory is found in the similarity of the Sinhalese word: gala, for rock, which the Portuguese duplicated by adopting the Latin word: gallus, for rooster. They thus designed the coat-of-arms of the city as that of a rooster standing upon a rocky perch.
The Portuguese captured Galle from the Sinhala kings in 1587 and erected the first fortification, 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.
The Dutch later converted the Portuguese “fortalezza” 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. Akersloot Bastion is named after the birth-place of Coster, the Dutch commander who captured Galle. The name has been chiselled on a stone at the spot and also bears a date which, however, has no bearing on the date of erection of the Bastion. The grim old walls are a favourite promenade for Galle‘s citizens and its visitors alike.
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. Two hundred years ago a storm-water drainage system was introduced which prevented flooding in the Fort. It was so sophisticated as to have great brick-lined, underground drains, which were automatically flushed twice a day by the tide. 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 reveals them to be spacious and airy, with large, ornamental doors and windows, pillared verandahs and cool inner courtyards and gardens.
A Guide to Galle Highlights
A monument of particular interest in the Fort is the Dutch Church dedicated in 1754. It was built on the site of a Portuguese Capuchin Convent and on an earlier Protestant, “Groote Kerk”, built in 1640. The present Dutch church was erected as a thank-offering by Gertruda Adrianna Le Grand, wife of the Commandeur Gasparus de Jong, for the long-prayed birth of a son.
The church merits half an hour of the visitor’s time and perusal. Within, is an organ loft which once held a cumbrous Dutch organ, hatchments on the walls and engraved tombstones on the floor. Of great interest is the orthodox pulpit, the finest specimen found in any church in Sri Lanka, hexagonal in shape and of finely grained calamander wood with panels of satin wood.
Underneath the platform of the pulpit is an exquisite carving in “pomegranate pattern”, while the sounding board is massive and suspended from the wall with iron rods and hoops.
Antiquities of Galle
The Dutch Commandeur’s residence or Government House, Queen’s House in the British era, can be seen down the street opposite the Dutch Church which leads to the old gate. Over the doorway of this residence is a large stone slab on which the date 1683 and the figure of a rooster inscribed.
Another of the antiquities of Galle, is the old main gate that leads to the Fort. The visitor should pause to study two stones on the walls over the entrance and exit of this gateway, which tells the story of the conquests of the old city. The lion and unicorn of the British coat-of-arms is found over the outside arch and on the inside is a monogram of the Dutch East India Company, a shield with the initials V.O.C. chiselled upon it and two lions supporting the crest: the date inscribed is 1669.
On either side of this gateway are further legacies of Dutch trade in the East, old warehouses, called pakhuis. A powder magazine at Point Utrecht Bastion, bears the inscription: “A A.J. Galle den 1st Zeber (September), 1787.”
Galle was handed over to the British in terms of a treaty signed in Colombo in February 1796. The preservation of the Fort and the old town was maintained and continues to be of Government concern to the present day.
In contrast to the Portuguese and Dutch, there are many British relics found in the town. Until the artificial harbour was built round the Colombo roadstead in the 1870’s, Galle was Ceylon’s chief port of call, and there were many hotels at this time. Today only two have survived, the New Oriental Hotel within the Fort and Closenburg overlooking the harbour.
In 1873 a second entrance to the Fort, now used more as the Main Gate, was opened between the Moon and Sun Bastions. Gibbet is the name given to one of the small islands across the bay and is today a part of the fisheries harbour, the dry docks and an inlet, where sailing yachts berth.
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 an agent of the British shipping company, P & O: its roof trusses still display the P & O sunburst. Armitage Hill bungalow occupies a site rustically lovely out of Galle town.
Unawatuna bay provides safe swimming and snorkelling, since it is protected 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 despatched 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 chunk 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. The visitor may make a pick of Galle lace, handmade, like the Brussels or the Honiton types. The shops of jewellers would entice the females. Where but in Galle can many visitors plunge their 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 the whim or wish of the buyer.
Baddegama and Buddhist Island Hermitage
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.
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. Other drives worth taking from Galle are to the excellent sea-bathing spot at Watering Point where a rill of fresh water, once used by mariners, runs down to the beach. Here you can enjoy a magnificent view of Galle, of its bays and inlets, seen from the summit of this drive.