Now restored, the old Dutch Reformed Church in the Galle Fort is a remarkable example of Dutch architecture
Symbol of an era
By Dr. K.D. Paranavitana
One of the finest colonial Dutch architectural edifices in Sri Lanka, the Dutch Reformed Church in Galle Fort has been conserved and is scheduled to be handed over to the General Consistory of the Dutch Reformed Church by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The Dutch Reformed Church (Grote Kerk) is a historically important building that adorns the Dutch Fort in Galle. It was constructed on July 4, 1752 under the supervision of Abram Anthonisz, superintendent of ship-building and architects in Galle.

All the expenses were met by Casparus de Jong or the Lord of Spanbrook of Amsterdam who was then the Commandeur of Galle. The church was built as a thanksgiving to God, on the birth of his daughter after a long period of childlessness. She was baptised at this church on August 24, 1755.

State religion
The United Dutch East India Company (VOC) was established in the Netherlands through the charter issued by the States General in 1602. The birth of the True Dutch Reformed Religion took place as a result of the National Synod held in Dordrecht in 1618/19. This reformed religion was considered the state protected religion in the Netherlands since 1619. At this time the Dutch East India Company was gaining control over the spice trade in the East from the Portuguese. The crew of each Dutch voyage to the East was accompanied by several predicants for the purpose of performing religious rites on board and on land.

Profit the pivot
As profit was the prime objective of the VOC, the charter of 1602 made no provisions for promotion and maintenance of religious institution in the East. The company directors were not obliged to spread the light of the Christianity practised in the Netherlands. When the VOC established its headquarters in East Batavia (present Jakarta) the policy adopted was “the nature of the government is such that it cannot suffer two equally great controlling powers, any more than a body can endure two heads.”

Native roots
It was in this background that the Dutch Reformed Church was introduced to Sri Lanka by the VOC with its first church ministrations held in Galle on October 6, 1642. Its consistory in Colombo was established in1658 marking the beginnings of the Protestant church or what they called "True Christian Reformed Church' (Waare Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk). Subsequently, church councils were formed in Colombo, Galle and Jaffna stationing several Dutch predicants to commence proselytizing activities.

Unique architecture
The Dutch church in the Fort is now the finest example of cruciform churches in Sri Lanka with a magnificent gable suitable to a Protestant place of worship. What is remarkable is that there is no central tower inside to bear the weight of the roof. It has been compensated by adding two large typical Dutch gables to the north and to the south. It is decorated with an unusual double scroll moulding which is unique to this church. The masonry gables are finished off with three flamed-like finials. The two large timber doors and stained glass windows provide light and ventilation.

The high roof in the middle of the building is resting on strong walls of approximately five feet thickness built of kabook of unusually large size with coral and lime plaster.

The arrangement inside the church is remarkable. The wooden pulpit is the finest of this type built in hexagonal shape with calamander panelling mixed with genuine Sri Lankan Kandyan craftsmanship with local satinwood. The normal pews and the pew used by the Commandeur of Galle and the rest of the furniture add grandeur to the church.

The women were accustomed to sit on chairs which they at all times had carried behind them by the slaves, and when Church was over they were taken home again.

Each one took care, not only to have a fine seat, but that it be provided with a ‘stately cushion.' Accordingly, it would have been possible that the chairs were, in turn, gifted to the church on the demise of their owners.

On the southern wall of the nave close to the entrance hangs the hatchment of Abraham Samlant, the Commandeur of Galle. This is the only one of its sort left inside a Dutch church in Sri Lanka, perhaps in the east.

This Dutch Church was the principal place of worship in Galle for the Dutch during their rule and later to the British for some time. The church has the capacity of accommodating approximately 250 devotees at a time and has special pews provided for the high officials on the right opposite corner of the pulpit.

Kerkhof or the churchyard, and in Sinhala what we call Kerakoppuwa was the holy place where the burials took place. Distinguished persons got priority to have their burials closer to the church. The cemetery for the natives and ordinary folk was on a site outside the fort where the present police station of Galle stands.

The texts of the majority of tombstones are in Dutch written in a set pattern framed with decorated designs together with the heraldry of the deceased. The engraved hourglass, skull and crossbones are common symbols on almost all tombstones depicting the uncertainty of life. Vos states that a 'number of grave stones belonging to the old groote kerk were placed side by side and parallel to each other along the ground. In 1853, when the consistory decided to remove the bodies of the Dutch interred in the old cemetery to the present church these tombstones were also removed and paved them on the floor where they are still lie.'

Just opposite the church, at the extreme end of the VOC warehouse, there is a belfry in the very same site as it was in the beginning of the 18th century as indicated on maps and drawings. It was commonly believed that this belfry belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church situated right opposite the belfry. The inscription under the belfry dates 1707. John Wolfgang Heydt, a German who served under the VOC in the island stated in his work Newest Georgraphical and Topographical theatre of Africa and East India (1744) that the northernmost part of the warehouse was the Dutch church and this belfry was in front of it.

Heydt would have drawn a sketch of the present church if it was there at the time of his visit to Galle in 1737. Accordingly, the old Dutch church existed on the same site where the Portuguese Franciscan church was but out of use for a long period of time.

Due to activities of the subsequent generations its church features have changed beyond recognition. The church entrance carries the date 'Anno 1672' on its arched entrance and the old church gable is still to be seen.

The church is also in possession of considerable archives originating from the activities of the Church Council and correspondence with other Dutch Reformed Churches in Sri Lanka. These documents date back to the mid-seventeenth century.

The most important set of records are the baptismal, marriage and death registers which provide valuable information to people even today. They could be consulted at the Dutch Reformed Church Head quarters at Wellawatte, Colombo.

Back to Top  Back to Plus  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.