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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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 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, 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.
The new map of Matara Fort
Meet the locals, hear their stories, learn what they love..
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.
A weaver of words and a lover of getting lost in a jungle or in her own mind, Nadeesha believes that genuine connections within us, being one with nature and dance can heal everyone.@nadeepaws
Netherlands Embassy in Sri Lanka Netherlands Embassy in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka and the Netherlands have a long standing history. Through this project, we highlight the many marks of a rich past that survived into the present; structures, people, livelihoods, food and the stories that embody the spirit of this place. Unravelling history through the lens of youth is more than just a reminder of our rich heritage, but a vision for the future of Matara.www.netherlandsandyou.nl
A chaotic-good, ambivert with wild hands that give life and colour to the imagination, Devni is a curious seeker who tries to understand boundaries so she can break them.www.nomadic-artisan.com/contact