Sri Lankan city still proud of its Dutch colonial roots

GALLE, Sri Lanka (CP) - Its faded gingerbread-house facade looks more like it belongs in a town square in northern Europe rather than the tropics. Its floor is made of grandly carved tombstones which begin with the Dutch words "Hier Legt," which means "Here lies."

But the only Dutch one hears in this 250-year-old house of worship is from the tourists that its frail Sri Lankan caretaker, Albert, leads to sign the guestbook. Eyes frosted over with cataracts, the 78-year-old wearing a sarong proudly shows visitors the church - his church.

Services are now conducted in the local language for Albert and a congregation of around 20 others.

This Dutch Reformed Church here in Galle, Sri Lanka's fourth largest city, is part of a uniquely preserved colonial legacy in Asia.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Galle when a flotilla of ships was blown off course in 1505. The Dutch East India Company seized control of Portugal's colonies in present-day Sri Lanka in 1640. They ruled for 150 years before being ousted by the British in 1796, but left their mark on Galle's heart and, as the church attests, its soul.

This former Dutch enclave is surrounded by massive grey stone walls overlooking the Indian Ocean. Inside is a sleepy little community still proud of its colonial roots, using them as a marketing tool to attract hordes of European tourists.

The collection of Dutch colonial buildings is distinctly different from the ornate Mediterranean-style architecture introduced to Asia by the Portuguese or the regal sandstone buildings that marked a British presence.

Streets are neatly organized into a grid pattern characteristic of fortified towns in northern Europe. Some homes have double hinged "Dutch doors" that open either at the top or the bottom.

Its 300-year-old sewer system still works, though the windmill that once flushed sea water through the underground canals is long gone.

But the Dutch left more than just bricks and mortar. Even the names of its current residents one sees outside lawyer's offices or shops have Dutch spellings, like "Hubert Weerasooriya," an octogenarian lawyer.

In 1988 UNESCO declared this walled city a World Heritage Site, heralding it as the finest example of European architecture anywhere in Asia.

Sri Lanka historians clearly struggled to define what made this Dutch monument so important to the development of this island nation.

"The campaign for the restoration and repair of a colonial fort and buildings in it, once directly associated with foreign occupation, must be viewed as a sign of a broader interpretation - as cultural symbols of a common heritage," wrote one archeologist in the 1992 edition of Ancient Ceylon, A Journal of the Department of Archaeology.

Nothing embodies that notion of "dual parentage" better than the Dutch Reformed Church and its caretaker, Albert.

"Just Albert," he says. Last names are likely unnecessary in a congregation so small. He's been a member from birth and seems surprised when asked why he would belong to a religion with such obvious colonial overtones. "My mother, father go here," he says simply.

Outside, a tout hawks badly worn Dutch coins he says were found in the choppy waters off Galle. Each bears the letters VOC, the initials of the Dutch East India Company, the trading firm that planned and built Galle to protect its stranglehold on the spice trade in what was then Ceylon. He takes $3 for one.

A walk down the narrow alleys is full of these unusual surprises. At "Dutch House," a local inn with grimy rooms named after Dutch governors, the souvenir shop sells wooden shoes.

In the lobby are prints of soldiers in wide-brimmed hats and high collars sporting thick beards that look as if they've stepped out of a Reubens painting. Heat stroke must have been rampant.

Across the street from the church is perhaps Asia's best-kept secret: the 300-year-old New Oriental Hotel, Sri Lanka's oldest inn.

Barefoot waiters sporting sarongs shuffle languidly on the hardwood floors serving lime sodas to their parched patrons.

The New Oriental Hotel is more the sort of place one would check into for a few months to write a novel on one of the wooden tables dwarfed beneath the high ceiling fan while staring out the shuttered windows overlooking the graveyard of the Dutch church. At each end of the long wooden corridors are red water buckets in case of fire. Rooms run between $40-$60 US a night.

After dinner, the waiter may lead you to a musty room near the pool for a game of billiards on a 150-year-old table.

Getting there is also a trip back in time if one uses the ancient rail system. Galle is 116 kilometres south of the capital Colombo. The train takes three hours, bouncing and grinding its way down the rails along the coast. The trip costs less than $2.

The station master's office in Galle looks as if it belongs in a railway museum. The signalling equipment seems to be from the early part of the century. Crank phones like the ones seen in silent movies are used to communicate within the building.

Across Asia, historic neighbourhoods are quickly being bulldozed to make way for office buildings and apartments. For now, Galle remains an exception, an oasis for those thirsty for nostalgia. It's refreshing to see one place that remains as sleepy and free of karaoke bars and Coca-Cola signs as the day those first Portuguese ships accidentally arrived.