Juliet Coombe, in Daily News, 29 September 2017, where the title is “The Rich Heritage of Galle Fort”
Juliet Coombe takes a look at this very special UNESCO World Heritage Site and its magnificent rampart walls and fascinating back streets.
Enter the old fortress built out of breathing corals as the main black tunnel gate by the cricket grounds opens up into a gash of bellowing air, with distended creepers riding pillion on giant Banyan trees hobnobbing with an ancient merchant caste. A strange choreography can always be detected here, with the musical call to prayer emanating from the mosque or the temple’s sound system merging with the toots of ice cream vendors’ bicycle horns and other hot and spicy snacks and pickle vendors plying the sonorities of their trade as the Indian Ocean thunders and whooshes by, barfing on the black rocks its named aft.
The real value
Asia’s most exciting sea Fort is at the crossroads of massive commercial changes and the greatest challenge today is to maintain its rich history while also trying to keep the original Fort people in situ. But to survive they recognise that livelihoods need to be created, though not at the expense of the Heritage of the buildings, which is always a fine balancing act. Luckily UNESCO is also evolving its views and one thing they have accepted is that the benefit of being a world heritage site is that the money made from it must trickle down to the people and their lives, so they’re also encouraging things like home-stay tourism.
It is important with increasing tourism numbers to see how the Galle Fort fits into the country and the world and how heritage can unite people and bring about peace, because what the heritage guardians of the fort want people to understand is, Galle Fort is not just the heritage of the people of Galle, it’s a shared heritage for all of us that live on the planet.
The Galle Heritage Foundation is passionate about making everyone understand the value of keeping the living heritage alive, demonstrating this through exciting exhibitions at the Maritime Museum and discussions within the community on the importance of the various architecture and keeping them intact, as this is where the real value of the buildings lie. After all easier buildings that can be changed or modernized can be purchased much more cheaply outside the Fort, demonstrating the extra value generated through heritage. The more a building is changed, the quicker the heritage value will disappear and the interest in the four hundred year old time locked fort.
One problem with the Fort is its closeness to the sea, which makes it very difficult to maintain the buildings because of the decaying effect of sea spray salt. So you have to look at that aspect as well, because the owners can’t spend money on maintaining the house unless they generate enough income to do so. The project restoring 55 historic houses in Galle Fort was very successful as today you can find many of them looking out for their historical plaques. One of the most serious architectural changes which have been done to the Dutch period houses was that the open verandas had been bricked up over the last century, because the majority of the people of the Fort are Muslims today. Some foreign sociologists came and asked Galle Heritage Foundation why we told them to open up those facades, as if it’s wrong to tell them to change that which is against their culture. However they left happy on discovering that it was vital for cross ventilation purposes, and so in 2007 and 2008 verandas were again opened up and many things were found in the walls including original columns as nothing was ever knocked down or thrown away in the past. The blocking up of them probably originated from desert living where it is sensible to stop the sand blowing into the buildings. When the facades were opened they found many interesting things bricked up inside. If you look at the original countries of many that have moved to the Fort through trade, there may be practical reasons why certain things were done to buildings but these might not be appropriate when they come to a place like tropical Sri Lanka.
For those visiting this fascinating living Sea Fort it is important to keep it neat and tidy so it is a pleasant experience for the next lot of visitors and people living here. It is important with tourist numbers growing that you take away all your rubbish so that you can help protect the amazing marine life around the Fort. Please note it is worth bringing your swim costumes and a sarong to cover up as you can snorkel at the beach near the British built 1938 lighthouse.
There is a dream that one day a period boat, a model of ‘Avondster’ or something like that is built to take the tourists around the Galle harbour area opposite the Lighthouse to get a better idea of how challenging merchant sea life really was and to make better links with it being a trading port and bring to life the real life experiences they faced trading in gems, spices and wild animals.