Galle Fort

A culturally rich space is a product of the symbiotic relationship between its architecture and its community; the chemistry created through the consequence of the interaction between the people surrounding it and the landscape that encapsulates it. In the essence of its cultural context, architecture does not pertain to a single ideal, for it is an accumulation of cultural values and value systems, an agenda that embraces diverse components of varying cultures and eras. The symbiosis of nature and architecture create a multicultural space that exists as an indication of its past lives and lifestyles, symbolic of its history and ancestry and within these nuances exude beauty. The ideals and concept of art and architecture infusing through community and nature is not perceived as a single entity but an amalgamation and infusion of diverse cultures coexisting altered and changed throughout time, eras and epochs. The coexistence of varying cultures then becomes a beautiful example of the synergy that creates a community exotic and diverse. 

The history of Sri Lanka is distinct as it is a consequence of multiple cultures and influences from religion to European colonisations. Subsequently, the present context of the Sri Lankan culture is popular for its combination of traditional and conventional elements intricately and beautifully weaved through urban and modern aspects. From food to clothing, the unique identity of Sri Lanka is beautifully represented and perceived. The applied art of architecture, in fact, becomes an intriguing representative of the Sri Lankan personality, from its religious spaces to domestic landscapes. Showcasing varying characteristics of rich culturally influenced architectural forms and styles, Sri Lankan architecture carries a personality of its own. In exploring the amalgamation of cultures coexisting, we look at the famously popular Galle Fort in Sri Lanka. 

The Galle Fort has been noted as an outstanding example of the culmination of European architecture and South Asian conventions, rightly presenting the relationship and interaction between the diverse cultures and personalities from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The tale of the culturally rich Fort is recorded to begin in the sixteenth century, the evidence of its existence first appearing in Ptolemy’s world map of 125-150 AD when it was a bustling trading port between the country and the Greeks, Arab countries, China and more; documented as ‘ports of call of the Levant’ in the cosmography of Cosmas Indicopleustes as early as 545, existing as the principal port of Ceylon. Renowned and famous traveller, Ibn Battuta is also recorded to have landed here in his journey to explore the lands of Ceylon. 

When the Portuguese settlers arrived in 1505, they first put down roots in Colombo and then withdrew to Galle in 1585 where they designed and constructed a rampart from coral and granite and three bastions to defend the peninsula on the northern landside, however, did not fortify the seaward side. The Dutch then took over in 1640 and decided to reconstruct and replace the Portuguese defence systems. They fortified the whole of the peninsula with a bastioned stone wall. Many of the original Dutch precedes with a few changes; with 14 bastions in defence and curtain walls built in 1663, as well as the northern fortified gate that’s protected by the drawbridge and ditch constructed in 1669, most of the city spread across a rectangular grid adapting to the landscape. By 1729, the protected sea wall was fully constructed and the establishment housed 500 families, many public administrations, trade establishments and warehouses. In 1775, a Protestant Baroque-styled Church – the oldest church in Sri Lanka – was built for the European colonists and few Christian converts from design plans drawn by Abraham Anthonisz. 

The story then follows that the British took over in 1796, a week after the surrender of Colombo. Upon the ruling of the British, much of the fortifications were modified where ditches were filled in and new blockhouses added, a gate was put in between two bastions, the Moon bastion and the Sun bastion while a lighthouse was installed on the Utrecht bastion, and a tower erected for Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1883. During the Second World War, more work and modifications were done to restore the defensive aspects and functionality of the fortifications. 

Since the independence, much of the original architecture and its changes have altered and been manipulated over the years, changing with climate and change in geography and landscape. A notable characteristic of the Sri Lankan architecture of which we often see in other buildings as well are the verandahs, boundaries fencing between the public street and a house; at the Galle Fort, these verandahs decorating the surrounding architecture are being broken down to open up space make for more visible shop fronts, as narrated in The Ceylon Chronicles, Volume 2. Issue 1. The publication also records esteemed architect discussing the changing architecture and heritage of the Galle Fort, “Much of the architectural structures you see in Galle Fort today are not actual heritage buildings but imagined ideas of Dutch architecture.” 

Having been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, the Old Town of Galle and its fortifications are documented to have been the centre of crossroads between significant trade countries. Over the years, the landscape has adapted the cultures of each ruler and every community to have passed its lands. An entry in the travel guide Lonely Planet wrote, “most travellers are utterly seduced by Galle’s ambience”. The beauty of the Galle Fort is its thriving capacity to exist as a landscape of diverse traditions and conventions, as well as taken on the modernity of changing times most elegantly. This symbioticism and coexistence creates what we see as the Galle Fort today. 

8th June, 2021 Applied Art | Architecture