I had heard a lot about Galle, the beautiful, colonial fortress town on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, and today was rightfully all about Galle. As I said yesterday, a perk about visiting Sri Lanka is that every nook and cranny of the country is no more than a few hours away from every other nook and cranny. Galle, it is said, was where King Solomon sent his ships. The solid Portuguese-Dutch fortress encircling the old town is also supposedly the reason why Galle fort (as it is called colloquially) still stands untouched today in spite of the calamity that was the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami while much of the main town of Galle outside the walls of the fortress was sadly wiped out: “Thousands died,” explained our driver, looking out into the sea just one last time as we prepared to leave Galle late in the evening and head out to the Colombo–Galle expressway, one of the many testaments to the government’s excellent work to rebuild parts of the island nation severely affected by the catastrophe. I want to address this once again in a while, albeit in a completely different light.
The architecture in Galle is similar to the Portuguese architecture in Goa, India — and Portugal, certainly, but my point is that this lies along the trade route held in high regard by the various “East India” Companies of the British, the Dutch etc. Indeed the Portuguese lost this fort, like they did several others around that time, to either the Brits or the Dutch. In Galle it was the Dutch who took over and settled down, to the point of eventually (re)building a well-known local church atop the graves of the original settlers from the Netherlands. For instance, above is the grave of Carel Pieter Swensen, skipper and possibly horse cart attendant(? — it says equipagie but I do not understand Dutch except a handful of words). It also has his date of birth and death.
Just outside Galle, in the deep waters of the Indian ocean lies the island of Unawatuna. Besides scuba diving and rich coral reefs and shipwrecks, supposedly for the pleasure of beginner and intermediate divers, the island is known for its appearance in the Hindu epic, Ramayana. The word “Unawatuna” means “that which fell down”. The Ramayana speaks of Hanumantha, the forest-dwelling vanara Hindu god, being sent to retrieve the Sanjeevini plant to heal Lakshmana, the brother of Lord Rama, who was wounded in a war in Lanka, the kingdom of Ravana. Unable to identify the medicinal shrub, he uproots the entire mountain and carries it to the battle field in Lanka where a chunk of it cuts off and falls into the ocean. Following certain comparisons with Valmiki’s close-to-original text of the epic, scholars seem to agree that the Unawatuna beach is one of the beaches described by Valmiki in this context. Anyway, case in point: this place is strongly believed to be mentioned in the Ramayana and sounds true given that present day Sri Lanka was almost definitely Ravana’s kingdom.
Coming to more modern times, the Israeli king, Solomon, is believed to have had trade routes in this region, which is not surprising because his trade routes are said to exist in India as well. This is what surprises me somewhat because Galle, identified as Tarshish, seems incredibly similar to Poovar in Kerala, India, which is often similarly associated with Ophir. These are ports mentioned in the Bible but, unfortunately, these waters are murkier than the Ramayana — which is surprising because the Ramayana is a much older story. A closer look will put both Ophir and Tarshish all over the globe with Tarshish being either an adulteration of the Thiruketheeshwara temple near Jaffna, Sri Lanka, or England itself or Tamilakkam, present-day Tamil Nadu, or even Zimbabwe by some accounts; and Ophir has a similarly hazy location being, from most likely to least likely, either Poovar near present-day Trivandrum in India, to Djibouti to Afghanistan to China to — most recently, with the discovery of Ubar — the Arabian peninsula. In other words, nobody knows where Tarshish and Ophir really were but everyone has opinions. The reason why most seem to agree that it was either Southern India or Northern Sri Lanka was because the Dravidians living in these parts are more likely to have been aware of and dealt with gold, silver, pearls, peacocks, ivory, and sandalwood, than any other country on earth.
In any case, Galle seems to have too much of a history — even though quite a lot of it remains uncertain — from the Ramayana and the Bible of yore to the Portuguese and Dutch traders of more recent centuries. Facts we know, however, are interesting themselves, even if nowhere near as remarkable. I saw four prisoners being led out of the court in Galle to the prison bus, which was not something I liked (I do not believe anyone, human or animal or criminal, must be handcuffed). Above that, it was surprising to me that a place as small as Galle has criminals at all. The waters were rough this season which is why absolutely nobody entered, and glimpses of people jumping into the ocean was something I missed. There were also no glass-bottomed boats available and no scuba diving — not that I would have dived anyway because (rather unfortunately) I am not too fond of water-dwelling beings, although I love being in water. However, the point is, Galle deserves another visit and I will hopefully be able to return soon. ❖