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Galle Church — Burial Chambers and Vaults
 
The vault was last opened in 1925
 
 
The Dutch Reformed Church, with gables on the eastern and western walls, but no tower, was completed in 1755. It is similar in style to the ones in Negapatnam and Cochin in India, even including the walls. It is built on the site of an earlier Portuguese convent. Around the church and within the walls is a small graveyard.

by Deloraine Brohier

The church: Groote Kerk, surrounded by a small cemetery with old gravestones. It has two entrances. One in the front, visible on the left, the other on the right hand side. @ Photo: Krane

It was a Sunday, a weekend I was spending in Galle, sometime in the 1970’s. Sitting on the verandah of the New Oriental Hotel, in the Fort of Galle with my father, the late R. L. Brohier, a waiter mentioned that a few days before , in the garden of the Dutch Church next door to the hotel, the earth had caved in. I walked across to investigate.

Yes, the earth on the north-side of the Church had fallen in, leaving an entrance hole large enough to creep into. Adventurous as I was wont to be, cautiously on my belly hands and knees scraping, I crawled my way down. A few feet in, I found I was in a chamber where I was able to stand up.

It was damp and musty of smell. Long stalactites were hanging down, dripping and trickling with water, from a vaulted roof. By the dim light which filtered in I was able to discern a centre pillar from where flowed arches of lime-stone. The place was eerie in atmosphere — so not lingering too long I crept out again, into the sunlight.

"That’s a Burial Chamber", said my father, when I reported back though he gave me sharp admonition for the danger I had exposed myself to. Knowledgeable as he was, from researching into old records and books, my father then explained that such Burial Chambers had been known to exist, to hold the embalmed remains of eminent personages in Dutch times.

It was to such a Chamber that the body of Gerard Hulft , the Dutch Commander who was killed during the siege of Colombo, was kept. For it is on record that, "the body of General Hulft was received in Galle three days after his untimely death .... and placed within a masonry catalogue in De Groot Kerk for one year. Thereafter, it was lowered into a grave on the right of the pulpit within the Church — the General’s arms and spurs being hung on the wall, over the grave. The following year, 1658, the Dutch conquest of coastal Ceylon being complete, the body of Hulft was removed to the State Dutch Church, within the Colombo Fort, where it was placed in a tomb".

Today the Burial Chambers -there being two adjacent to each other- in the north garden of the Galle Church can be seen and entered. With funds and expertise provided by the Netherlands Government, the Chambers as well as the interior of the Church have been repaired and restored.

The present day visitor may enter down a flight of steps and see the lime-stone arches of the Chambers. Still very damp and sweating.

As to any subsequent discovery, R. L. Brohier alludes also to a two-chambered vault underneath the Church floor. One of these he says was opened in 1908 — but little is of the other. The manuscript of his book, "Links between Sri Lanka and The Netherlands" — a book of Dutch Ceylon, was completed sometime in the mid - 1970’s. So the entry we’ include from his publication as above — is relevant. The Chamber discovered when the garden caved in , was not accurately identified by him at the time.

There is also a vault that can be identified underneath the western end of the nave of the Church, and within it. We have it on record that this vault was last opened in 1925. An account has been included in the publication Links Between Sri Lanka and The Netherlands. The account as given is by R. G. Anthonisz, the first Government Archivist and Librarian appointed by the British Colonial administration.

During the repairs effected to the Church, in 1925 the Church was without a roof. The heavy rains made the flooring sink in certain places. There was then the fear that one of the vaults which were believed to be under the floor beneath the Church floor had collapsed. R. G. Anthonisz was consulted in regard to the opening of the vault

His reply as given below is very illuminating. "I have a perfect recollection" Anthonisz wrote, "of the very last occasion when this was done., on the 23rd February, 1863. It was for the burial of Mrs. C. P. Walker, wife of the District Judge permission had to be obtained from the Government because already burials within places of worship had been much restricted by law. To get at the entrance (to the vault) the tombstone of Mathew Vander Spaar, opposite the vestry door was taken away. When the sea sand was removed to a depth of about 6 feet, there was a stone gate from which a couple of steps led into the vault. There were a number of coffins in a fair state of preservation, some of these were lined with black velvet".

Interior of the Galle church. To the left, on the wall, is a peculiar mural tablet bearing the coat of arms of Abraham Samlant, a well-known Commandeur of Galle in the 18th century. @ Photo: Krane

Then according to the directions received from the Government the vault was re-opened in 1925. R. L. Brohier describes in his book of Dutch Ceylon that when the vault was opened it was found to have been in good preservation — though much smaller than expected, a mere 6 by 9 by 5 1/2 feet. The remains of the last coffin was there, the lid covering the bones. On a side there were fragments of other old bones and bits of coffins scattered around. An account giving the history of the vault and the reason for opening it were bottled and the vault closed.

This is interesting history and those who care can see the Chambers in the north garden and go round the beautiful Church after its re-dedication at the end of October‘ 2004. A Service will be held by the Dutch Reformed Church of Ceylon attended by high dignitaries of State in the country.

 

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