Dreaming of Galle

We were in Sri Lanka over the new year holidays. But whenever we told people we were going to Sri Lanka, they looked at us like we’d lost our minds. But, fortunately, we were going to the southern part of the country, far away from most of the internal conflict. We spent a couple of days at the beach (where this picture was taken). Gorgeous, but as gorgeous as most gorgeous beaches.

Then we spent a few days in Galle Fort – what an amazing place! The Galle Fort is the only living fort in the world Sri Lanka [corrected] and the Galleans are very proud of it and rightfully so. Galle’s history dates back to 1344 AD when merchants from all parts of the world like Portugal, China and Southern India docked for trade. In 1505, the Portuguese stop by Galle on their way to the Maldives and in 1588, the first fortification was built. In 1640, the Dutch captured the fort after a bloody battle and an eighteen day siege. And it was the Dutch that saw the completion of the ramparts of the fort that still stand today.

The name Galle is attributed to the Portuguese. Apparently, the sailor who was on the lookout for land saw a crowing rooster on a rock face and called out “Galla – buonovista”, a rooster – a beautiful sight. In fact, while the English pronunciation of Galle sounds like Gaul (as in the Asterix and Obelix cartoons), the Sri Lankans pronounce it Gal-la or more accurately Gal-le, the le like the French le in le maison.

Galle even claims links to the Ramayana! In the Ramayana, when Lakshmana is injured, Rama sends Hanuman to find the Sanjeevani herb from the Himalayas. Hanuman can’t find the plant and he instead uproots and whole mountain and flies back to Lanka. Apparently a chunk of it fell off, now forming the Rumassala hill in Galle. The locals profess that the hill has some very rare and healing plants which are found only in Galle… and the Himalayas.

Galle itself is a the fourth largest city in Sri Lanka and is filled with ugly buildings and over-construction. But the little city within the fort is very different.

View from the rampartsStanding on the ramparts, the sight of the bay is magnificent. It is amazing to think that the walls built centuries ago withstood the Tsunami of 2004. The water knifed around the rampart walls, and destroyed the city of Galle. As the water receded from the city, through the fort and back to the bay, the fort did flood about 2 feet in the low-lying areas, but the damage was minimal and no houses were affected.

Inside the fort, it is like being thrown back to another century. Life immediately calms down. The pace slows and you want to walk slowly, talk quietly and breathe deeply. Muslims, Christians and Buddhists all live peacefully within the fort – a point of pride for Galleans who told us that unlike the rest of Sri Lanka, the residents of the fort see themselves as a community first, religious distinctions came later. They were eager to give us examples of how the communities helped each other in the upkeep of the mosques, churches and temples.

The fort claims quite a few well-known residents, foremost amongst them, Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most famous architect. If you are into architecture, check out his work, it is astounding.

houseThere are about 250 houses inside the fort and in recent years, expats have started to move in, charmed by the idyllic lifestyle. The first expat moved in in 1999 and today 72 of the homes have been bought by foreigners. They buy homes that are run down and re-do them, restoring the soaring ceilings, cool interiors and indoor courtyards. They often enhance these with indoor pools to create private havens.

shopShopping is plentiful within the fort. You can wander up and down Leyn Bann street and find much entertainment. Even though we are Indian and I thought we could blend into the Sri Lankan population, we must have had tourists plastered on our foreheads since we were hit on by numerous touts offering to show us around. Eschew all such offers — you can walk the length and breadth of the fort on your own and can’t possibly get lost. Besides the persistent touts though, the people are wonderful – warm, generous with their time and eager to help.

AmanGallaThe most economical way of enjoying the fort is to rent one of the houses from an expat who’s out of town. But there are also two wonderful hotels located inside the fort – the Galle Fort Hotel and the AmanGalla. Both are fabulous hotels that have been painstakingly restored. AmanGalla used to be called the New Orient Hotel hotel and is Sri Lanka’s oldest surviving hotel. It has striking similarities to the Raffles hotel in Singapore. It is the perfect place to spend the afternoon, nestled in a plantation chair, reading a book and the indulging in some wonderful tea with scones and finger sandwiches. Charming doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The Galle Fort is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As it should be. It is a place you’ll want to return to many times.

All too quickly, it was time to leave. Security was tight getting into the Galle Naval Base and fortunately, it was only then that ? (Ohm)1 reminded me that the LTTE had attacked the base just a couple of months ago – thank god he didn’t bring it up earlier or I would have been stressed about it instead of enjoying my time there.

Galle from the airWe waited by a gorgeous lake for my first ever seaplane ride and we headed to Colombo and back to reality. Looking down over Galle, I wished for Galle and Sri Lanka a lasting peace that such a beautiful place and such a warm people truly deserve.

  1. My husband, has now become “The Artist Formerly Known As (Name Hidden)” and will hereby go by this symbol, which is used to denote Ohm. It also sounds like the Sanskrit Om… all very symbolic and all that jazz.