Here’s How Sri Lanka Has Managed To Revamp Its Dutch Heritage To Serve Modern Purposes

Colonial times are long gone, but their witness marks can still be seen in Sri Lanka. The Dutch style of architecture stands tall amidst the modern milieu of the island nation, but with a re-imagined purpose. By Arundhati Hazra

“How does it differ from the British-era colonial buildings scattered throughout our country,” asked my friend, when I suggested we include Dutch colonial landmarks in our Sri Lankan itinerary.

I confess that I had to Google the answer to his question. Dutch architecture often faces the same fate as Dutch colonial history—it is lumped together with, or overshadowed by its British counterpart. The Dutch conquered significant trading outposts in Asia, such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India, before being displaced from most by the British. In the process, they left imprints of their architectural style across the continent, and elements of their heritage have been well-preserved in the Sri Lankan cities, Colombo and Galle, with the seaside Galle Fort being a notable UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We take an early train from Colombo to Galle. The route passes adjacent to the ocean, affording us ringside views of morning rituals—the hues of the sky changing from an inky blue to a light gold, and then a gentle cerulean, fishermen readying their fishing nets and boats, children sneaking a quick morning dip in the sea before school.

Galle has always been an important port in Sri Lanka, being an entrepôt for cinnamon trade. Western presence in Galle began with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505, under Lourenço de Almeida, son of the first viceroy of Portuguese India. The Portuguese built the first fortification on the cliff and called it the Black Fort, because of the dark smoke of cannons and smithies that hung over the area. The Dutch captured the fort in 1640, and significantly expanded the design and fortifications. These were retained with minimal alterations by the British, who captured the fort in 1796.

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British and Dutch colonial architecture are similar in appearance, both being driven by a predilection for order and symmetry, but there are some notable differences. The Dutch were skilled masons, and this showed in their houses, mostly built of stone and brick vis-à-vis the wooden bungalows of the British. In Galle, the architecture was adapted for tropical climate with wide eaves, internal courtyards, and colonnaded verandahs providing for ventilation and shade from the sun. The Dutch also popularised the gambrel roof, a double-sloped roof where the shallow upper roof masked a floor of living space, designed in such a way so as to escape the taxes levied on two-storied houses.

We enter through the main gate and climb the fort wall at the Sun Bastion, one of the 14 bastions that enclose Galle Fort in a star shape on a promontory overlooking the Indian Ocean.

The Dutch built them out of granite and coral, considering the earlier Portuguese fortifications of earth and palisade unsafe. We walk on the ramparts towards the Moon Bastion, overlooking the Galle International Cricket Stadium, and I am subjected to a barrage of statistics about the stadium from my cricket-obsessed friend; I register just the fact that it was the location of Muttiah Muralitharan’s last Test match, where he crossed the 800-wicket mark. The bastions are arrow-shaped, to provide maximum defensive coverage on all sides, with crenelations for large cannons. Climbing off the ramparts, we stroll down the neatly laid out streets of the fort. The streets are lined by gabled houses with tiled gambrel roofs, which give the fort an intimate feel. We duck into Church Street to visit the Groote Kerk, or the Dutch Reformed Church.

Built in 1755 on the site of an older church, it was commissioned by the Governor of Galle, Casparus de Jong, after the birth of his daughter, to thank God for blessing him with the child he had long waited for. The church is constructed in Doric style, with the front faćade in the shape of a Greek cross. The roof has no pillars—it is instead supported by two gables on the front and back walls. Sunlight, filtered through stained glass windows, lights up the wooden pews; I feel a sense of peace steal through me as I watch a family light votive candles.

After a lunch of prawn curry, fried squid, and rice at Galle Fort Hotel, previously a colonial bungalow, we walk to Flagrock Bastion, the southernmost tip of the fort. There are a number of charming boutiques, cafés, and gelateria on the way, and my inner shopaholic has to be torn away from buying everything in the colourful Barefoot store, known for its handmade textiles and kick-knacks created by local artisans. The sea has acquired a bluish green colour, and the hidden rocks that once sunk ships are clearly visible in the afternoon sun. To our left is the Galle Lighthouse, built by the British in 1848 and the oldest lighthouse in Sri Lanka.

A dark cloud drifts across the sun and a gentle breeze blows in from the sea, and I imagine the view of the fort from a schooner at the horizon in colonial times—a roost that reminded weary seamen of home, where they could enjoy a bowl of stamppot and stroopwafels.

The next day, we set out to explore Colombo, the capital of Dutch Ceylon from 1640 to 1796. Our first stop is Wolvendaal Church, atop a hillock in the city’s shopping district of Pettah. Completed in 1757, the church’s name translates to ‘dale of wolves’, as it was built in a swampy marshland outside the walls of Colombo Fort, due to a conflict between its builder and the Dutch East India Company, and people mistook the cries of the jackals in the marshes for those of wolves. The church resembles Groote Kerk from outside, but weather damage shows on its walls. Inside, it is more sedate than its Galle counterpart, with a pulpit made of Malaysian calamander wood and glass windows bordered with a simple motif, but an atmosphere of serenity prevails here as well.

There is very little that’s medical about the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital, which has been converted into a shopping and dining precinct. But the architectural flourishes of this heritage structure have been preserved. Built in late 17 century, it functioned as a hospital for staff of the Dutch East India Company, and later, the British. After Sri Lankan independence, it housed the Colombo Apothecaries, and then the Colombo Fort Police Station, before being converted into a heritage structure. The building has five wings, four of which enclose a main courtyard, with thick walls and massive teak beams holding up the gabled roofs, lined with red clay tiles. There are a number of upscale boutiques and restaurants in this courtyard, and we spend some time window-shopping before diving into Ministry of Crab, a popular restaurant co-owned by cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, and dig into butter crab beneath a giant chandelier.

Sitting at Galle Face Green, Colombo’s seafront promenade dotted with families having a day out, it is difficult to believe that this area was originally created by the Dutch for a line of cannons meant to ward off Portuguese attacks. While the colonial days are long over, Dutch heritage has been seamlessly accommodated into modern Sri Lanka. Spaces such as Galle Fort and Old Colombo Dutch Hospital have been preserved vis-à-vis their signature style of architecture, but their functionality has been reimagined for the benefit of the populace.

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