13 Aug Growing Up in a Heritage Town: Meet the Locals of Galle Fort, Sri Lanka
In the early morning, the sun is rising over the ramparts; you hear the call to prayer over the red rooftops and the church bells ringing, while a monk in an orange robe sweeps the leaves from the temple floor. This is Galle Fort, a multi-religious pocket in a predominantly Buddhist country. For centuries, this has been the home of seafarers and adventure seekers, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. Even today, the Fort community remains a multicultural melting pot, unique in the country, perhaps even in the world. We meet three locals from different faiths and ask them what it was like growing up in Galle Fort, Sri Lanka.
Mrs Fathima Hanim Siyoothy. Fort resident, French and English teacher
Mrs Fathima Hanim Siyoothy is a long-time Fort resident who still teaches many of Fort’s youngsters
Lighthouse Street in Galle Fort, Sri Lanka in the old days. Image: Galle Heritage Foundation
“Each morning, we would get picked up by a private school bus, which cost 3 cents a journey. We shared the bus with the boys until we reached a certain age, and after that, we travelled by bullock cart. When we came home in the afternoon, we used to run out of our back door onto the ramparts, and happily play games like hopscotch and rounders. Sometimes, we organised sports meets. Later, I became an avid reader – my favourite authors were Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie. We used to exchange our books for 10 cents at Dr Reuben’s ‘Read and Return’ shop on Pedlar Street. I also loved the School Girls Picture Library comics. After I got married, I enjoyed romantic novels such as the Mills and Boone series.”
Never Stop Learning
“For 38 years, from the age of 18, I taught in a government school and then at Sacred Heart Convent School in Galle. I continue to give tuition classes at home. My students were mainly from the Fort – now they come from Galle and Matara. Initially, I was an English teacher, but at 38, I learned French, and I’m now fluent. I saw a student in the school library reading a book called Learn French in 10 Days, and it caught my interest. I read this and practised by writing letters to my uncle, who lived in France. Then, I joined the French classes at school and took the A-Level. After that, I began teaching the subject. One of my students enrolled both of us in a distance learning degree from Peradeniya University. At 52, I gained my degree! I’ve never thought about why I continue studying – I just like to learn. I even learned to swim at the age of 54. After the tsunami, an English lady created a group for female teachers and doctors, and I joined. Some mornings, when I spot others bathing, I go in the water opposite the lighthouse. Since I was small, I have always wanted to learn, but my mother was afraid that we would drown.”
“I am very attached to the Fort; we are a very closely-knit community. We don’t think of religion, race or creed”
Prasanna Abeywickrama. Fort resident and community organiser
When the Abeywickrama family first moved to Fort, they didn’t like it because it was undeveloped and there were lots of cows wandering the streets
The Old Dutch Gateway and fishermen at the old lighthouse at Galle Pointe. Image: Galle Heritage Foundation
Adapting to Fort Life
“My father bought an old Dutch house in 1979. When we first moved here, we didn’t like the Fort because it was undeveloped and there were lots of cows wandering the streets. Many of the houses were in disrepair, and the rooms were dark. However, over time we came to realise this is a fine place to live, mainly because there are few problems. People live together peacefully as one community. Even if we leave our front door open and go out for a few hours, the house is safe.”
“My wife, two children and I lived in the U.S. for 13 years, but once my father passed away, we returned to Sri Lanka. Compared to the U.S., we have much less material comfort but we feel it’s important our children understand their culture and roots. Once they have that grounding, they won’t be lost in the world.”
A Safe Haven
“Even during the 1980s when there were political problems in the country, there was unity within the Fort. While there was a curfew in Galle, residents played cricket on the ramparts. More recently, when there was unrest outside the Fort, our children’s friends came to stay with us. For Sri Lankan New Year and Ramadan, we always share foods; people are very close. We all know each other by name; it’s not like other places where people are scattered. If something happens, we get together. We look after each and everybody. We have a community vigilance service among Fort residents, but there are rarely any problems here. We are like one family.”
“I love the Fort – I enjoy knowing so many people by name. We are like one family. Even during the 1980s when there were political problems in the country, there was unity here”
Sithey Kadeeja Mohomad. Co-owner and manager of Ameen Hotel
Mrs. Sithey Kadeeja Mohomad was born in what is now the Rampart Hotel
The ramparts and Utrecht Bastion, before the lighthouse was built. Image: Galle Heritage Foundation
A Fort Staple
“The restaurant started at our home. I began by making soup, then lunches and roti. Our dishes were popular, so we decided to start a business. That was 25 years ago. When we first opened, we sold fried rice and kottu roti. Now, our bestseller is the rice and curry we serve at lunchtime. People also come and enjoy cups of tea. Normally, we are open all week apart from Fridays because of Jumma prayers. Our busiest times are between 8-10am and 12-2pm. During Ramadan, we are very busy after 5pm since customers come to break their fast.”
A Meeting Spot
“Everybody comes to the restaurant, and they are all friendly with us. People often refer to it as ‘Akka’s (older sister’s) shop.’ The community is so nice. There is no racism. There is a connection between all residents. Everyone respects each other, and there’s a lot of harmony. I love this job, especially because I am doing it in my hometown.”
Close to Home
“I don’t have a favourite spot in the Fort, but I like the fact my house is here. In my free time, I enjoy taking walks.”
”There is a connection between all residents. I really love the Fort: it’s quiet and safe. We had so much freedom growing up here”
Want to Explore Galle Through the Lens of Locals?
Find more stories 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 with support from the Netherlands Embassy in Colombo, the App&Map guide features 3 handcrafted walking itineraries that help you see Galle Fort Sri Lanka 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 historical 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.
Map by Shehan Dissanayake
Shenan is a Landscape Architect. He seeks inner-happiness by colouring dreams with his hands.