Star Fort Matara

Image courtesy l Travellogged 

Sri Lanka is an island abundant with fortifications, battlegrounds and remnants from its struggle for independence and colonial wars. Today, these fortifications are admired and studied for their cultural and architectural significance, archaeologists and historians entwining the past to our present and discerning the ways in which the present day was influenced by its predecessors. One of the more notably significant architectural forts is the Star Fort, located in a city at the southernmost point of Sri Lanka. Matara is a city with a rich history spanning over the last 2000 years, archived at the very museum of the Fort. The Matara we see today – the modern day city – is one that gained recognition during the ruling of the Dutch as it became the port where Sri Lanka’s most significant exports, cinnamon and elephants, were traded. As we unveil the stories of the past, unfolding their histories and how they came to be while celebrating their architecture, we study the architectural and artistic significances of the Star Fort, in Matara.


The Star Fort is renowned for its distinct shape – the star. Constructed in 1765 in the effort to overcome the issue of the lack of protection towards the Matara Fort, the Star Fort is historically significant to the landscape of Sri Lanka for its discerning shape. The concept of forts taking on the shape of a star was not new yet it was the most significant due to its ability to strengthen forces and defend attackers more easily. Star shaped forts were a popular architectural structure from the mid 15th to 19th centuries. The shape allowed the forts to be both effectively defensive and counteractive. The six-shaped star fort was built with twelve cannons to look over and cover the scape of all directions. As the chosen ammo was cannon balls at the time, the star shaped fort allowed for the triangular bastions to be a herder target, with thick walls.


The Star Fort was originally built in 1765 in the attempt to protect the main Dutch Fort, after the Matara Rebellion in 1762 by the Governor Lubbert Jan Baron Van Eck, recognized as Redoute Van Eck at the top of the Fort entrance with the Dutch East India Company insignia and the coat of arms of the governor flanked by two rampart lions. When the Portuguese first reached the land of Ceylon in 1505, they built their first fort in Colombo and by 1619, had major influence over the coastal areas. Consequently this led the monarch of Kandy, Rajasinghe II to ally with the Dutch to take over the land captured by the Portuguese and by 1660, the Portuguese had been defeated. The Dutch then continued to construct fortresses to protect from oncoming attacks from those who wanted land, more particularly those of the Matara Rebellion. And thus, the Matara Fort was built, in 1640; which was only a wall that was 42-feet thick, 164-feetlong and 13-feet high with a cannon along the land that permitted ships to enter the harbour.  However, this Fort could not survive against the Matara Revolt of 1762 and so, after much war the Dutch had captured the land once more, enforcing more defence by constructing the Star Fort, but this time with twelve cannonball guns.


On the East bank of the Nilwala River in Matara, a fortification in the shape of a star stands erected, still to the present. But what of its architecture makes it distinct? The Star Fort’s distinct characteristic is its six-point shape with an area for twelve large cannons, aimed in each direction making it the ideal fortification for both attack and defence. The roof of the building was originally designed out of cadjan leaves but would later be reconstructed out of clay tiles. Within the Fort was a small garrison, food and sufficient artillery, two prison and a well to supply water; spanning an outer wall of twenty-five feet in width, with a ten feet deep moat surrounding it, the Fort’s rampart walls were constructed out of granite rock and coral. The gate at the entrance, a notable example of Dutch architecture, was also made of coral with two square pillars under the semi-circular archway, and one would witness upon entrance the date of its construction and a commemoration of the Dutch Governor who built it. The fort is said to be the last major defence post built by the Dutch but lacked the opportunity to substantiate its value. In 1796 the fort was handed over to the British with the surrender of the Sri Lankan territory by the Dutch.

The Star Fort we see now is after much renovation, architects and archaeologists having rebuilt and repaired its wear and tear over time. After the Dutch rule, the British took over the Fort having utilized it as an administrative office and as a library till 1975 before it was procured by the Department of Archaeology. After its restoration, visitors are able to see the museum housed inside the fort, with displays and exhibits of the Matara that used to be. The restoration of ancient architecture is significant for its capacity to showcase the country’s cultural heritage, the roots that make the island what it stands as today. In studying the architectural and political influences of the country’s past, one is able to discern that which we have adapted and that which used to be. The city of Matara is rich in cultural heritage and can be studied through its architectural remnants.  

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5th April, 2022 Applied Art | Architecture