A land surrounded by a shallow spread of sea, where once a princely figure from India landed on the copper shores of Thambapanni, and traders and sailors traversed the seas to break journey at the port of Mantai. The splendid view of the lagoon, the sea and the beaches, fishermen’s villages, bird watching expeditions and pilgrimages – the district of Mannar in the arid North-West of Sri Lanka is surrounded by the beauty of nature.
Mannar District has been famous for pearl fishing since the early part of the 19th century and had been an integral part of Sri Lanka’s colonial history. The island’s north-western coastline enjoyed an unsurpassed reputation for producing the best pearls in the world. Pearl fishery was the principal source of revenue for the British who needed funds to administer the colony. This resulted in the establishment of a permanent post in Arippu. Until 1889, the fishery headquarters was located at Silavatturai, known as the ‘port of the pearl fishery’, a lonely place on the coastline, south of Arippu.
Mannar’s history is steeped in tales of splendour way beyond the days of the colonisers. Mantai, the horseshoe port where princesses from Madurai, merchants from Persia and China traipsed, where trade and traders flourished was the foremost harbour from First to 11th century CE. Known as Manthottam in Tamil, it was once the hotspot of frequent navigation, port of call and centre of immigration. The site of this ancient port could be located with a little help from elderly villagers and clergymen. Although what remains of this once thriving port is two moats separated by elevated mounds of earth, the Thiruketheeswaram temple at the centre of the horseshoe, supposedly constructed by a Chola officer in the 10th century CE at the height of South Indian incursions, which signified the end of prosperity associated with the port is an imposing legacy of a flourishing port city. Some believe that the temple was built and maintained by merchants from South India. Dedicated to the deity Shiva, the temple comes alive with lights and celebration during Maha Sivaratri, a festival celebrated each year in reverence of Shiva.
Remnants of a Fort
Arippu, in Mannar is a village with historical landmarks. Robert Knox, the 17th century British prisoner of the King of Kandy, had escaped by reaching the Dutch Fort at Arippu in October 1679, via Anuradhapura and along Malwathu Oya. The British had used Arippu as the main seaport for the importation of labourers from India to work in Sri Lanka’s tea plantations. The fort in Arippu had been built by the Portuguese in close proximity to the pearl banks. The Dutch who took over the fort in the 17th century rebuilt it and occupied it until they surrendered to the British in 1795. Built according to European architecture, the fort in Arippu had been used as a bastion, residential complex and administrative office. While the four upholders are in good condition, the interior of the fort is destroyed.
The Doric House is an important attraction of Arippu, the residence of the first British Governor of Ceylon, Frederick North. It was built on a low cliff, close to the beach and was used as the Governor’s residence during visits to inspect pearl fishing that took place near Arippu. It was subsequently used by other governors, government agents and officials, including superintendents of pearl fishery. Once an imposing structure of columns, porticos and terraced roof, the majesty of the mansion has been erased along the sands of time, but the remnants testify to its importance and stills holds an antiquated charm. One can certainly see why Sir Federick North chose this spot. A bit of a drive from Mannar, a view of the sunset is worth the effort.
Amidst the many legends surrounding the origins of the church the most likely one is that the statue of the Virgin Mary carrying Baby Jesus, arrived in Mannar aboard a ship from either Portugal or Goa. The worship of the Virgin Mary, took root at this spot amongst a small community. In 1670, 20 Catholic families fled Mantai with the miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary amidst Dutch persecution. They had stumbled upon a forest hamlet named Maruthamadhu adjoining an ancient tank, where they had settled and were soon joined by about 700 other Catholics and seven priests fleeing from Jaffna. Among them was a Portuguese named Helena, who created a humble mud structure to house the statue. A strong community, devoted to the worship of the Virgin Mary, took root at this spot. The small church gradually earned repute for possessing the power of healing drawing more devotees to seek refuge. In 1705, it was renovated by Bishop Joseph Vaz who arrived from Goa in disguise to avoid persecution from the Dutch. The church gradually evolved in structure and its famous annual pilgrimage was initiated by the Oblate Bishop Christopher Bonjean, OMI, in 1872. He arrived in 1868, following his missions in India and discovered the small mud church in a state of ruin and extensive renovations were carried out some years later. The magnificent façade, a spacious presbytery, and the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament were added in time. Every August, the small town of Madhu witnesses the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics from all parts of Sri Lanka to celebrate the annual Feast of the Visitation.
The historical Giant Tank
An example of the brilliance and ingenuity of our forefathers is the Giant Tank or Yoda Wewa, situated about 25km southeast of Mannar. The origin of this tank is not known, although some historians believe that it was built by King Dhathusena (459-477) by damming the Malwathu Oya. Some others believe that the people of the Naga tribe who were living in the country had built the tank, supported by the existence of extensive ruins at Mantai and the Giant Tank and villages with Naga names surrounding the port such as Nagarkulam and Nagathazhvu. Considered one of the earliest and best ever constructed in the world, the tank stretches across an area of 3,800 hectares. The water from this tank is fed to 162 smaller tanks downstream and irrigates about 11,000 hectares of paddy land. Dutch and British engineers had failed to understand the design of the Giant Tank, especially the sophisticated designs on which the reservoirs and channel systems were constructed.
The old Baobab tree
Mannar is a home to the Baobab Tree. Native to Africa, the tree was first bought to the country supposedly by Arab sailors who had frequented the great port of Mantai. Hollow in the centre, the tree is known for thickness rather than height. The exact number of Baobab trees in Sri Lanka is yet to be quantified, although at least 40 to 60 trees survive in the north-western and northern areas, the largest number of trees being scattered in Mannar.