29 Oct Galle Fort in Sri Lanka; Where Different Faiths Come Together
Over half of the population of Galle Fort, a heritage town in the Bay of Galle on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, is Muslim. It’s the long-standing heritage of Moorish traders, who arrived here long before the colonial powers took over. Fort is a spiritual place where churches, temples, and mosques are all in the same street, and people from all faiths live together. Prayers are called out across the rooftops while church bells ring and orange-robed monks sweep the temple. As Sri Lanka is largely a Buddhist country, the multitude of religions in Fort is one of the things that makes the place unique.
When Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary-General of the UN, visited Galle Fort in Sri Lanka in 2016 he met with different religious leaders. He was impressed by its multi-faith community, living together in peace. We interviewed the people of Fort, and can only agree with Ban’s observations. Residents from the Christian, Tamil, Muslim, and Buddhist communities spoke movingly of the unity that exists. We enjoyed sitting down with the head priest at Sri Sudharmalaya Buddhist temple, one of the trustees of the mosque, and the reverend at the Dutch Reformed Church, to hear their perspectives on Fort life.
“WHEN BAN KI-MOON VISITED GALLE FORT, HE SAID HOW IMPRESSED HE WAS BY ITS PEACEFUL, MULTI-FAITH COMMUNITY”
RAUF AROOZ – MUSLIM ELDER AND TRUSTEE OF THE MOSQUE
Runs in the Family
As one of the two trustees selected by the community, I take care of the interests of the mosque. I followed in my father’s footsteps; he worked this job for 30 years. The Fort has always been home: I was born in 78 Lighthouse Street, which was my mother’s house. Growing up, my friends and I used to go fishing behind the Lighthouse and Dutch Hospital. We knew the best spots to find different types of fish, including mullet. Off the jetty in the old harbour, we would catch small fish using pins with earthworms attached. We would cook them at home and then eat them with string hoppers on the ramparts.
Harmony and Cohesion
The Fort community is very united. I regularly speak with the head monk, as well as the reverend fathers. When we need to discuss important matters, we all meet at the temple. There have been times when Christians and Buddhists have guarded the mosque during prayer time and vice versa. During Ramadan, we invite residents of all faiths to come and have breakfast with us at the Muslim Cultural Association.
A Sweet Tooth
In the 1960s, when I was doing my O-Levels, I used to go to Sinhala classes four times a week at the temple. The head monk wouldn’t accept money, but we knew he liked watalappan, a caramel-type pudding, so my mother would make it for him to recompense him in some way. When my schoolmates and I wanted to leave the class early, we would move the clock forward!
When Ban Ki-moon – who was the Secretary-general of the United Nations – came here in 2016, he met with all the religious leaders and was impressed by our peaceful, multi-faith community. He told us that this is a nice place to live. Before taking a helicopter to Temple Trees for tea, he even took a 15-minute walk with us on the ramparts.
“THERE IS A CULTURE OF SHARING IN FORT. IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN A MULTI-FAITH COMMUNITY. IT’S UNIQUE IN THAT WAY. WE DON’T DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN PEOPLE – YOU CAN FEEL IT”
PANANGALA HEMA LOKA THERO – HEAD PRIEST AT THE SRI SUDHARMALAYA BUDDHIST TEMPLE
I first came to the temple in 1979 when I was 12 years old. I was born in the Galle District, which is about 27 miles from here. At the age of 19, I became responsible for the temple. For a few years, I was here on my own, but I didn’t feel lonely. I had so much work to do extending the shrine room and restoring the building, which dates from 1886.
A typical day for me begins at 4:30 a.m. I walk on the ramparts in front of the temple. I like the calmness. I have a clear memory of everyone gathering at Moon Bastion when the tsunami hit in 2004. It was a safe point. Following my walk, I clean the temple, bathe, worship, have breakfast, and then, begin community service. Residents come and ask for advice on a variety of personal and business problems. We also have community meetings and give financial help to people in need.
Human life is very temporal. Religion is like a boat that helps you along the river of life. Every religion has a different story for the end of life. Apart from that, we are all the same. We have the same feelings, the same needs. We need to live together and be kind to each other within this short life.
“GALLE FORT IS UNIQUE. WE ARE STRONGLY TIED ACROSS FAITHS. ALL THE PLACES OF WORSHIP HAVE IMPORTANCE IN THE COMMUNITY”
REVEREND LAKMAL WIJERATNE – PASTOR OF THE CHRISTIAN REFORMED CHURCH IN GALLE
A Multi-faith Community
The Fort is unique. We are strongly tied across faiths. All the places of worship have importance in the community. The neighbourhood is made up of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian residents. In times of difficulty, everyone rallies together to support each other. Non-Christian residents have told me that the church is a part of their lives and history. People have taken it in turns to protect the building at different times. When it got suggested that the churches move their congregations outside of the Fort, the residents opposed this and strongly felt they should remain.
An Inspiring Space
The Fort is where the Christian Reformed Church (formerly known as the Dutch Reformed Church) began in Sri Lanka on the 6th of October 1642. In those days, the congregation worshipped in four different places, including the spice warehouses and gunpowder storeroom near the lighthouse. This Church was built in 1755, primarily for the Dutch administrators, and it’s our bedrock. Any pastor would want to serve here within his lifetime. When I preach here on Sundays, it feels special to me, even though we have a small congregation of 85-90. It is a wonderful privilege to work here.
Many Dutch visitors have a lot of connections to the tombstones and plaques on the walls of the church. Some people sit here and cry – they get a real sense of home and the lives of their ancestors. It might have been where their great-great-grandmother got baptised, or their great-great-grandfather got married. I have a lot of letters from people expressing how much their visits to the church meant.
Ready to discover the soul of Galle Fort yourself?
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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.