Heritage of Sri Lankan fort town emerges mostly unscathed by tsunami

Security guard G.A. Nimal stands on the broken fort wall, the sea pounding below, and stretches an arm skyward to show the height of the tsunami that pounded the historic Sri Lankan city of Galle.

But while new Galle city outside was pulverised by the force of the waves, killing thousands, the people inside the imposing fort, built by the Dutch in 1663, were kept mostly safe and the World Heritage site remains largely intact.

Nimal was one of the few who had to run for their lives behind the fort walls, as the water pummeled a section along a five-metre (16-foot) stretch and gushed into the government offices he is charged with protecting.

"Lucky, lucky, lucky," sighs P. Vijaratne, chief executive officer of the Galle Heritage Foundation, of the limited damage done here and to some of the approximately 250 irreplaceable heritage buildings in the fort area.

"Compared to Galle town and bazaar, we were 90 percent lucky."

His own office building, a former hospital also built by the Dutch — who wrested Sri Lanka from the Portuguese before losing it to the British, who left in 1948 — was in fact one of the unlucky ones.

"Although the sea water surrounded the fort, it didn’t get in except at this place," Vijaratne says, referring to the damaged fort wall Nimal stood on outside his office, which drops about 10 metres into the Indian Ocean.

Galle is a major magnet for foreign tourists to Sri Lanka, lured by the 90-acre (39 hectare) fort and its narrow crisscrossing streets which boast stunning colonial Dutch buildings with ochre exteriors, wooden shutters and graceful archways.

Smart small hotels rub shoulders with authentic Sri Lankan tea shops here, pricey boutiques compete with tourist trinket street stalls, and a growing number of expatriates seduced by Galle live side-by-side with Sri Lankans.

The water also rushed in via the fort entrance near Vijaratne’s office and flooded several other important government buildings, ruining thousands of documents and creating an administrative nightmare for the province.

In the courtyard of Vijaratne’s office, down a creaking wooden staircase that will probably need to be replaced after the deadly deluge and along a corridor he warns may not be safe, piles and piles of papers are strewn.

"Pensioners won’t be getting their pensions for months," a visiting court official observes wryly. The pensions office was among the worst hit.

Vijaratne says about six heritage buildings outside the fort, near its walls, also escaped lightly.

Even the national maritime museum, housed in the fort wall near the hospital and flooded by the waves, was fortunate in one sense: it housed only replicas and models of important items kept in Colombo.

But it’s small consolation for D. Kandamby, who has been curator of the national maritime museum since it opened in 1992.

"I am very sad about this," he says in front of the padlocked door to the museum hall, which reeks of damp. "I was engaged in building up this museum from the start."

The archaeology office — also flooded by the sea surge — is undertaking a survey and an estimate of the cost to restore the damaged buildings back to their original condition but does not expect to have results for a month.

"It’s a priority. If we leave them as they are, they will only become more damaged," Vijaratne says, adding that it’s still going to be pricey, tough work.

"Renovating these buildings is definitely a bigger job than an ordinary building. It might cost three or four times more than a new one. It would be cheaper and easier to build new ones, but we cannot do that."

Some historical buildings in the municipal area outside the Galle Heritage Foundation’s jurisdiction, meanwhile, were damaged but few were completely destroyed, says former mayor of Galle Lionel Premasiri.

He laments the damage to some of them as he makes a quick tour of the city: the Dutch-built fish market renovated during his tenure has only a few white-tiled stumps left, while the open-air vegetable market off Galle’s narrow main street — the death toll here was at least 200 — is badly water-damaged.

The once-manicured park is sodden, and a bridge over the Dutch-built canal has been washed away.

"It’s a big tragedy, because a lot of people are dead. But the architecture that was lost can be regained. It can be restored."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *