Galle Fort | Sri Lanka's Only Non-Buddhist Cultural World Heritage Site

Galle Fort
Galle Fort (Sinhala: ගාලු කොටුව; Tamil: காலிக் கோட்டை) is an ancient fort in Galle, Sri Lanka. In 1988, it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO based on criterion (iv) of outstanding universal value (ICOMOS, 1988). It is the only colonial and non-Buddhist cultural site among the country’s six Cultural World Heritage sites (Janakiraman, 2019).

World Heritage Site: Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications

Location: City of Galle, Southern Province, Sri Lanka
Coordinates: N6 1 40.984 E80 12 58.846
Date of Inscription: 1988
Description: Founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese, Galle reached the height of its development in the 18th century, before the arrival of the British. It is the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South and South-East Asia, showing the interaction between European architectural styles and South Asian traditions.
Criteria:  (iv) Galle provides an outstanding example of an urban ensemble which illustrates the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Among the characteristics which make this an urban group of exceptional value is the original sewer system from the 17th century, flushed with sea water controlled by a pumping station formerly activated by a windmill on the Triton bastion. However, the most salient fact is the use of European models adapted by local manpower to the geological, climatic, historic, and cultural conditions of Sri Lanka. In the structure of the ramparts, coral is frequently used along with granite. In the ground layout, all the measures of length, width, and height conform to the regional metrology. The wide streets, planted with grass and shaded by suriyas, are lined with houses, each with its own garden and an open verandah supported by columns - another sign of the acculturation of an architecture which is European only in its basic design.
Reference: 451; Old Town of Galle and its FortificationsUNESCO World Heritage Centre, United Nations.

Galle, a trading port
Galle Trilingual Slab Inscription
Due to the strategic location along the main sea routes, the natural harbour at Galle was prominent among other ports in the country since ancient times (ICOMOS, 1988). The earliest record of Galle is said to date back to Ptolemy’s World Map from the 2nd century A.D. (Janakiraman, 2019). It is believed that the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta passed through the Galle port in 1344. (ICOMOS, 1988; Janakiraman, 2019). Also, the Galle Trilingual Slab Inscription reveals that Chinese, Muslim, and Hindu traders frequented the port in the 15 century A.D. (Janakiraman, 2019).

First erected in the 16 century A.D., the fort at Galle was occupied, throughout its history, by three European colonial powers: the Portuguese (1505-1640 A.D.), the Dutch (1640-1796 A.D.), and the British [(1796- 1948 A.D.) Sanjeewani, 2012].

Portuguese and the early Black Fort (1505-1658 A.D.)
The Galle Fort's history begins after the accidental arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka in 1505 (Rajapakse, 2013). Galle was majorly a trading settlement of Muslims when the Portuguese fleet of ships under the command of Don Laurenco de Almeida reached the island to take refuge from inclement weather on their way to the Maldives (Janakiraman, 2019; Sanjeewani, 2012). After the arrival, the Portuguese made contact with the king of the Kotte Kingdom and reached an agreement with him to protect the port area from the Muslims (Sanjeewani, 2012). As a result of this, they first constructed a small fort called the Black Fort near the sea in 1517 and then built a more solid fort in 1588 (Bohingamuwa, 2019; Rajapakse, 2017; Sanjeewani, 2012). The plan drawn for this fort by Mathiyas Albakar was documented in 1589 and in which Galle is named Ponta de Gale with a reference to the Forta Leza, the Black Fort (Sanjeewani, 2012). The earliest fortification was a primitive arrangement consisting of a wall with three bastions facing the landside (Janakiraman, 2019). The three bastions were known as St. Jago (the sun bastion), Conceicao (the moon bastion) and St. Antonio [(the star bastion) Abeyawardana, 2004]. The seaward side was considered invulnerable and was not fortified (ICOMOS, 1988). 

As is revealed by the plan drawn by Bento de Resende in 1640, the Portuguese made several improvements and repairs to the fort in 1595 and 1610 (Sanjeewani, 2012).

Dutch occupation and construction of the Galle Fort (1640-1796 A.D.)
After a short battle of five days, the Dutch army consisting of 12 ships and 2,000 men, took over the control of the Portuguese fort at Galle on 13 March 1640 and occupied it until 1796 (Abeyawardana, 2004; Janakiraman, 2019; Sanjeewani, 2012). Considerable physical changes were done to the fort by them by destroying and incorporating parts of the old Portuguese structures (Rajapakse, 2013; Sanjeewani, 2012). They replaced the ramparts of the earth with granite and limestone and widened the moat (Abeyawardana, 2004).

At the time of the Dutch occupation of the fort, the Indian Ocean had many European nations competing for power in the region (Janakiraman, 2019). The siege of the Galle port helped the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) to dismantle the Portuguese monopoly of the cinnamon trade in the region (Janakiraman, 2019). To protect the port as well as the fort from the English, French, Danish, Spanish, and Portuguese fleets, the Dutch began to construct fortifications on both the landward and seaward sides (Abeyawardana, 2004; ICOMOS, 1988; Janakiraman, 2019). They started to construct massive ramparts for the fort in 1663 and continued it up to 1729 (Abeyawardana, 2004; Janakiraman, 2019; Rajapakse, 2013). The Portuguese bastions, St. Jago, and St. Antonio were renamed Hoofdwacht and Zee punt in 1667 while the Conceicao became the middle part or the Moon Bastion (Abeyawardana, 2004). By 1669, they established a well-planned town within the fort with a regular street grid accommodating administrative, religious, residential, and commercial uses, similar to the fortified cities of Europe (Abeyawardana, 2004; Janakiraman, 2019). The city also included an intricate sewerage system flushed by using seawater with the aid of a windmill on the Triton bastion (Abeyawardana, 2004). 

British Colonization and the Fort (1796-1948 A.D.)
Galle lighthouse
The British took over the Dutch-held coastal areas in Sri Lanka including Galle, in 1796 (Sanjeewani, 2012). They occupied the Galle Fort on 23 February and used it as their administrative centre for the South of the island while continuing its function as a residential town (Abeyawardana, 2004; Rajapakse, 2013; Rajapakse, 2017; Sanjeewani, 2012). However, with the enlargement of the Colombo Port in the early 20 century A.D., Galle lost its significance as a seaport but remained an important administrative and legal centre for the South (Abeyawardana, 2004; Janakiraman, 2019).

The British adapted many of the Dutch structures inside the fort for their use and only replaced those which were no longer functional (ICOMOS, 1988; Janakiraman, 2019). They filled in ditches, added new blockhouses, and put a gate in between the Moon bastion and the Sun bastion (ICOMOS, 1988) They also sealed the moat and added a new commemorative gate in 1883 for the jubilee of Queen Victoria  (Janakiraman, 2019). Further, they built the lighthouse in 1848 (rebuilt in 1940 after it burnt down the year before), the Library Building in 1871, the Galle Gymkhana Club in 1885 on the esplanade and the Galle Railway Station in 1894 (Janakiraman, 2019). The present main entrance to the fort which is located midway through the northern rampart was opened by the British in 1873 (Abeyawardana, 2004). The present Sudharmalaya Buddhist Temple was constructed in 1889 by a wealthy Sinhalese philanthropist on a plot of land he owned within the fort (Janakiraman, 2019).

Changes after 1948 
The British left the Galle Fort after Sri Lanka gained independence from them in 1948 (Sanjeewani, 2012). The remaining Burger (most are Dutch descendants) and Muslim communities re-established themselves inside the fort but many Burger families began to migrate to Australia, particularly at the end of the 1970s (Sanjeewani, 2012). Eventually, the Burghers were replaced by a sizable Sinhala community inside the fort (Sanjeewani, 2012).

Conservation of the colonial heritage
The measures to conserve the fort began with a private member’s bill in the colonial State Council, in 1940 (Sanjeewani, 2012). In 1971 the Department Of Archaeology assumed responsibility for the historic buildings in the fort while declaring the fort a protected monument in 1974 under the Antiquities Ordinance No. 9 of 1940 (Sanjeewani, 2012). In 1988 UNESCO bestowed World Heritage status on Galle Fort.

The fort
Extending in an area of 52 hectares (128.5 acres), the land area of the fort is defined by the standard grid iron pattern of streets established in all Dutch colonized cities of Asia (ICOMOS, 1988; Rajapakse, 2013; Sanjeewani, 2012). The fortification contains 14 bastions, a gateway, and a Clock Tower (Bohingamuwa, 2019). The majority of curtain walls have been built in 1663 and the northern fortified gate, protected by a drawbridge and a ditch, bears the date 1669 (ICOMOS, 1988). The buildings found in the fort are mainly three types, viz: residential (townhouses), public (hospitals, administrative buildings) and religious [(churches) Rajapakse, 2013]. Of them, the residential quarter consisting of townhouses forms a greater percentage of the built fabric of the fort (Rajapakse, 2013).

Although a few Portuguese structures have survived, much of the urban fabric of the present fort is from the Dutch and British periods (Janakiraman, 2019). The present Police Headquarters of the Southern Province occupies the site of the Portuguese Black Fort and there was a church called Saint Pedro in front of the present Kachcheri or the Government Agent's Office (Abeyawardana, 2004). The Roman Catholic Church built by Franciscan priests in 1544 was located at the premises where the present Islamic Mosque stands (Abeyawardana, 2004).

The Kachcheri building, the Dutch Reformed Church, the Galle Museum Building and the post office building are some of the Dutch constructions that survived within the fort to date (Abeyawardana, 2004). The original gate of the fort by the harbour still remains intact and a stone-carved Dutch VOC monogram with the date 1669 is found over its inner archway (Abeyawardana, 2004). The first church built by the Dutch within the fort was at the north end of the warehouse building (built between 1672-1676) and the bell tower (erected in 1701) of that church still can be seen (Abeyawardana, 2004).

The fort received a limited impact from the 2004 tsunami, primarily due to its strong high wall and the coral and boulder reefs around it (Bohingamuwa, 2019).

Landmarks within the fort
1) Galle Fort by Rovinovic is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
2) GalleLighthouse by Keffertje08 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

1) Abeyawardana, H.A.P., 2004. Heritage of Ruhuna: Major natural, cultural and historic sites. Colombo: The Central Bank of Sri Lanka. ISBN: 955-575-073-4. pp.20-23. 
2) Bohingamuwa, W., 2019. The Galle Fort World Heritage Site: A Nature-Culture Approach to the Conservation of Cultural Heritage along the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka. Journal of World Heritage Studies: Disasters and Resilience, pp.29-37.
3) ICOMOS, 1988. Advisory Body Evaluation Report: The historic city of Galle and its fortifications. UNESCO.
4) Janakiraman, A., 2019. The local identity politics of world heritage: lessons from Galle Fort in Sri Lanka (Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology). pp.21,50-52.
5) Rajapakse, A., 2013. The “Sense of Place” and diminishing living heritage in the World Heritage site of Galle Fort, Sri Lanka. In The Proceedings of the ICOMOS Thailand International Conference: Asian forgotten Heritage–Perception, Preservation and Presentation. pp.205-221.
6) Rajapakse, A., 2017. Exploring the living heritage of Galle Fort: Residents’ views on heritage values and cultural significance. Journal of Heritage Management, 2(2), pp.95-111.
7) Sanjeewani, S.L.G., 2012. The transformation of space in the Galle Fort (Sri Lanka) by its inhabitants. A thesis submitted to the graduate school in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree Master of Urban and Regional Planning. Ball State University. Muncie, Indiana. pp.12-14,27-32.

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This page was last updated on 5 November 2022
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