Art, Culture & Heritage

What of Sri Lanka’s ancestry and heritage could be perceived and observed to understand its culture and design? The residues of the Portuguese, British and Dutch architecture are abundant across the island of Sri Lanka, the nation’s colonial influences continue to exist and influence; from the Colombo Fort to the Dutch Hospital, the Galle Fort or our National Museum, Sri Lanka brims with our foreign origins. As we explore the nuances of our colonial reminders, we travel further North leaving the terrains of Colombo and trek into the cultural landscapes of Jaffna where we find its Fort, a symbol of many historic events and remainders of each colonial era. The Jaffna Fort was first built by the Portuguese in 1619. Soon, the Fort would be sieged by the Dutch under Rijcklof van Goens and be remodelled and expanded into what we see now as the pentagonal structure.

After gaining control of Ceylon from the Portuguese, the Dutch demolished the Fort partially as needed and first renovated the inner circuit and few years later the outer circuit. The Fort is mainly built with limestone and black coral. Restoration was done according to the design and technology prevalent at that time. The end result was an unassailable fortress. However, a pentagon shaped fortress was considered to be large-in-size and required strong garrisons, which the Dutch failed to fulfill. As a result, three years after completing the restoration, in 1795, the Dutch surrendered Jaffna to the British.

The restoration design layout was heavily integrated on the idea of improving the defence system. The Dutch wanted to enhance the size of the fortress. The inner circuit of the fort was shaped and designed to represent a pentagon with geometrically regular sides with a bastion at each side. Walls were thickened and strengthened to absorb the artillery shock. Certain amendments added to the original layout of the fortress substantiated that the fortress was built to repress firepower targeted from outside and defeat the enemy. The Dutch had gone to the extent of planning the allocation and size of the force on each side of the pentagon in case of war and ways of blocking the possible escape of the enemy.

Many parts of the fort were constructed dexterously to create stealthy strategies of attack and defence. Components of the fort such as the glacis that was built outside the inner circuit protected the storage of weaponries and artillery closer to the ground while allowing the Dutch to attack stealthily and easily. Openings and S-shaped paths and bends in the glacis and outer circuit prevented incoming fire. Triangular shaped ravelins that stretched through the inner circuit were used to detect the enemy while each bastion used six-gun embrasures. The remnants of the belfry and the hangman’s tower now stand at each end of one of the bastions. A moat bridged the inner circuit of the fort to its main entrance. Evidence and relics would show the Dutch’s use of the leafgates left by their predecessors yet removed the arch above the gate as well as the drawbridge interposing on the ravelin and main gate. The present proprietors have preserved the sea rampart, the tunnel system and the moat around the fort.

Today, the fort stands despite 30 years of ceaseless attack and perpetual ruin; many of the architectural elements could still be made out in the design and construction of the fort. It is said to be the second largest fort in Sri Lanka built by the Dutch and would often take on the name of the Jaffna Dutch Fort. Its designs are significant for their observations and studies of battle and war, the practices behind their attack and defence systems, the architecture that comprehended the need for survival yet facilitated the practices of strike and raids. From spikes embedded to prevent war elephants and fixtures to conceal soldiers, the structural design would withstand many eras of war and serve distinct periods of soldiers.

The Jaffna Fort’s notable architecture provided military troops and army soldiers the perfect place of defence, not just for the British, Dutch or Portuguese but a story hundred years later will narrate the tale of the Civil War, 1983 and the recapture of the Fort by the LTTE. The traumatic events and the era of war are recorded by contemporary artists that we know now. In Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan’s ‘The Mismatches’ we comprehend his memories of the war, mismatched pieces of moments or discombobulated correlation and unidentifiable stories; Pakkiyarajah Pushpakanthan’s works that addressed the war provided a space of comfort for viewers, a notion of healing through the torture and deep-set wounds. His works are those that are intentionally unsettling as moves through distinctly dark memories seeking a place of empathy and understanding to be presented. Artist Gayan Prageeth would record this time in presentations of ‘buckets’, a symbolic medium of identification between the ethnicities. ‘Since 1983’ will continue to hold memories of Black July and continue its ceaseless search for memories and lost futures.

In our 57th edition of ARTRA Magazine Dec/Jan 2020-2021, we conversed with High Commissioner to the Sri Lanka and Maldives David McKinnon and his wife Victoria Walker, where we explored the nuances of Sri Lankan heritage and idiosyncrasy of its culture that it is not merely identified as a South Asian country but an identity in and of its own. The country is unique in its capacity to have owned our colonial past from the rulings of the Portuguese, British and Dutch and changed it so uniquely that it has become our own. The Jaffna Fort is an architectural monument with its iconic pentagonal shape that carries tales of war and chaos, a dark history of capture and recapture that would take years to heal. However, the Sri Lanka of now will identify this work of architectural dexterity as one that’s influenced a stronger nation, its structural nuances notable and iconic as we recognize the applied art of its making as a symbolic beginning and centrepiece to the city of Jaffna.

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21st January, 2021 Applied Art