Visions of Galle

09/03/2015 17:29

Galle is Sri Lanka fourth largest city and, until it was overtaken by Colombo in the nineteenth century, was the most important port in the country. It turned dramatically affected by Boxing Day 2004 tsunami, with the exception of its fortified, walled old town, placed on a small peninsula that sinks into the ocean like a sharp dagger.

Some sources relate the ancient city of Galle, called Gimhathiththa before the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, with the biblical Tarshish where King Solomon sent his ships to trade ivory, turkey feathers, pearls, gemstones and cinnamon. Galle traded with Indo peninsula and Southeast Asia. Also with Alexander’s Greece and later with Rome, with the Arabs of Oman and Persia and the Chinese Empire too.

Precisely the Chinese traveller Fa Hian spent two years in the Kingdom of the Lions about 400 DC. Fa Hian wrote: when Buddha came to this kingdom left the imprint of one foot north of the royal city ... and trace of the other on the top of a mountain. This is Sri Pada or Adam's Peak, a summit 7300 feet high. For some it is the Buddha’s footprint, for others is Adam’s, the first man, footprint. It’s the one the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta wanted to visit when, in 1344, left the Maldives to land in Serendib choosing the southern city of Galle, as a port of entry: ... we left the town of Kaly, towards Dinewer. There lives a Muslim, skipper captain, named Ibrahim, who welcomed us.

Chinese admiral Zheng visited the island six times between 1405 and 1433. On his second voyage, in 1411, he carried from Nanjing a stone stele with a trilingual inscription engraved in Mandarin, Tamil and Persian, honouring Buddha, Allah and the avatar of Shiva God Tanavarai-Nayanar. The stele also describes a comprehensive list of the gifts donated, and relates that His Majesty, the Emperor of the Great Ming Dynasty, sent eunuchs Zheng, Wang Jinghong and others to pay their respects to the Lord Buddha, the world- honoured. And to extend the commerce of the Empire, of course. The stone was found exactly five hundred years later, in 1911, in Galle itself. Now housed in the National Museum in Colombo.

Don Lourenço de Almeida was the first Portuguese who settled his coat of arms in Colombo. Portuguese would not take Galle until 1587, setting the first fortification they called of the Holy Cross in the small peninsula that outcrops the coast.

Twelve Dutch vessels carrying about two thousand men under Jacobsz Kosten command from the Indische Compagnie Ooste Vereenigde, defeated the Portuguese in 1640 after a four days siege. From then on until 1663 the Dutch erected the walls and fourteen bastions that surround and defend the 52 hectares of the peninsula, almost to the perimeter it is now preserved old town. Urban grid comes also from the Dutch period. Some streets retain their old names: Mohrische Kramer Straat, Moor traders street, Leyn Baan Straat, Zeeberg, Moderabaay ... In ancient citadel gate, along the ramparts of the Moon, the Sun and the Stars, it’s still seen the initials of the Dutch Company of the Indies, Vereenigde Ooste Indische Compagnie, with the 1669 date written on.

After Portuguese and Dutch, a February 23, 1796, a week later the surrender of Colombo, British reached Galle to rule. They also added a new door and modified some of the fortification walls.

Sir James Emerson Tennent, Irish lord and colonial secretary between 1845 and 1850, devoted a large part of their time to collect data from all over the island. Purely administrative talking, their suggestions on coffee and cinnamon rates and exports caused the 1848 Matale Rebellion. But once back to the colonial metropolis his knowledge embodied in several books, including two authentic treatises on geography, mineralogy, flora, fauna and history: Ceylon, an account of the Island, physical, historical and topographical with notices of its natural history, antiquities and productions and Sketches of a Natural History of Ceylon, both published between 1860 and 1861. The third volume rounded his work on Indian Island was The Wild Elephant and the Method of Capturing it in Ceylon, 1867.

In the late nineteenth century the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel docked in Galle. In A Visit to Ceylon, appeared in 1883, he published his zoological studies and observations about the city, considering Galle must once have to be the mythical Phoenician and Hebrew Tarshish. Haeckel perceived the way Galle’s harbour lost relevance while Colombo’s was growing up. He also draw a colourful snapshot of the fortified city, where store-houses one story high, surrounded by pillared verandahs, and shaded by projecting tiled roofs. Pretty gardens lie between them, and serve no less to decorate the town than the wide avenues of shady Suriya trees and Hibiscus. For Haeckel an enjoyable visitor’s pastime was to have a walk around the walls perimeter just to look, in the low tide, the coral gardens that lie underwater in the south-west corner of the fort.

The French writer and pioneer tourist Robert Chauvelot visited Galle in the decade of the roaring twenties. In 1930 he published The Paradise Islands in which he compares the Sinhalese city with Saint-Malo or Aigues-Mortes and baptized for the Phoenicians as Tarsis Orientalis. Based on Joseph Jules Leclercq theories in A Sejour dans l'Ile de Ceylan Chauvelot quotes gold, silver, ivory and peacocks trade between Ophir, Malacca in Malaysia and Red Sea harbours.

Chauvelot walked the contour of the walls of Galle accompanied by a Portuguese industrial based in Goa recognizing the maintenance that the English had made of the fort. He noted: Point of Galle, withered beautiful grandmother face that everything got in its times of triumph and retains no more than a vague and gloomy smile.

Condition has prompted UNESCO to declare fortified Galle a Heritage Site. Still is a delight to walk among the decadent New Oriental Hotel, built in 1684 and the Groote Kerk, 1640, for once on the wall, follow the advice of Haeckel and Chauvelot and wander among the bastions, possibly during Indian Ocean sunset.

© J.L.Nicolas


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