23 Aug Finding Fort’s Treasures at the Historical Mansion in Galle
The history of Galle reads like an exciting boy’s book. Filled with stories of sailors, slaves and soldiers who found fame, death or fortune on Sri Lankan shores. For centuries the thick walls of the Fort welcomed pirates, gem traders and adventure seekers. Moors, Indians, Portuguese, Dutch, Portuguese and British all left their marks in the cobblestone streets of this heritage town. We meet long time Fort resident, avid antique collector and motorbike tourer Nasser Hussain who is the co-owner of The Historical Mansion Museum. He shares with us his family history, as well as his memories of this unique place he calls home.
A heritage building
It is likely that this building was originally a complex of storerooms or a warehouse for Dutch traders – it is conveniently located close to the old harbour and at that time people bought ropes on this street. In fact, Leyn Baan means ‘rope making’. Following that it was owned by the well-known Macan Markar family and then my father bought it in 1978. He had always been a passionate antique collector – I remember how on family trips our van would come to an abrupt stop as soon as he spotted some old treasure on the side of the road. We would often be there for hours. Later he would work with carpenters to restore the pieces.
An eclectic collection
My father’s collection of antiques is open to the public and we welcome people to come in with a free mind. The pieces are organised by theme rather than time period because Sri Lankan history is so mixed. For example, we have a whole cabinet of snuff boxes, including colonial British and modern ones. My favourite antiques include a jakwood and ebony gaalu almaary (Galle almirah) which is made in a local style with floral fretwork. This is because for the simple purpose of storing things, so much work went in – it’s a showpiece. I also like the boolees which are clay flasks that seafarers carried with them to store water and liquor. The Dutch ones have an image of a bearded man on them and then a unique symbol which signifies the area they came from in Holland. Similar identification marks are also seen on the tombstones in the Dutch Reformed Church. There is a particularly unusual one with a pointed, rough bottom so that it could be planted into sand and stay upright.
Fort musings by Nasser Hussain, co-owner of the Historical Mansion in Galle Fort
Sharing memories of place in the UNESCO-listed heritage town
I still remember bathal (wooden boats) used to come and offload sacks of rice and sugar onto the old harbour jetty from larger ships which berthed alongside the Dutch Hospital. Maldivian traders also used to arrive on dhonis – they were so poor. Whole families would come – the men would work on the boats and the women would do domestic work in Fort households until their boat was ready to return. During our school days, my father paid 25 cents for us to go on the bullock cart but we always walked behind it because the girls sat inside and often pushed us out saying there wasn’t enough space! After school we would throw our bags into the house, take our shoes off and be on the beach in minutes. Until the late 80s there was a man-pulled rikshaw at the junction by Barefoot – it was patronised solely by Ibrahim Haajiar (uncle), previous owner of the Fort Printers. He used to travel in it with a long cigar – it was like a Benz for him.
“FORT IS A DIFFERENT WORLD; I HAVE LIVED IN COLOMBO AND KANDY BUT THIS IS THE PLACE”
We are family
My favourite spot to sit in the Fort is on the ramparts at the ‘three-pin plug point’ at the sunset end of Pedlar Street at about 5pm – here you can see all around, watch children playing and people flying kites. Even if I go alone there are people who come and speak with me – when visitors come to the Fort they experience a different feeling. While other important sites in Sri Lanka are connected to religion or culture, this place has no label as such. Visitors come in with a very free mind because they don’t have to buy tickets. I also like sitting at my desk in the courtyard of the museum; you can spend a million dollars on a pent house but by looking out to the road, I can see all of life in one. I want the Fort to be a business centre like in the old days and to continue as a place of freedom. I see the people of the Fort as my Sri Lankan family and address them as brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, sons and daughters.
Some hand-painted boxes from the antique collection in the Historical Mansion
This lovely little museum is chock-a-block with plates, bowls, chairs, coins, clocks, stamps, spoons and other cherished finds from the colonial period
“LIFE HERE IS ABOUT PEOPLE, IT IS NOT ABOUT BUILDINGS. THIS IS NOT A STATIC CITY…IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN A CENTRE OF TRADE. WE MUST SEE IT AS A WHOLE”
Nasser’s favourite pieces are the seafarers clay liquor flasks, especially the Dutch ones with the symbol of a bearded man
About the Historical Mansion
Find Nasser Hussain at the Historical Mansion Museum, 31-39 Leyn Baan Street in Fort. This former family house was one of the first buildings to be renovated in the Fort. Open to visitors, the lovely little museum is worth a visit. A true treasure trove, it is chock-a-block with plates, bowls, chairs, coins, clocks, stamps, spoons and other cherished finds.
Want to find the soul of Galle?
Discover more stories behind Galle’s heritage buildings in the iDiscover Galle Guide. An illustrated map that comes with a free navigational app. Curated by the passionate folks at the Galle Heritage Foundation the App&Map guide features 3 handcrafted walking itineraries that help you see Galle through the lens of locals. The map is an artistic ode to the heritage town while the app helps you to get around and provides intimate portraits of long-time locals and know-how on the historic layers of the architecture.
Explore Fort through the lens of locals with the iDiscover App&Map, created and designed by locals
Words by Daisy Perry
Daisy is a writer who finds inspiration in everyday Sri Lankan life. She loves listening to and recording people’s stories. In the Fort, she is most likely to be found having tea with friends or having a swim off Lady’s Sea Bath Beach.
Photos by Atheeq Ifthikar
Atheeq is a photographer with a passion for Galle Fort. In fact, it is here that he learned how to use a camera. He loves capturing people’s unique characteristics. Atheeq is most likely to be found on the ramparts giving a walking tour or at his friend’s art gallery on Leyn Baan Street.