Architecture in today’s Sri Lanka is heavily tied to its colonial past. The island country is a popular tourist destination, part of its attractiveness being its architectural history. Sri Lanka was exchanged among various owners throughout the colonial period, from the Portuguese to the British and the Dutch, the city contains the essence of the various European architecture of the time, with the added mixture of local flavor. This is a key characteristic of colonial architecture.
From 1640 to 1796, some of Sri Lanka was governed by the Dutch, with the land offered as payment for their aid in defeating the Portuguese. Ocean-locked Sri Lanka shares culture and history with the Asian continent and its historic architecture is a reflection of this heritage. With the arrival of the Dutch, some of the local styles gave way to European influence, at times merging, at others changing completely. Some of the most attractive examples of the architecture of the time come through this process of merging and change.
The Old Dutch Hospital, located in Colombo, remains a classic reminder of the Dutch era. Founded in 1681, it is amongst the oldest buildings in the region. With a central courtyard shaded from the sun and the typical red-tiled roofs, this old structure still manages to attract many locals and visitors. The former hospital now lends its walls to shops and restaurants, making this old piece of architecture even more attractive to tourists.
City of Colombo
However, the passage of time has not been kind to many of these buildings, and after numerous conflicts and natural events, a great deal of them have been lost. The current areas that still contain a healthy quantity of intact Dutch colonial edifices are the city of Galle and Colombo. It is not surprising that many of these buildings are churches, despite the country being mainly Buddhist. But this is another example of colonial influence. Oftentimes, Christian European influences started overwhelming ancient cultures with established religions and the new style took over. But in some cases, as in Sri Lanka, the influence of the pre-colonial past remained strong.
An example of the still substantial Christian influence is the Wolvendaal Church, also located in Colombo. Visible from the sea, this church would offer a warm welcome to sailors returning from their journeys and served as a place to direct one last prayer before leaving again to face the many dangers of the sea. The church has since been concealed by newer, taller buildings, but in its historical location we see an intention to serve people almost like a lighthouse, but one of spirit.
City of Galle
On the southern coast of Sri Lanka, the city of Galle provides some of the most significant examples of colonial Dutch architecture. Most of these buildings have been renovated and transformed from their former functions into newer ones. Here, the form-follows-function law of Louis Sullivan seems to lose its footing in the creative ways in which Sri Lankans have adapted these old walls to establish new amenities with no relation to their original purposes.
The idea of old buildings becoming something new takes an interesting turn when the new direction is that of preserving history: a museum. The old Dutch warehouse in the City of Galle turned into the Maritime Archaeology Museum. Close to the ports, it was up until recently what the Dutch meant it to be, a warehouse, storing all sorts of goods from other shores. The skill put into solidifying this building showed when in 2004 it survived the tsunami that claimed the lives of over 30,000 people.
Some other colonial structures remain in the city of Galle, like the Dutch reformed church Groote Kerk. Constructed in 1755, the church was built close to the fort in which the Maritime Archaeology Museum lies. This church shares the architectonic influences found in the Wolvendaal Church in Colombo, from the built-in stone tombs to the decorated towers and typically flat Dutch façade. If you cross the street, you will find another extraordinary example of colonial architecture. A manor, built in 1684 for the Dutch commander, is now the Amangalla Hotel. Fully renovated and carefully repurposed, this hotel evokes feelings of nostalgia, while constantly receiving new faces.
One of the most iconic Dutch colonial buildings is the Galle Fort itself. The port of the city of Galle has a rich and ancient history as part of a trading network that some people believe has existed since the times of King Solomon. Its reign as the chief commercial port was only overshadowed by Colombo in more recent times. Being such an important commercial nexus, it makes sense that the Dutch would put their effort into fortifying it against pirates and inclement weather. Even now, the fort gives the city the ambiance of an old picturesque European settlement. The area surrounding the Fort is usually exquisitely serene. On December 26th of 2004, this quiet town was hit by a wall of water at a speed of 600mph, the deadliest day in the history of the island. The tsunami destroyed the city of Galle, yet the Fort remained. This colonial structure survived the unforgiving water, and slowly but surely, the city has reappeared around it.
1_ Old Dutch Hospital_Vikalpa_Flickr. [Online] Available at: flickr.com/search/?text=Dutch%20Hospital%20sri%20lanka
2_Old Dutch Hospital_Vikalpa_Flickr. [Online] Available at: flickr.com/search/?text=Dutch%20Hospital%20sri%20lanka
3_Wolvendaal Church_Pierre Andre Leclerq_Wikimedia Commons [Online] Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=Wolvendaal+Church&title=Special:MediaSearch&go=Go&type=image
4_Colombo Dutch Museum_LManju_Wikimedia Commons [Online] Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=Colombo+Dutch+Museum&title=Special:MediaSearch&go=Go&type=image
5_Maritime Archaeology Museum_Chetiya Shahabandu_Flickr [Online] Available at: flickr.com/search/?text=Maritime%20Archaeology%20Museum%20sri%20lanka
6_ Maritime Archaeology Museum_Ji Elle_Wikipedia Commons [Online] Available at: flickr.com/search/?text=Maritime%20Archaeology%20Museum%20sri%20lanka
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Words & Images by Dave McClane (2022) A guide to galle fort: Sri Lanka’s Dutch Colonial Gem, Man Vs Globe. Available at: https://www.manvsglobe.com/galle-fort-sri-lanka-guide/ (Accessed: October 30, 2022).