Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Emerald Isle Diaries - 6

It began with serendipity and ended with an empty town.

The road from Colombo to Galle (pronounced “Gaul”) is sea-laced and worth a few photographs. Chaga, my cool colleague and friend was my companion for this work-cum-pleasure trip. Work for her and pleasure, for me. As we began to approach the outskirts of the region, the signs of the terrible Tsunami of 2004 started showing in the ruins of skeletal houses. Galle was one of the worst hit regions.

The village where we had work was about 40 km away from Galle and reaching there was like serendipity. We had no idea that it will be tucked in one of the tea valleys of the southern Sri Lanka…the Watawala tea estate which produces the famous brand Zesta. The weather, with its light drizzle was giving perfect accompaniment to the place. After dropping Chaga at the place where she had to be along with the people from the research agency, I did a trip of the ‘Village Green’ and the tea estates. The charming number by 'The Kinks' was running in my system while the drizzle continued. My love for tea added to the pleasure.

The journey from Village Green to ‘many many years back in time’ took me an hour. The drizzle had stopped by then.

History suggests that Galle is the Biblical city of Tarshish from where King Solomon drew Ivory, Peacock and other valuables. The modern history of Galle started in 1505, when the first Portuguese ship was driven here by a storm. In the course of time the port city saw three different rules….Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British. It was the Dutch who constructed the present and 90 acre Fort of Galle in the year 1663, and this fort was my reason to visit Galle.

Once inside the fort, I was transposed into another world. The city inside is one of the world’s best-preserved colonial landscape with its understated, sleepy charm. Its low-rise streets are lined with old churches and Dutch colonial villas, many of which retain original street-facing verandahs, their white plaster now stripped by sea breezes and weathered to a peeling grey and yellow. Interestingly, the city was left unharmed by the Tsunami.

Amongst the many churches inside, stands the very atmospheric Dutch Reformed Church. Built in 1755, its one of the finest Christian architecture that I’ve seen. With its enormous canopy over the pulpit and the attractive, ancient organ, the place saw me spending an hour inside it. The floor is covered in ornately carved memorials to the city’s Dutch settlers in English as well as Dutch, illustrating the brief life expectancy of the island’s early colonists. Although I’m a non-believer, I found calmness inside the ancient structure. Perhaps, it’s my love for all things old.

The day ended with me witnessing a town becoming absolutely empty in less than 10 minutes…an experience which will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Powerful earthquakes had hit Indonesia, resulting in a Tsunami scare. Having a disastrous prior experience, the people of Galle started running for their dear lives. Seeing them, the scare crept in within me too. Language problems with the driver of my vehicle and inability to get in touch with Chaga (phone networks had stopped working) who was still at the Village Green, just added to the confusion. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to ask the driver to put on the radio and the guys at the station were doing a good job. They were repeatedly announcing that it’s just an scare and there isn’t going to be Tsunami and my driver kept repeating 'NO TSUNAMI'. Guess it was more to calm himself than me.

Rest of the evening was about the drive back to Colombo and nestling inside the hot bath-tub. Chaga managed to come back with the people from research agency in their vehicle. Being part of a Tsunami scare in the Galle region of Sri Lanka isn't an everyday affair.

The first photograph is of the beautiful dutch church from inside and the second one is of a street in the fort city.


POOJA NAIR said...

Lets hope that that's the most of a tsunami you will ever experience!

Your knowledge of Srilanka seems to have become richer than your knowledge of India...what to do you think?

You could be William Dalrymple for Srilanka... :)

meraj said...

hmmm...good idea there, Pooja. basing a semi-fiction sort of a thing in SL. thanks!

Chaga said...

According to Tyrone - Ophir, not Tarshish; likelier Magama-Hambantota-Tissa-Galle, like Colombo, just one of perhaps a dozen identifiable seaports beading the island.

meraj said... and your book mentions it as Tarshish.