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Galle’s Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct

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Although the Dutch captured the Portuguese fort of Galle in 1640 it was not until 1663 that they constructed the magnificent existing fort, designated as Number 200 on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. The Dutch extended the 36-hectare fortification by erecting an encircling rampart with massive bastions. The three most important ones isolated the peninsula, which the fort occupied, from the mainland. For extra protection the land beneath these bastions, where Galle’s international cricket field is now located, was flooded to become a moat.
Inside the fort communal facilities were of a remarkable standard. A grid system of straight streets provided easy and complete access; an ingenious underground sewerage system was designed to be flushed out by the tides; and a windmill close to the ramparts enabled dusty streets to be sprinkled with seawater.
When completed the port-city of Galle, guarded by its near-impregnable fort, became a significant trading centre for the Dutch East India Company, second only to Batavia (Jakarta).
Many of the street names reflected the presence of commercial activity, such as Lejnbaanstraat (Old Rope Street), where rope was made from coir, the fibre of the coconut husk. That street still bears the name in Anglicised form-Leyn Baan Street. One name that did not survive the arrival of the British in 1796 was Nieuwe Lejnbaanstraat (New Rope Street), the outermost thoroughfare, very near the ramparts that overlooked the old harbour on the eastern side of the fort. The two rope-making streets ran parallel to one another in a roughly north north-south direction.
Rope-making may have been undertaken in Lejnbaanstraat, but it was more significant as the location of the fort’s two-storey hospital and the adjacent “medicine garden” on the other side of which was the “[Harbour] Master’s House” and “factory-house” as described by Dutch naturalist François Valentijn in his map dated 1726. They were located between the Akersloot Bastion to the north-which became the hospital’s mortuary-and the Aurora Bastion to the south.
Strangely, there is sparse reference to the hospital in Dutch literature concerning the Island. If Valentijn is correct the building was modest in size, but the Hollanders’ colonial medical facilities were usually excellent, as typified by their hospital in Colombo recently restored as a shopping and restaurant complex. That it had its own herbarium confirms the Dutch interest in Ayurvedic medicine. And it was conveniently situated near the harbour, for many of the patients were migrants suffering from the rigours and unhygienic conditions of 17th-Century sea travel.
Johann Saar, a German mercenary in the service of the Dutch East India Company, sailed into Galle in 1647. He not only revealed the prominence of the hospital from the harbour, but also the history of the location: “On the left side as one approaches is seen the hospital where formerly the Portuguese had their mint.”
As with the Dutch period, the British period concerning the hospital is not well-documented. However, it was first used as a medical facility, which accounts for the change of the street’s name to Hospital Street. In the middle of the 19th Century, the building was extended northwards-covering the area previously occupied by the Harbour Master’s House and factory-to become a barracks. An extension from the centre of the building, which reached the rampart, was also constructed. Thus the name of the building reflects that this was the site of the Dutch hospital, an integral former component of Galle’s pride and glory, the Dutch Fort.
Later the building was converted into Galle’s Kachcheri, an office of local government administration. Lastly, following the country’s Independence in 1948, it became the Town Hall, until in 2003 the need for more space forced the relocation of the offices outside the fort.
In 2014, the building was converted into a shopping and dining precinct. The preservation of the original architecture and the discreet conversion into a commercial property was carried out by the Urban Development Authority with the assistance of the 10th Engineering Regiment of the Sri Lankan Army. The complex was formally opened by the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, on September 20, 2014.
Recently, I made the 126km journey from Colombo to Galle by the Southern Expressway to witness the building’s transformation. I have known and loved Galle’s Dutch Fort for 40 years: thankfully it is one of the few places on the Island that has seen minimal exterior change over recent decades. I experienced a comforting sense of familiarity when I was driven through the Old Gate and entered the atmospheric Court Square, with its British-built District Court fronted by banyans with their tendril-like “drop roots”.
The road curves past the court and into Hospital Street, where the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct is instantly encountered on the left. I remembered passing it on occasions in the 1970s when it was in a state of paint-less neglect. Now, here stood an immaculate, pristine-white building, an example of British classic-style colonial architecture, embodying deep, colonnaded verandahs with square pillars on both sides of the ground floor, and balconies on the first floor with round pillars and wooden balustrades. A Dutch influence can be detected in the wooden windows.
The location is ideal, just a few metres from the low rampart beyond which lies the ocean, constantly washing over the many rocks close to the shore, providing the perfect background sound.
I checked out the various shops and eateries on the ground floor proceeding south to north. The Tuna and the Crab -needless to say a seafood restaurant -is probably located on the site of the Dutch hospital. Next is Chatham, Sri Lanka’s first multi-brand luxury watch boutique. Sifani, Colombo Jewellery Stores and Gem Boutique combine to provide a dazzling array of precious stones and jewellery for which Sri Lanka is renowned. Sugar Bistro and Wine Bar, infamous for its sugar burgers, has an enormous chalkboard menu fixed high on a wall. Zam Gems continues the quality jewellery theme, and Taphouse R&R has the necessary ambience.
Wooden flights of stairs rise from the granite blocks of the ground floor verandahs to the first floor. The elevation provides a bird’s-eye view of the nearby ocean; also a panoramic view of the harbour and the legend-laden looming hill of Rumassala. The wooden-floored back balcony overlooking the harbour provides entrance to the various establishments, and the cafés and eateries have placed tables so that patrons can enjoy the best possible view over the ramparts.
Tea Breeze has a comfortable leather-chaired lounge, with a tall display of types of the beverage. The Cannon Bar & Grill is so-named as it has a convincing replica of a cannon on display. The Sri Lanka Hammock Café and Pub has the distinction of inviting diners to sit in comfortable red hammocks. The spacious, nicely furnished Starbeans: The Dutch Café has an upstairs lounge. And Thai Heritage, though small, provides another country’s national cuisine.
Dusk had fallen, and as I walked towards the bar intriguingly named A Minute by Tuk-Tuk, located in the extension that reaches the rampart, the building’s lights were switched on, providing magnificent illumination. Tuk-Tuk has modern décor, with outrageously tall stools and tables made of whitish wood. The last three shops stock the wide variety of old and new handicrafts that are so popular with visitors: Shilpa National Crafts, Sithuvili, and Orchid House Boutique.
As I left, an almost full blood-red moon was rising above Rumassala, a perfect end to my visit to this new shopping and dining complex in a colonial setting. Galle, with its Dutch Fort, three museums, and much else historical to discover, now has a further attraction linked to the past that no visitor should miss.

 

 

 

 

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