Holidaymakers usually come to TRINCOMALEE via the A6 through Habarana, the A12 through Anuradhapura or by bus or train. The A6 is now a good road to travel on with interesting sights to take in. How delightful to see wild elephants feeding behind electric fences along the way as well as the many birds on Kantale Tank! From stalls outside the small dwellings you can buy Sri Lanka’s natural home style yoghurt known as “curd”. This is a real treat when eaten with the sugar cake from the kitul palm, jaggery.
Trincomalee harbour glistens a deep blue in the sunlight. While today it seems a rather sleepy place, both ancient and recent history indicates that over centuries, as a naturally superb deep water port, it has been of strategic importance for trade and defence. During the Anuradhapura period – 4th Century BCE until 11th Century AD – it was the island’s major trading port. After that there were many invasions by kings from India with periods of Lankan control in between.
The next invaders were the Portuguese in the early 17th Century, followed by the Dutch, with brief skirmishes by the Danes and also the French as well. Then, along came the British and, in January 1782 captured Trincomalee from the Dutch. Then the French recaptured it but eventually handed it over again to the British, making it their first place of occupation on the island. They relinquished this control only after Sri Lanka’s Independence in 1948. During the Second World War it was an important British base.
Although Trincomalee town did not suffer bomb attacks during the ethnic war, it was cut off from the western part of the country and its people subject to unrest with inter communal strife and the influx of refugees. Then came the tsunami, bringing a different kind of terror with it. While you can spot street signs indicating routes away from a future tsunami, the town has recovered from these recent events and thanks to increased tourism, is looking more settled and prosperous.
While the narrow streets are abuzz with the noise of tuk tuks and a crazy mix of improvised vehicles, there’s not much apart from the market or a visit to the Kanniya Hot Springs to see or do here and accommodation is very limited. It’s the attraction of the glistening sea, white sand, lazy days and seafood delights that will take you north of the town to Uppaveli or Nilaveli. At Nilaveli especially, you will find a mix of accommodation with both guesthouses and starred hotels right on the beach. Perfect for a dip in the warm sea and a walk along the beach watching the fishing nets being hauled in.
A popular activity from April to September is a sailing trip from China Bay. After a relaxed day, a raved about lunch, the boat is anchored so that you can snorkel, swim with turtles and dolphins. While playing dolphins are almost always around you may even see some whales!
A definite “must see” is Koneswaram Kovil on Swami Rock, Trincomalee’s highest point. To get there you have to pass through the tiny gate of Fort Frederick, built by the Portuguese and then also occupied by the Dutch and the British. Today it is still a defence base so photos of the fort are not permitted. It’s a pleasant stroll through colourful stalls selling religious icons to this famous Hindu temple with its patron god, Vishnu, gleaming gold from above.
Although it is recorded that the original temple was constructed 2500 years ago by invading Tamil kings from South India, it was completely destroyed by the Portuguese in 1622 and the fort and a church built on the site. Many of the jewels, gold and other temple riches were smuggled away just prior to this destruction or heaved down the steep cliffs into the sea below. Some three hundred and twenty five years later some of these treasures were recovered from the sea with the most famous icon, the phallic symbol, being discovered by Arthur C Clarke when he was scuba diving below. This added to his glory as Sri Lanka’s most famous foreign resident! The temple was reconstructed 1963 to replace the shrines that appeared on this sacred spot during the reign of the British.
After you have washed your feet, both men and women can go inside to appreciate the spirituality of this temple with the gods Vishnu, Ganesh, Durga Murkan and the sun god Surya also having their shrines. Worshippers circumambulate the central shrine with its colourful and intricately carved figures and icons, praying and carrying coconuts which they will then take outside and smash before making an offering of a small piece to Vishnu. Many devotees come here seeking help with their troubles – see the tiny cradles tied to the tree by families hoping to have a child – before departing full of hope for better things to come.
There are many legends about this ancient site including the one about King Ravana, a character in the famous Ramanaya story where he was portrayed as King of Lanka. He was said to be blessed with tremendous strength so, when his aged mother could not get up to the shrine to worship he decided to lift the rock to a more accessible spot. This did not please Lord Shiva and he forced King Ravana to drop his sword, creating a cleft in the rock. This is known as Ravana’s Cleft.
The story about Lover’s Leap is one of forbidden love – of course! The doomed lover was a young Portuguese girl, daughter of a prominent official who fell in love with a young man of lesser status. When he was sent away from her, back to Portugal, she jumped off the cliff onto the rocks way below with her body then being taken by the raging surf to a lonely sea grave.
An enjoyable day trip from Trincomalee, or a side visit while driving south on the A15 towards Batticaloa is the beautiful Seruwila Mangala Raja Maha Vihara about 40 km south of Trincomalee. [ Take the turn off at Palattandichcheni to Toppur then follow the quiet road. There’s a small tank teaming with birds behind the vegtation here.]
Believed to be housing an astonishing relic from the Buddha – his frontal lobe bone – buried beneath the ancient dagaba, this is one of the holiest religious sites in Sri Lanka.
The story of how this belief came about involves one of Lanka’s famous kings, King Kavantissa who, when his kingdom was in danger of being lost to the invading South Indian kings was saved by the powerful Buddhist monks of the day who sent the message around that King Kavantissa was in possession of the holy relic, Buddha’s frontal lobe bone. When he marched into Seru, accompanied by his spiritual advisors, the minor kings and princes had no option other than to greet him respectfully and he was able to have this holy relic placed the dagaba thereby demonstrating his control of the area. In return for this he had the marshes drained and a lake formed thereby providing land for growing rice – most of which went to feed the five hundred monks in the temple. So, without a drop of blood being shed, King Kavanatissa created a buffer state between his kingdom and the Indian kings to his north. Clever!
All this happened in the second century BCE with the temple being occupied most of the time until the 17th Century after which it became overgrown with vegetation and buried in the sand until the stupa was rediscovered in 1922. Since then other parts such as the image house, Bo tree shrine and remains of the monastry have been excavated.
Today, behind the gleaming white stupa, there is a new temple surprisingly designed like a pagoda. Inside this cool, serene temple you can find beautiful murals which tell the story of Buddhism and this temple.
The effects of the 2004 tsunami and war are not difficult to see as you travel along this East Coast. There’s an aura of something missing, an emptiness. Where there are houses, they are in a straight line, not the higgle piggle of the old villages. Many have a huge letter shouting and spelling out the name of the organisation that built them to rehouse the tsunami survivors. Near Pottuvil some of these houses have never been lived in. Built like igloos, windowless and low on the ground, they were far too hot.
A standout feature of this part of the coast is not only the number of mosques, kovils, churches and temples in every settlement but also the importance placed on them by the communities. In contrast to the homes they are all beautifully painted, decorated. If you are travelling with a driver don’t be surprised if he stops at one of these roadside shrines to offer a prayer for a safe journey.
Although BATTICALOA today is a rather sleepy town, recent history has dealt it some vicious blows. Two thirds of its population are Tamil and during the long, ethnic war it was a major base for the army while the LTTE controlled their organisation from a village a little to the south. The local population was caught between the two. As if that were not enough the tsunami caused some of the worst devastation of land, property and people on this coastline.
Tourism is breathing new life into Batticaloa in the form of new hotels, especially around Passikudah Beach. This is one of three quiet beaches – the other two are Kallady and Kalkudah – and it is a favourite because it is sheltered by the bay and is blessed with a wide, soft, yellow sand. With its flat, calm water this bay is perfect for swimming while the reef with its many colourful fish and turtles provides happy hours of snorkeling. Experienced scuba divers can enjoy the sunken wreck of the WW2 aircraft carrier, the HMS Hermes, about 17 km off shore.
“Batti”as Batticaloa is affectionately named, is surrounded by water on three sides and has several islands. It’s also a flat area so, if you are looking for a day more energetic than lounging around the beach, you can hire a bike – comes with a map and local suggestions – and go for a ride to see the sights. There’s the Fort – built by the invading Portuguese in 1624 but taken from them ten years later by the Dutch. The Fort itself is neither big nor very interesting however the ride along the lagoon is rather nice. You will also come to a small beach from which you can take a sail out to one of the islands. If you like birds you will not be disappointed with the many varieties of sea birds around the lagoons.
If you want to hear a Latin Mass you can visit St Mary’s Cathedral, also known as the Church of Our Lady of the Presentation and formerly also as Our Lady of the Sorrows, at 5am on Sundays. Partially rebuilt after suffering damage during ethnic violence, its striking bright blue exterior contrasts with a soft green interior and atmosphere of calm.
From April through to October the small fishing village of ARUGUM BAY morphs in to Surf Central! Surf boards hang precariously from the tops of tuk tuks, their owners’ heads popping out the side to check the ropes while the invisible drivers modify their usually unpredictable progress down the one main street. Surf shops, cafes, restaurants and guesthouses all enjoy a few months of high activity with the peak being the International Surf Carnival at the end of July.
Beginner or Pro there’s a point for you! The Main Point at Arugum with its rocky bottom and powerful waves is for the experienced surfer. It can be very crowded here in season so an alternative is the hidden gem of Okanda about an hour by tuk tuk to the south. Just getting there can be an adventure too with a bumpy minor road and maybe a detour across paddy fields and the possible meeting of a wild elephant or two. Elephant Rock a short distance south of Arugum, where the beach is often deserted and the bottom sandy, is good for all levels of expertise. Another less crowded and sandy bottom point is Peanuts Farm – a tuk tuk ride away from Arugum Bay. Whiskey Point to the north is suitable for all surfers and has a shallow swimmable beach as well.
As well as surfing you can take an excursion into Kumana National Park, aka East Yala. This park is a must for bird enthusiasts especially in the migratory season April to July when tens of thousands of birds arrive to breed. Kumana is far quieter and calmer than the main Yala, Ruhuna, which is accessed from Tissamaharama in the Deep South. You can also see elephants, crocodiles, jackals and even maybe the sloth bear or an otter however the animals here are very shy. Because of the isolation aspect and minimal transport availability from either Panama or Kumana you would need to arrange your safari from Arugum Bay. Watch out for wild elephants if you’re on the road early morning or in the evening. Lovely to see, however they have the right of way!
Two ancient sites in the Pottuvil area which are worth a visit are Muhudu Maha Viharaya at Pottuvil and Magul Maha Vihara on the road towards Lahugala. You can read about these fascinating places in my blog.
There are plenty of restaurants in Arugum Bay. Look out for my favourite lunch break where you can sit with your feet in the sand and eat the most delicious godamba rotti I have ever had !