This story first appeared in Khaleej Times on November 17, 2017.
European influence, strong maritime connections and relaxed vibes make this Sri Lankan city a winner.
‘Parawa Street’ – proclaims the name board. It intrigues me, because I can’t understand what it means. All morning, I have seen boards that said ‘Church Street’, ‘Rampart Street’ and the like. Fed on this simple diet, my brain finds it difficult to process ‘Parawa’. A closer inspection of the board tells me that the term refers to fishermen and traders who immigrated from south India and settled in Galle centuries ago. During their time, the Dutch, the main colonisers of Galle, renamed this street ‘Parruastraat’.
Parawa Street is one of the several narrow streets that make up the old settlement inside Galle Fort. Clean and well-paved, the streets are lined on either side by elegant structures. Many of these are a century old, while others go back two centuries or more – when Galle was under Dutch occupation. Many houses have a small portico and a wicket gate, and are painted in brilliant hues of blue, red, orange or yellow. Potted plants hanging from their sloping tiled roofs enhance the mood of cheer.
It is past 9am on a weekday, but most of the shops and boutiques are still closed. I ask a passerby when they will open and receive a smile in return. “They will open, they will open,” she says and moves on. Traffic is mild, mainly comprising pedestrians or those cycling. The town of Galle is not in a hurry at all. The general understanding seems to be that things here will happen in due course. It, therefore, seems fitting that Galle is our last port of call in a weeklong tour of Sri Lanka. While we entered the country in high excitement, we shall leave it in a state of quiet contentment.
From medieval times to the 19th century, Galle was an important port town near the southern end of the teardrop shaped island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Like in India, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to colonise Galle. When the Dutch overran the settlement in the 17th century, they strengthened and expanded the erstwhile mud fort and many of the buildings within its confines.
Also, they erected several of the beautiful timber-stone-cement structures that are standing strong even today. The British came later and added a few lovely churches to the landscape.
The wife and I amble along the ramparts of the fort, stopping to take in the view now and then. We get panoramic views of the sea and at one point, of the grassy expanse of Galle International Cricket Stadium. Passing close to the historic Meeran Mosque, we stop to admire its pristine whiteness, arched windows and architectural symmetry. Inside, the beautiful floor tiles and the stained glass windows catch our eye. Close to the mosque lies a small Buddhist temple, also pristine white. After two hours of walking, we come a full circle to where we had started from: the fort gates. Feeling hungry, we hurry over to a small shack nearby that is serving hot food. We wolf down kothu rottis (a native dish made of wheat or wheat flour, stuffed with a spicy mash of vegetables, fish or chicken) for lunch.
Back at our home-stay, we lounge in the sea-facing balcony with our books. Since this is not the tourist season, the crowds are thin. Come afternoon, many of the smaller shops in the fort settlement close for a few hours, as their owners catch some shut-eye after lunch. When the sun’s rays start slanting, we head out again. Drumbeats and strains of the guitar lead us to a quadrangle near the courthouse, where a local band is performing on the sidelines of a literary festival. The songs are in English and Sinhalese, and are received with energetic applause. As darkness settles, we leave the music behind and seek out the sea again. The lighthouse, built in 1939, looms up in the darkness. Right next to it, lies the old magazine room of the Dutch Navy. Sitting on the ramparts with our legs swinging over the drop to the ocean, we look at the glowing moon and the white foam slamming into the rocks.
At dawn the next morning, I leave my sleeping wife and venture out with my camera, eager to frame the beautiful town in the soft sunlight. I walk over to the fishermen’s wharf and watch the day’s catch being unloaded. Several people are buying fish fresh off the boat. Every day, fishermen put out to sea hours before dawn and return with their first catch by 7am or so.
The winding alleys are quiet, with most people still abed. I am happily surprised to see that Galle has not let its built heritage go to seed, unlike many other places around the world. Supported by a grant from the Dutch government, most of the old buildings have been lovingly restored and repurposed into cafes, art galleries, boutiques and hotels. Today, these are symbols of the chic tourist destination that Galle has become and proof that conserving heritage can be truly profitable for all the stakeholders.
My wife joins me for breakfast at the home-café run by an old man of Moroccan descent. Galle’s Moroccan connection is a thread hidden deep inside the cultural fabric of this town. A small community of Tamil-speaking Muslims, seventh- generation descendents of traders from Morocco, resides inside the fort. Many of its members run small grocery stores or cafes from the courtyard of their homes.
Meal over, we take in the wonderful exhibits at the National Maritime Museum. A nod to the long seafaring traditions of Lanka, the museum houses maps and intriguing tales of shipwrecks alongside jade jars from China and several European memorabilia. Later that day, we take in the antique furniture, exquisite stained glass, tombstones and silence at the Gothic-style All Saints Church. As we walk back to our homestay, the eager shouts of boys playing cricket rend the air. Daytime cricket on the wide ramparts of the fort is a way of life here.
Decidedly, Galle is a great place to celebrate the slow life. The rhythms of this fort settlement are gentle. The cobbled-stone streets, old buildings, bookstores, cafes and the timeless nature of waves crashing into the rocks lull you into a state of peace. The frenetic sounds and movements of the big city stand out by their absence. Conversations are more like soothing murmurs. Nobody seems to be in a hurry to do anything.
Though I hold several striking memories from my time in Galle, the one that dominates my mind is that of the breakfast on the morning of our departure. Our hostess served us appams (sweet-salty rice pancakes with a thin crust and a fluffy middle), spicy chickpea curry, fragrant stew, toast, butter, marmalade, coffee and slices of juicy pineapple. Sitting in the balcony facing the ramparts of the fort, we gorge on the delicious homemade fare for what seems like hours. Yonder, the sea rustles like sandpaper and gulls swoop down.
This memory stands out because that breakfast is the best metaphor I can find for the town itself. Galle is like a wonderful repast: it offers a sumptuous spread, invites you to dawdle over it, stimulates your palate and ensures that the after-taste remains for a long time.
NEED TO KNOW
Galle lies 77 miles south of Colombo, from where you can take a bus, taxi or a train named Queen of the Sea. The route hugs the coast and runs past several beautiful villages. Accommodation options are aplenty, from posh hotels to tiny guest houses, and straddle a wide price range. Since Galle Fort is perfect for walking, take along a pair of comfortable shoes, sunglasses and a bottle of water.