Joy Behind Bars
Fort Hammenhiel, a prison built by the Portuguese in the mid-17th century on a small island in Northern Sri Lanka, now serves as a boutique hotel.
Throughout the world, the preservation of historical buildings is given great importance. No matter how developed or underdeveloped a country, the mere presence of historical edifices brings a great sense of value and worth to it. While some countries have unabashedly neglected their historical and cultural heritage, others have strived to restore such sites, petitioning UNESCO to consider making their historical landmarks World Heritage sites. In case of rejection, they adopt a peculiar style of self-preservation by turning historical sites into hotels and resorts. One prime example of this innovative method of preservation is Fort Hammenhiel in Northern Sri Lanka, which has been turned into an exotic boutique hotel.
Fort Hammenhiel is located at an islet at the tip of Karainagar, guarding the channel between the islands of Karaitivu and Kayts in the Jaffna Peninsula in Northern Sri Lanka. The fort was built in the 17th century by the Portuguese. In 1658, however, it was captured by the Dutch. W.A. Silva and R.K de Silva, authors of ‘Dutch
Forts of Sri Lanka’, write that the fort was initially called Fortaleza Real (Fort Royal) and was later renamed Fort Hammenhiel which means ‘ Heel of Ham’. R.L. Broheir narrates in ‘Links between Sri Lanka & Netherlands’ that the fort has an odd shape and draws similarities between a smoked ham and the shape of Ceylon. The ‘Heel’ probably refers to the lower southern half of the island. The Dutch, admiring the aesthetic appeal of Portuguese masonry, chose to preserve it in its original form and style by making it a 17 Gun Fort shaped into an octagon. In 1795, the isolated fort was seized by the British, who used it to quarantine arriving marines.
After Sri Lanka’s independence, Fort Hammenhiel was used as a high security prison following the unsuccessful insurrection by the JVP in 1971. Some notable people imprisoned in the fort included rebel leader Rohana Wijeweera together with other prisoners such as Upatissa Gamanayake, Lionel Bopage, Podi Athula (Victor Ivan), Loku Athula (N. Jayasinghe), Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda and Mahinda Wijesekara. Later, the fort was used as a correctional facility by the Sri Lankan Navy.
The Fort Hammenhiel Boutique Hotel is a luxurious hotel, at par with any other famous boutique hotel in the world. At Fort Hammenhiel, a visitor can enjoy the scenic beauty of the Indian Ocean and bask in the grandeur of the fort’s royal atmosphere. The only way to reach the hotel is by a boat. Surrounded by a tranquil sea, the fort’s silhouette reflects a calming serenity. Before the fort was turned into a hotel, civilians and tourists were not allowed to visit it as it was a high security zone. Even now, visitors are required to first sign in at the gate, which is manned by an armed guard, before being allowed to drive through the compound to the reception. The entrance comprises a low vaulted gateway, about 7 feet in height. Upon entrance, the visitors are received by uniformed guards who give them a perfect royal welcome.
The best thing about Fort Hammenhiel is that even though it has been fully renovated, it remains one of Jaffna’s five architecturally protected buildings and the conversion to a boutique hotel has not influenced its original design. Another unique
feature of Fort Hammenhiel is that its prison cells have been turned into lavishly designed rooms equipped with air conditioners and other modern necessities to facilitate travelers. However, to maintain the originality of the place, the inscriptions etched by political prisoners on the walls of the prison cells have not been removed. One of the inscriptions reads, ‘Beloved Hammenhiel, for the last time.’ Thus, staying in one of these rooms invokes a crude remembrance of the past.
As for the services, a round the clock room service is provided to visitors. Facilities include a mini bar, satellite television, hot/cold water and concierge service. Tourists can also indulge in a variety of water sports such as boat trips, jet skiing, diving, snorkeling, angling and wind surfing.
Apart from the services offered at the hotel, its isolated location makes it a perfect holiday getaway for those who want to take time off their monotonous lives and spoil themselves. The location, grandeur and architecture of the place makes it exclusive and different from other conventional hotels and thus, it never fails to enchant visitors by its decadent allure.
There has been much criticism of the transformation of historical buildings into hotels as such changes can destroy the natural antiquity of a place. However, the supporters of this trend maintain that preserving and repositioning treasured landmarks is the perfect way to provide a unique experience to visitors. Merely visiting a historically important place can never replace the experience of actually staying and sleeping there. In this way, the people who love to visit such sites can spend their holidays in a peaceful environment, making an emotional connection with the place because of the historical aura that it exudes.
Turning historical buildings or one-time prisons into luxury hotels and resorts is not a new phenomenon. The model has been successfully implemented in other parts of the world. Some famous examples of historical places that were turned into hotels include the Sultanahmet in Turkey, a former Ottoman prison that now stands restored as a well-equipped luxurious resort. Similarly, the Charles Street Jail in Boston has been converted into the luxurious Liberty Boston Hotel. The Het Arresthuis in the Netherlands and the island of Långholmen in Stockholm, which was once a penal colony for women in the 1700s, have been transformed into chic hotels.
However, furnishing these historical buildings into resorts is not an easy job. To preserve the intricate details of their construction is a huge challenge. Moreover, to incorporate modern facilities in these buildings while meeting the strict requirements of preservation is both expensive and demanding.
In the case of Fort Hammenhiel, the Sri Lankan Navy has done an excellent job in preserving the historic edifice and providing the visitors with state-ofthe-art facilities at the same time. None of the modern facilities installed in the prison have altered the originality of the place.
Modern features surely make Fort Hammenhiel a fine accommodation facility for an unforgettable holiday in Sri Lanka. By visiting the famous fort tourists as well as Sri Lankans are able to witness the aesthetic and cultural prominence of Jaffna.