Forts of Sri Lanka

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Forts and fortifications in Sri Lanka date back thousands of years with many being built by Sri Lankan Kings, these include several walled cities. With the out set of colonial rule in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka was occupied by several major colonial empires that from time-to-time became the dominant power in the Indian ocean. The colonists built several western styled forts, mostly in and round the cost of the island. The first to build colonial forts in Sri Lanka were the Portuguese, these forts were captured and later expanded by the Dutch. The British occupied these Dutch forts during the Napoleonic wars.

Most of colonial forts were garrisoned up until the early 20th century. The coastal forts had coastal artillery manned by the Ceylon Garrison Artillery during the two world wars. Most of these were abandoned by the military, but retained civil administrative officers, while others retained military garrisons, which were more administrative than operational. Some were reoccupied by military units with the escalation of the Sri Lankan Civil War, Jaffna fort for example came under siege several times.

Ancient forts[edit]


Main article: Sigiriya

Sigiriya is commonly referred to as a fortress built on the rock of Sigiriya with fortifications around it. However archaeologist Senarath Paranavithana claims that it was more a palace than a fortress.


Main article: Vijithapura

Vijithapura was a fortress–city that existed during the Anuradhapura Kingdom. It was the site of a major battle between the forces of Elara and Dutthagamani[1]

Colonial forts[edit]

Portuguese forts[edit]

Colombo fort
Main article: Colombo fort

The first colonial fort built in Sri Lanka, Colombo started out as a trading post of the Portuguese and became the capital of Portuguese Ceylon. The first fort called Santa Barbara was built in 1518 but in 1524 it was abandoned. In 1554 a new fort was built and the city of Colombo developed. The Portuguese town was destroyed by the Dutch during the siege in 1655-56. The Dutch rebuilt Colombo fort and strengthened its bastions. In 1870 the Dutch fort of Colombo was demolished by the English. In the late 19th century the walls of the fort were demolished by the British to extend the growing city. Today there is no trace of the old fort or any part of it, however the area which the fort occupied is still referred to as Fort which is the central business district of Colombo.

Matara fort
Main article: Matara fort

The fort was built by the Portuguese about 1550 but the actual fort was built by the Dutch when they took Matara, after the capture of Galle. The remains of the fort are in good preservation.

Mannar fort
Main article: Mannar fort

Built on the island of Mannar by the Portuguese in 1560, it surrendered to the Dutch on 22 February 1658 and was rebuilt by the Dutch in 1696. On 5 October 1795 the Dutch surrendered to the British. The fort has four bastions and it’s still in good condition.

Galle fort
Main article: Galle fort

Galle fort was built first by the Portuguese in 1588, then modified by the Dutch during the 17th century. During the Dutch period in Ceylon, the Dutch brought labourers from Indonesia and Mozambique to build this massive fort. Even today, after 400 years of existence, it looks new and polished. Today many Dutch people who still own most of the properties inside the fort are looking at making this one of the modern wonders of the world.

Today, the citizens of Dutch fort in Galle are trying to make this a free port and a free trade zone. If successful no taxes are levied on the companies and individuals who reside inside the city.'

Ruwanwella Fort
Main article: Ruwanwella Fort

It was originally built as stockade in the 1590s by the Portuguese; however, the Dutch, in 1665, built a wooden fort. The British, in 1817, built a new fort with two bastions and used as an outpost. Today it remains in good condition and houses a police station.

Jaffna fort
Main article: Jaffna fort

The original Portuguese fort built in 1618, where the remaining Portuguese had assembled after the fall of Colombo, had been captured by the Dutch in 1658 after a three and a half month siege. Since 1680 until the takeover by the British in 1795 the fort went though several phases of development. Thus making it one of the strongest forts in Asia. Unlike the Colombo and Galle Forts, which were fortified towns, the Jaffna Fort had an almost exclusively military and administrative purpose. All the civilians lived in the residential town of Jaffna, adjoining the fort. Up till the 1970s the fort and its buildings were in their original state, despite its continuous use by the British and later the Ceylon government. During the Sri Lankan Civil War the fort and the town of Jaffna changed hands several times. Notably the Sri Lanka Army garrison of the fort lead out a siege for months before being withdrawn in the 1980s. As a result of the war much of the fort has been destroyed.

Fort Fredrick
Main article: Fort Fredrick

Fort Fredrick is a fort built by Portuguese at Trincomalee in 1624. This was captured by a Dutch fleet under Admiral Westerwold in 1639. Not until 1665 was a new fort built here by the Dutch defend against the advancements of the British and the French. In 1672, the year when the Dutch Republic was attacked by France, Britain, and two German states, the French captured Trincomalee and later they occupied Batticaloa. However soon the French were forced to leave. Trincomalee was important for its large all-season secure harbor. In late 18th century Trincomalee traded hands once more with the French capturing it again and later handing back to the Dutch East India Company at the Peace of Paris in 1784. In 1795 it was taken over by the British, and remained a British garrison till 1948. Coastal artillery guns were added during the two World Wars. Today it remains garrisoned by a detachment of the Sri Lanka Army but is accessible to visitors.

Batticaloa fort
Main article: Batticaloa Fort

The Batticaloa fort was built by the Portuguese in 1628 and was the first to be captured by the Dutch (18 May 1638). It is one of the most picturesque of the small Dutch fort of Sri Lanka, it’s situated in an island, still in good condition. Near Batticaloa the Portuguese had a tiny fort at Tanavare (there is a map of it but no remains) There is a 1st-century CE Buddhist Dagaba inside the Dutch fort.

Pooneryn fort
Main article: Pooneryn fort

Built in the Pooneryn area of north portion of the island first by the Portuguese to protect its possessions in Jaffna, it was expanded by the Dutch till in 1770 it was recorded that it was square shaped with two bastions at opposite corners; the rampart on each of the sides was about 30 metres and was garrisoned till the late 18th century. The British built a rest house in 1805. Since 1983 due to the civil war it was garrisoned by the Sri Lankan Army till it withdrew from the Pooneryn area in 1991; and recaptured in 2009. Ruins of the fort remains, however in bad condition.[2]

Negombo fort
Main article: Negombo fort

A small but important fort in the town of Negombo, north of Colombo was built by the Portuguese to defend Colombo. In 1640 the Dutch destroyed it and rebuilt it not on the usual square pattern, but on a pentagonal one, though it had only four bulwarks. The fort was located on a narrow strip of land between a lagoon and an inlet of the sea. It was surrounded by moats, and the gate was accessed via a drawbridge. The English occupied it in 1796. Today only part of the walls and an arched gateway remains of the fort. It is used as a prison by the Department of Prisons.

Elephant Pass Fort
Main article: Elephant Pass Fort

Elephant Pass is one of the most strategic locations in Sri Lanka, linking the Jaffna peninsula with the rest of the island. In 1760 the Portuguese built a fort, which was later rebuilt and garrisoned by the Dutch in 1776[3] and later by the British.

A modern military base was built there in the area in 1952 by the Sri Lankan Army. The area has been the site of many major battles in the civil war. The state of the fort is unknown.

Kalutara Fort
Main article: Kalutara Fort

The Portuguese first built a fort in Kalutara and was surrendered to the Dutch in 1655 without a shot being fired; it was later enlarged by the conquering Dutch with the addition two bastions. Very little of it remains today.[4]

Fort Hammenheil
Main article: Fort Hammenheil

Fort Hammenheil is a fort built around a small island between the islands of Kayts and Karaitivu of Jaffna Peninsula in Northern Sri Lanka. The Portuguese built this fort in the mid 17th century of quarried coral and named it Fortaleza Real (Fort Royal).

Dutch forts[edit]

Fort Ostenburg
Main article: Fort Ostenburg

A small fort built at the entrance to the inner harbour of Trincomalee by the Dutch and surrendered to the British 1795. It has been called "the most powerfully gunned fort in Ceylon" with strong batteries at sea level and many guns on the ridge above them. However little of it remains today, mainly due to the contraction of Coastal artillery placements by the British since the 1920 in the Ostenburg ridge. Much of these are well preserved by the Sri Lankan Navy, which maintains the Hoods Tower Museum here.[5]

Kalpitiya fort
Main article: Kalpitiya fort

Located at the northern tip of the narrow land tongue that stretches to the north for about 50 kilometres beyond Puttlam, parallel to the mainland. Built in 1667, on the spot where the Portuguese had a stockade and a Jesuit chapel. The walls are about 4 meters high and inside are the remnants of the chapel, a commander's house, barrack rooms, a prison and several go downs. Kalpitiya was important since it command the entrance to the bay. Puttlam was an area that had large amounts cinnamon cultivations. The Dutch even built a canal from Puttlam via Negombo to Colombo to bring the cinnamon. The fort was neglect for many years until it was turned into a Sri Lankan Navy base for training and operational activity escalation of the Sri Lankan Civil War. The ramparts are in good condition today.

Tangalle fort
Main article: Tangalle fort

A small Dutch fort exists in the coastal town of Tangalle, south of the island. Tangalle was an important anchorage. Although much altered the fort still stands and in use as a prison by the Department of Prisons.

Fort Hammenhiel
Main article: Fort Hammenhiel

Situated on a small island between Kayts and Karaitivu islands in the north of the country, Hammenhiel Fort was built by the Dutch to protect Jaffna. It remains in good condition garrisoned by the Sri Lanka Navy.[6]

Star fort
Main article: Star fort, Matara

On the other side of the river that flows through the Matara town is the star fort. This little redoubt called Van Eck was built in 1763-1765 by the Dutch after the Matara rebellion in 1761-1762. This fort is the unique star shaped fort in Ceylon, over the gate of the fort is the Dutch coat of arms. It’s still in good condition.

British forts[edit]

Fort Macdowall
Main article: Fort Macdowall

Fort Macdowall was built by the British in the town of Matale in 1803 as an out post during the Kandian Wars. The fort was named after General Macdowall, who led the experdition to the Kingdom of Kandy, it is one of the few forts build inland. In 1848 during the Matale Rebellion the fort came under siege of the rebels. Today only the gate way and few ramparts remain, with the interior of the fort turn into a cemetery, the Fort MacDowall Cemetery.[7]

Martello tower of Hambantota

A Martello tower was built by the British, in 1801-03, to protect the small harbor of Hambantota. Restored in 1999, it’s still in good condition.


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