A New Map for an Old Town: Matara Fort in Sri Lanka

Galle is Sri Lanka’s heritage hotspot. The UNESCO-listed historic town with its eclectic fusion architecture and a dreamy colonial mystique has long been a magnet for cultural travellers. But Sri Lanka has more to offer when it comes to multicultural heritage cities. Further along the coast, to the east and the north are towns where foreign merchants, colonial traders and local kings left their marks in stones, streets, food and folklore. Matara, Trincomalee, Batticaloa Jaffna, Kalpitiya, Mannar and Negombo are perhaps lesser known, but also hold many stories and secrets that make them worth exploring.

Matara Fort at the Southernmost tip of Sri Lanka is an unexplored heritage town

In 2022 iDiscover embarked on a very special journey, a project that has been in the pipeline for some time: mapping nine fort cities along the Sri Lankan coast. Exploring lesser-known destinations. To unravel their ancient mysteries with fresh eyes and re-tell the stories of the past, creating new narratives for old places. Our mission? To create ‘new maps’ and curate sensory city walks through the lens of youth. The first stop was Matara at the southernmost point of this little pearl island. We travelled to a coastal city dotted with colonial architecture, a historic city, enveloped by the sea, river and ramparts.

How did we do it? We reeled in a team of local talent and 20 curious young adventurers. We laid out a trail of ancient breadcrumbs for them to (re)discover their own city. They explored and connected with locals and travellers alike. “What is unique about Matara?” they asked. Locals came forward to share personal stories that intertwined with their lives…and together, they created a new map of Matara Fort.

A group of 25 youngsters from Matara exploring their own town with fresh eyes

We had one week, four mentors, a makeshift classroom, and lots of energy. We borrowed mats from the temple, ordered tea and short eats from the neighbours and were ready for a joint journey of rediscovery in six steps:

1. Rediscover

25 youngsters from Matara wandered within the Fort and the city in search of the spirit of the place they call home …Through conversations, guest lectures and fun exercises and unravelled the DNA of the place. For many Matara was a fishing town like so many others along the coast, little did they know that for centuries Matara was an elephant fort, used to keep and train the giant animals before they were shipped off to India.

I came here to learn about photography - but I gained a lot more. I thought I knew about Matara but learned many new things. There are so many interesting structures and stories buried here. We should conserve them for the future.
— Seneru Ranasinghe, student

A series of fun exercises to jointly unravel the DNA of this historic coastal town

2. Map

They spoke to their community about the places that mattered and marked the spots they loved. More than just dots on the map, they scratched beyond the surface and found locals’ favourite places to eat, play and pray. They asked why some places matter more than others, and which buildings, trees and corners are worth preserving and celebrating.

The locals say that moyakata [ the estuary ] is a great place to watch coastal life. When we spoke to them, we realised Matara Fort is underappreciated. They want to share their heritage, not just around Sri Lanka, but to the whole world. Maybe we can do that through tourism.
— Kaushalya, student
Mapping places that matter to the local community

3. Create

The kids were guided by four creatives whose talent revolved around photography & videography, illustrating, writing and history. Atheeq, Devni, Nadeesha and Prathini. These four facilitators watched while the students aged 16-24 yrs old navigated their expedition within the town. They uncovered hidden narratives like the routing for the elephant storage, taxation, bathing and shipping. They found other dark stories of ghosts, doomed places, black magic and tsunami tragedies. A lighter side too, as the small narrow streets of Fort are like a small village, dotted with giant trees and historic houses, with its own intimate community feel.

iDiscover mentors help to construct new narratives for old places

4. Design

Nomadic artisan Devni Jay combined the collective creativity and love for their city to design a new map of Matara. The illustrated map tells the stories they uncovered. An artistic ode to the unique sense of place.

More than skills, I learnt a lot about life and the value of self-confidence. I was always scared. But here, I learnt that it's okay to communicate. I also learnt how to creatively express myself and use what I have within me.
— Nethma
The new map of Matara, an artistic ode to the spirit of place

5. Share

More than just skills, these kids learned about life and connected to their own community. Their walks, photos, videos and stories were displayed at an exhibition for locals and travellers to absorb the uniqueness of Matara. We presented their findings and launched a ‘new map of Matara’ on November 13th Sunday at Old Nupe Market with the Dutch Ambassador Her Excellency Bonnie Horbach gracing the event to mark the event. It was a unique occasion that brought together government leaders, homeowners and business people to discuss the future potential of heritage revitalisation in Matara.

Now we know the true potential of this fascinating place. If we let go, we may lose it forever. But if we conserve and improve it, this palace can be even better than Galle Fort.
— Nethma
Pop-up exhibition to bring stories back to the community

6. Connect

Now, you too can follow the footsteps of these creative youngsters to witness Matara come alive through the spirit it so lovingly holds within its ancient waterways and ramparts. Six curated story walks offer a multi-sensory experience to discover the city like a local. The spirit of a place requires you to see, feel, and breathe that place wearing the shoes of someone who was born there.

Learn the history of a coastal town unlike any other. Meander among old Dutch architecture and bask in the heritage of a time past. ⛪

Seek the elusive elephant trade and listen to the sound and stories of the ocean. 🌊 🎣

Eat from the places that locals go to 😋 but try not to get lost in the hallowed horror houses we featured 👻

If you see any of the locals featured on our map, say hi. 👋🏾😄

Here’s to another round of exploring and travelling like a local with iDiscover.

By rediscovering your own history, you become the heritage custodians of the future.
— Mrs Bonnie Horbach, Dutch Ambassador to Sri Lanka
The new Matara map with historical highlights and six curated storywalks

The new map of Matara Fort

Meet the locals, hear their stories, learn what they love..

Watch the project video for a behind-the-scenes view of iDiscover Matara Fort.

Historical maps and images in this article have been sourced from the archives of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies and the Atlas of Mutual Heritage, a complete digital overview documentation about the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the West India Company (WIC).

The project was funded by the Netherlands Embassy in Sri Lanka and executed by iDiscover Academy in collaboration with Galle Heritage Foundation, with special thanks to Devni Jay, Atheeq Ifthikar, Prathini Samaradiwakara and Nadeesha Paulis.

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