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A Road and a Fort

On Thursday, my friend Ashan Abeyesundere, suggested that we go to Galle, have lunch and return. Such an idea would have been considered almost impossible until recently, but now the gleaming new expressway, E01, enabled it. It was forty minutes to the Kottawa interchange from Elibank Road, and from there only fifty minutes to the Pinnaduwa interchange, which allows an exit from the expressway to the Galle – Akuressa road. In another ten minutes, we were in Galle fort.

This is Sri Lanka’s first highway. We had all traveled on expressways in other countries of course, but this was our first highway ride in our native land, and we were all thrilled to be on it. What makes the ride extraordinary is not the just steady speed one can travel at, on an uncluttered path. It’s also that surroundings are pristine; there is little between the road and landscape. Unlike in larger countries, Sri Lanka has amazing ecological diversity, and even in short trip, some of that was visible; when passed through fresh hewn rock, on either side the glossy, fresh, almost wet face of the stone was a marvel to behold. It was for us beyond any doubt, a tourist attraction, given of course we were touring our own country. It’s unlikely though that it would be such for inter

national visitors from other countries, be it China, India, Europe or the US. Highways are really quite passé, you’d notice them only if they were clogged, but roads, it worth noting are always signs of government, and of course Imperial power, since the days of the Romans.

Galle Fort, where we had lunch, on the other hand, is a remarkably European space, made over centuries, yet revalued and reconstructed anew, so that it has become a living, and livable tourist commodity. The beginning of the fort, are in Portuguese conquest of the sixteenth century, Dutch conquest in the seventeenth and extension and additions since. The rampart of today, were in place in 1796, when the Dutch commander surrendered the fort to British conquerors, without a battle. Three European conquests, in one space. The 130 areas of the Galle Fort remain, perhaps the only existing, lived in, European built city in Asia.

In the post colonial period, the fortifications that surround this space, made it a site of Sri Lankan military encampments, that then, in time of trouble became the ‘secured’ site of a besieged state. For example, my mother tell me, that in 1958, during the time of attacks on Tamil civilians throughout the country, she who had just moved to a suburb of Galle after her marriage to my father, was offered security in the Fort, by administrative authorities. Such was one place of the Galle fort, in the landscape.

During the insurrection of 1971, again, the Fort become a ‘security zone.’ In the course of these operations, the Armed forces, which may not have appreciated the historical value of the buildings they occupied cause some damage to certainly structures. Concerned by this, Roland Silva, the noted Sri Lankan Archeologists, persuaded the then Prime Minister to declare the fort an archeological site, governed by strict, even draconian laws of preservation. A town meeting was held, under the leadership of the legendary Wijayananda Dhahanayake, to explain this to the citizens, and so the matter rested. (Mr. Silva explained this at meeting of the National Heritage Trust recently)

But since this made totally reconstruction of building near impossible, property prices plummeted, and the place closed in on itself. As a child, I recall many goats and cows wondering around the streets defecating as they pleased, on narrow streets; buildings seemed dark and damp, decaying into grime. Even the old Dutch governor’s mansion, the New Oriental Hotel, famed during the nineteenth century heyday of Galle as a port city, never seemed inviting. It was not always a pleasant place to even visit for a few hours, even though at evening, the ramparts were inviting – as was the lighthouse, which I was allowed to climb up one memorable day.

The confluence of expatriate hoteliers, Dutch aid, and Unesco endorsement, which calls it "an urban ensemble which illustrates the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions from the 16th to the 19th centuries," has changed this old city again; parts of it now are up market leisure destination, with new cobbled streets, quaint café, curios boutiques, art galleries and book shops, and expensive, yet beautiful designed hotels and restaurants, and an internationally noted annual literary festival, to its name.

Expressways, I said before, aren’t usually thought of tourists attractions; they are not really cultural artifacts, curious enough, exotic enough to stop and pause over. Roads though are, signs and marks of modern imperial projects, since the time of Romans. As are forts, and the fort at Galle is surely such. But now, the expressway is a convenience, a passing attraction to Sri Lankans, and the Fort a destination for the well heeled, global tourist.

It is a well mixed up world we live it.

Published in print and on the web in the Nation on Sunday 4/12/2011

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