It is late February. The sun is shining on the peaceful southern curve of Sri Lanka, the conflict of the north a distant turmoil here. Bombs went off in Colombo, right in the heart of the city, a couple days before we arrived. It was edging closer south, this divisive national trauma, but for Sri Lankans, hardened by strife, if not battle-weary altogether, life goes on. Tourists display a cheerful streak of intrepidity. We are in transitu, we tell ourselves, not quite as courageous!

Soon we will be in Galle, a quiet, unbesmirched haven in the underbelly of Sri Lanka. Lapped by a gentle sea, Galle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is an old Dutch fort town. It used to be a prominent port and vigorous trading hub, an entrepot of the past. Galle is now scripting a new destiny as an urban center, after the eclipse of many decades and the devastation of the 2004 tsunami.

We are well on our way there. Galle Road that uncoils out of Colombo is smooth and easy, not a rough patch mars the surface as it swings gently along the fringes of a deserted shoreline. My eyes are glazed by the sun-struck beauty of the famed south: the froth on the soft, impressionable sand, the tilting palms, the deep sparkling waters. Nothing could be calmer or more innocuous. Behind this dream, though, is the ghost of the recent tsunami. Parts of this road caved in before ferocious waves, sometimes six metres high, that rode inland as far as five kilometres.Rohan, our driver, is possessed by a tremulous energy that overturns his earlier indifferent taciturnity. That, he points shakily, was an area badly hit. A cluster of villages was washed away, along with hundreds of people. We move on in silence and notice a giant statue of the Buddha, towering over the landscape. It is eerily quiet, no signs of human activity. The land bears no wounds. The road skirts closer to the sea, as if reposing with simple, artless faith what had once briefly been a marauder. It is a tame, amenable sea now, the picture of self-discipline, every mild wave pulling backwards, not flinging itself on land.

Resurrection applies to Galle, I think, as we drive into Sri Lanka’s fourth largest city. The tsunami killed over 2,000 people here. It shook its foundations, tore apart its coastal front, destroyed its fisheries. Today, three and a half years later, the city has built itself once again—on hope, its rebirth directed by generous international aid.

People in Galle do not wear their resilience on their sleeves, though. They go about their business with sedate authority. Women and girls in frocks or skirts, or occasionally in saris, with bunches of black, oil-smoothed hair, hold sturdy umbrellas. The city is a bit haphazard, with a profusion of shops, much like in India. The railway station has a desolate look, no milling crowds there. The bus station, revived after the tsunami, is a more populated nerve-centre.

I see the 17th century Dutch fort, its ageless bulk and aloof demeanour separating it from the rest of the city. The blackened walls are now more an inoffensive show of might than anything else. They are imposing, though not particularly prepossessing or artistic. Still, they have weathered the storm of centuries. The tsunami left Galle Fort practically unscathed. Its thunderous waves broke into two surging rivers at the base of the 40 feet-high walls and converged, unthwarted, on the opposite side, where the new city sprawled, oblivious.

Galle Fort dominates the city as a metaphor for survival. There are twin cities here, irrevocably paired, I feel, as I wander around the new agglomeration outside the walls. Twins with disparate features and temperament: one claiming the past, the other immune to it. If there is duality, there is a kind of synthesis, too, though not exactly a seamless merging. There is no intra-personality clash here, no rupture. People negotiate the spaces, historic and modern, without alienation and with the same laid back languor.

Within the Fort, the pace is slower. People have little sense of time in this timeless place. I retreat to the cool shadows of Amangalla for an early lunch. Restored, renovated, and refurbished, this classy, expensive hotel combines old and new with elegance. In the late 17th century, when it first forayed into the hospitality business, the hotel occupied two Dutch houses where the officers of the Dutch establishment lived. I sit at a corner table in the long veranda, as I wait for my croque monsieur, and gaze at the fort walls outside, the stately trees that cast their beneficence over a narrow, surprisingly busy street.

Tracing Galle’s History

I step back in time, scanning the records of history. Galle is supposed to be the renowned port of Tarshish referred to in the Bible. Ancient travellers stopped by here, trading, visiting. “Gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks” passed through its rich and robust port. Galle, the name, has a serendipitous origin. A Portuguese mariner first sighted Galle’s natural harbour in the early 1500s. He stood on the crow’s nest of his vessel and was fascinated by what he saw: a cock crowing on a rock. He is said to have exclaimed wondrously, “Galla—buonovista,” meaning, “A cock—a beautiful sight.” Gallus is Latin for rooster and Gala is Sinhalese for rock. The coat of arms of Galle is a rooster standing on a rock.

The Portuguese landed in Galle after “having been blown off course on their way to the Maldives.” Galle became a bloody battlefield, as the economic superpowers of the time coveted its port, trade, and access to the wealth of Sri Lanka. The Dutch laid siege to the Fort and captured it. More than 3,000 men died in a battle fought on the beach under coconut trees. The Fort’s bastions were constructed in 1726 by the infamous Dutch governor, Petrus Vuyst, with grey granite brought as ballast in ships. The walls are impregnated with the sweat of chain gangs of slaves who worked under Dutch military supervision. Vuyst’s cruelty and misuse of power in the three short years of his governorship was such that he was executed in Jakarta by the Dutch authorities.

In 1796, the Dutch ceded the fort to the British in a uniquely peaceable manner—not a single shot was fired. Meanwhile, Galle flourished as a port city; it was a “venerable emporium of foreign trade.” Reports describe this acme of prosperity, the people who thronged the streets and shops of Galle at least once a week and the sovereigns that poured into the coffers of hotelkeepers and jewelers. Galle was a “wild and riotous” town, with bacchanalian revelry spilling into the night and macho displays of bravado by gangs of hoodlums.

In the 1880s, Colombo usurped Galle’s economic boom and the once-thriving port city slipped unresistingly into decline. In the years since Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, Galle retrieved some of its former energy. Its port plays host to large containers now, even if its inner harbour is considered exposed and vulnerable. Vigorous tourist interest in the city stimulates the hotel industry, and many tranquil, scenically resplendent properties have sprung up in and around Galle with world-class facilities. The restoration of derelict Dutch buildings into award-winning kingdoms of hospitality within the Fort have marked a change in fortunes.

And there is enterprise, nowhere more evident than in the Fort. It has become a space for individual ascendancy and highly personal achievement. This is no sepia-tinted old-world, though the narrow, often-deserted streets, creamy yellow, high-walled Dutch buildings, and the persistent vision of the sinewy fort walls reinforce that impression. The vibrancy lies beneath a deliberately preserved placidity.

I step out into the antique air and find that the patina of age only thinly hides the gloss of the contemporary, like the presence, for instance, of Barefoot, a distinctive Colombo shopping institution, in a low, inward-looking building. I find boutiques, arts stores, and jewelery shops, all tucked away.

People of the Twin Cities

An expatriate community has established itself here, giving the Fort a definite economic edge and international flavour. Catherine Hewapathirana, an artist and owner of Exotic Roots art store, is a true representative of West meets East. Her striking blue eyes and masses of curly, untamed hair add flair to her personality. Exotic Roots was one of the first shops of its kind in Galle when it opened, and is popular with tourists. We stand in the midst of her creative output of paintings, carvings, home products, and little objects of beauty. “This is a good place to live if you want to do something with tourists,” she offers. “The European legacy makes Galle different. What I like is the two different atmospheres in one place—the Fort versus the town.”


There is the luxury of time here, she says, “the freedom to ride a bicycle or be on a motorbike—a freedom you don’t have any more in the west. Everything is not under control here. That’s why [westerners come] to Asia; they’re tired of the system they’re living in.”

The Dutch Reformed Church or the Groete Kerk, is a self-absorbed building that reflects the architectural influences that prevailed. The interior is cool and dark, its austerity relieved by the ornamentation of the pulpit canopy and organ loft. The slabs on the floor commemorate Dutch and English settlers, some of whose lives were incredibly short-lived, fleeting even.

Some of the roughened, hexagonal tiles on the floor are from Calicut in India, says Senadeera, the church’s weathered, 64-year-old, Sinhalese caretaker.

A dignified conversationalist, Senadeera strikes up an exchange with people like me who wander into the church. He captures moments from Indira Gandhi’s life and laments Rajiv Gandhi’s sad, explosive end. “I am happy,” he says simply. “So many foreigners come in every day. I talk to them, of political problems, of unrest, of peace …”

I decide to go in search of the Historical Mansion Museum. A popular tourist destination in the Fort, it is located in constricted Layn Baan Street, or Rope Walk Street. The Museum is a repository of all that is quaint, quirky, and quixotic. Antiques, objets d’art, old and broken things from history; it is all there, in glass cases stuffed to the brim. Dutch plates, pottery, shards, lamps of all kinds and sizes, dulled and dusty, glass dishes, porcelain, clocks and watches galore, a snakeskin rather perversely draped over a glass case of shells. Artisans are at work amidst this horde, like showpieces, a gem-cutter extracting, polishing, and cutting gems.

The owner of this treasure house of curiosities is M.H.A. Gaffar who represents the large Muslim presence in southern Sri Lanka and is a well-known figure in Galle. He has an extravagant style that the non-drama of his person accentuates. He is bare-chested; his lungi bunches up carelessly at his knees, and his legs stretch out on a footrest. An old-fashioned phone jangles next to him, a reminder that he has not severed connection with the bustling present. The appearance is deceptive; Gaffer is shrewd, focused, and entrepreneurial.

“I have been collecting all kinds of antiques since 1965,” he says. “It’s my hobby. I have collected 2,000 years of history.” Determined to house his collection, he picked this site, then in ruins. His museum was opened in 1992 by R. Premadasa, President of Sri Lanka. It has been a veritable crowd-puller since. “I am still collecting; I have instituted a charity foundation to run it in my name. My personal donation to it of Rs. 20,000 lakhs (Sri Lankan currency) will keep it going.”

Gaffar is a philanthropist and a social worker. His sons and he constructed over 150 homes for tsunami victims around Galle with Austrian assistance. “I have lived here in Galle all my life,” he says contentedly. “The people are never petty; they never fight over small issues. Buddhists, Hindus, Christians; and Muslims live here together in harmony. People who had left after the tsunami havoc are coming back. Why? Because you can live in Galle without fear.”

A young man comes to him deferentially with a book, taking it out preciously from a bag. Good English, says the faded title. It is almost 100 years old. M.H.A. Gaffar stirs, sits up, alert, engaged, active. He handles the book as if it is priceless, surveying the dust-brown, almost crumbling pages of the book, assessing its worth. I see the glint of acquisitive pride in his eyes as I take leave, already forgotten, a little history that happened one sunny, uneventful afternoon.

The City and the Sea

I walk along the outer perimeter of the Fort, climb up the grassy mound to the age-defying walls. I stand on the ramparts and look out at the ocean, at the rusting hull of an abandoned ship anchored. It is lonely and windless.

I can smell the sea, feel its power, as a slate-grey sky bears down, fury welling beneath its ominously calm dark blue surface.

Memories of the tsunami never really go away. The Fort walls were a protective force, but nothing within 100 metres of Galle’s waterfront got through undamaged. People who fled the wrath of the sea are called “100 metre refugees.” One of them is Jeenadas, old and enervated, a defiant muscularity obvious, still, in his unbent frame.

He and his family of one son, two daughters, and grandchildren now live in a flat on a rising. There are 124 such flats just outside Galle, built for tsunami victims by Red Cross China on land provided by the Sri Lankan government.

“We used to live down below,” says Jeenadas, a gnarled finger pointing to the distant sea, a silver shimmer. “We were 45 metres away from it when the tsunami came at us. We were afraid, panic-stricken. We saw the sea, waves six metres high. We carried our children and ran. The houses of our community were washed away, right down to the foundations. We lost everything,” he says unemotionally, “except the clothes soaking our bodies.”

The government shifted Jeenadas’s family, like hundreds of others, to tsunami camps, where they lived for one and a half years. Jeenadas used to sell rubber mats, until the tsunami snatched his livelihood from him. “I can start again, but at the moment, I don’t have the capital.” His son, who looks after the family, is a daily wage labourer. One of his grandchildren goes to school, two of them to a Montessori. Uncertainty lingers in his voice, as if he is unconvinced about schooling and education. His family clusters around the front patio, watching us.

“The house is permanent,” says Jeenadas, mustering some enthusiasm. They pay the bills for electricity and water, no rent. “But we have no real income to survive. At least,” he concludes, “we are 100 percent safe from the tsunami.”

Back in the city, I pass the bus station again, where 200 people are reported to have died. Images flashed across the world of capsized buses tossing like toys in swollen waters. Galle, however, is a survivor. Like much of the city, the Galle International Stadium, one of Sri Lanka’s main cricket venues, was rebuilt with Australian aid. Test matches resumed here in December 2007, a fitting tribute to the never-say-die spirit of this gentle city.

The Fort was a bulwark, yes, but it is sheer fortuity that its vigilant walls remain today. Natural disaster could not subjugate them, but man-made decisions could well have brought them collapsing in 1889, when the government proposed to demolish the ramparts (Galle’s citizens of the time heatedly protested move). A 16-member multi-ethnic committee presented their case that the Galle Fort stood not only as military defence, but also to spurn the elements, monsoon tidal floods in particular. Were it not for the enlightened retreat of the military authorities, Galle Fort would be humble dust today. Instead, it is the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by European occupiers, preserving a way of life, contributing to the exotic mosaic that makes up the city of Galle.

Lakshmi Mohan is a freelance writer based in Bangalore, India.