Hanging out with cliff jumpers in Galle, Sri Lanka
Hair bleached with seawater and the blistering tropical sun, Lakshit stands at the edge of the rampart of the 17th century Galle fort, letting his locks dance to the tune of the wind. It’s 8 in the morning but the temperature is stifling enough for there to be only a handful of takers to the spectacle. I stand right in front of a small group – camera in hand, finger on the shutter. Lakshit inches closer to the ledge, till his toes are off the stone base. One. Two. Three. Off he goes flying into the water, the wind pulling his curly locks behind. Lakshit dives into the 40 feet drop a là Titanic and lands in the dangerously shallow, 4ft-deep water, between craggy rocks at the base. The clutch of crowd erupts into claps and cheers.
I had arrived in Galle, Sri Lanka with friends, the previous morning and signed up for a heritage walk conducted by writer and photographer Juliet Coombe, whose book,‘Around The Fort In 80 Lives’ is a comprehensive documentation of Galle and its people. When I told her that I was interested in more than just the history of the place, she suggested that I meet the cliff jumpers, and have front row seats to their death-defying leaps.
The next morning, rubbing sleep from our eyes,we walked to the fort. Thankfully, it was only a stroll away from our hotel. The cafes along the cobblestone streets were stirring into action, and there no trace of sunscreen clad tourists as yet.The thick granite ramparts were originally built by the Portuguese in 1588 around the town of Galle, and later fortified by the Dutch.
At the fort, I spotted a group of young local boys, shirtless, sitting on the wall. They laughed with casual abandon, pulling each other’s legs. What gave them away as cliff jumpers were the toned tanned brown bodies. I had been told, that each of the boys does about 5 jumps in the day and hangs around near the fort in case there are more takers in the season.
Curious to know more about their lives, I walked up for a casual hello.Of them, Lakshit, the most confident, was happy to talk in broken English. He told me that there were only a few of young men who jumped on a daily basis, and managed to survive these precarious leaps by landing flat on their chests. “It’s an art that only a handful have mastered,” he grinned.“Many others end up with broken ribs.”
Lakshit’s journey started with a low household income and sheer abhorrence for school. He took refuge hanging around the fort wall, looking out to the ocean and spending time with friends. He was 12 when the group of them dared him to make his maiden jump. He seemed to be a natural. Soon, Lakshit realized he was drawing a large crowd of tourists visiting the fort, and money was in generous proportions. Fascinated travellers watched him in awe as this was only action packed scene in the otherwise sedate Galle. Since then, Lakshit, now 28, has made more than a thousand jumps off the cliff.
Our short chat ended as he was signaled to the edge for a dive. I followed with the camera, standing right in front. My heart skipped a beat watching him get close to the corner. He looked down at the water, closed his eyes. One. Two. Three. And then he flew.
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