3rd March 2002

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Holy well among Jawatte graves

By Ray Forbes
Recent excavations in the Roman Catholic section of the Jawatte General Cemetery by an enthusiastic team from the Department of Archaeology have revealed the existence of a historic 'holy well' dating back to Portuguese times.

It all began with the painstaking research of Rev. Dr. W.L.A. Don Peter, now in retirement at Kitu Piya Sevana, Tewatte. 

As far back as 1955, Rev. Don Peter had come across a manuscript in the public library, of Evora, Portugal, entitled 'Composde Ermo...' by Fr. Faustino da Graca. It contained an account of the shrine of Our Lady of Deliverance (The Virgin Mary) in Ceylon. 

Fr. da Graca was a Goan of the Augustinian religious order, who died in 1744 in the monastery Nossa Senhora de Graca, in Goa, where the image of Our Lady of Deliverance brought from Ceylon was venerated.

How was it that this image from a shrine in Ceylon was re-located in a monastery in Goa? Rev. Dr. Don Peter revealed the interesting story in an article written on the "Historic well of Jawatte Cemetery" in 1977.

The article goes back to the days when the Kingdom of Kotte was under Portuguese rule. Historical sources support the belief that there was at that time, very close to Colombo, a Christian shrine which had a holy well. While nothing now remains of the shrine, the well still exists.

"Among the churches built in Sri Lanka by Christian missionaries of the Portuguese period, a few became popular places of pilgrimage. One was the Church of Our Lady of Miracles in Jaffna. Another was the shrine of Our Lady of Mondanale in the Kingdom of Kotte, whose location has not been identified. Within easy reach of Colombo, was the shrine of Our Lady of Deliverance (Nossa Senhora do Livramento).

According to Portuguese historian Queyroz, this shrine was "half a league to the South of Colombo and within gunshot to the East of it was in former times the city of Cota". He also said that among the churches built in Sri Lanka by the Religious of St. Augustine (Augustinians) was "a hermitage on the plane of Mapane".

Augustinian records complement Queyroz. They speak of an ermida (church or chapel) which stood on a farmland belonging to the Order in a locality referred to as "Marapety", but more often as "Narapety", which evidently is Narahenpita. The ermida had a miraculous image of the Virgin and a well, the water of which was considered holy by pilgrims.

The Portuguese work Santuario Mariano compiled by the Augustinian, Agostinho de Santa Maria and published in Lisbon in 1720 refers to this shrine, when dealing with Marian shrines in Asia and Africa. This reference includes the veneration of the miraculous image of the Mother of God under the title Nossa Senhora do Livramento, and the wide use of the waters of a health-giving well. The shrine was located at Marupety about half a league from Colombo.

When Colombo surrendered to the Dutch in 1656, Catholic missionaries who were banished from the island took with them sacred images and relics. Thus it happened that the much venerated image of the Narahenpita shrine was relocated in Goa by the Augustinians, in the monastery of Nossa Senhora da Graca.

The last known reference to this image of the Virgin is found in Manual Eremitico, a history of the Augustinians in the East up to 1817, compiled by Mancel da Ave Maria. The image was still being venerated in Goa at the time of writing.

Today this great monastery in Goa lies in ruin and nothing is known of the miraculous image. 

Portuguese records give evidence of the Shrine of Nossa Senhora do Livramento at Narapety - a Portuguese rendering of Narahenpita. Even now there is in Narahenpita a locality known as Livramento. It is obvious that the place got its name from the shrine. The present Jawatte cemetery is in the locality known as Livramento. 

No evidence of the church remains because during the Dutch period, Catholicism was proscribed and Catholic churches and schools were confiscated by the Government. The church crumbled into ruins. An Indian oratorian in Sri Lanka, Manoel de Miranda writing half a century after the Portuguese were overthrown, refers to a ruined wall of the church and the continuing use of the water of the well, despite orders and penalties of the Dutch East India Company against its use. 

That a belief in the efficacy and curative nature of the water of this well persisted until the British period is to be found in a reference to it in J. Cordiner's " A Description of Ceylon" (Vol.I P. 56).

Cordiner has also given a description of the well as he found it. "The perpendicular descent into the well is of a square form cut out of solid rock, to the depth of thirty feet, after which the well is contracted into a circular form, and is at the top of the water surrounded by sand. A subterranean slanting passage with steps hollowed out of the rock, leads down to this place, where a person can taste the water by taking it up with his hand. The top of the well is inaccessible, and not discoverable on account of thickets of shrubs which hang over it." 

Interest in the well and its water survived for about a century after Cordiner's visit. Reference to the well is found in Missions de la Congregation des Oblats de Maria Immaculee, No. 118, June 1892 in an article written by Fr. Charles Collin, who later became the first Rector of St. Joseph's College, Colombo. Fr. Colin stated thus: ".......There still remains very near to that place some vestiges of a church and a well held in great veneration by the Catholics of Colombo. The place is called Livermente, a corruption of the Portuguese word 'Liveramento' which indicates that the ancient Church was dedicated to Our Lady of Deliverance."

Fr. Don Peter adds that he found that certainly more shrubs had covered the well than in Cordiner's time when he visited it in 1962. He concludes his article saying that undoubtedly this well is that of the ermida of Nossa Senhora do Livramento, "a historical, archaeological and religious relic of a bygone age" and that it "deserves to be excavated and preserved by the Archaeological Department".

Unearthing a kunu wala
Old socks, pieces of coffins and a few bones and skulls from dug up graves were the first finds in the "kunu wala", when the Archaeology Department began excavating the holy well at the Jawatte cemetery on December 10, last year.

The excavations were done in two stages. "Going by records, we first wanted to unearth the steps leading down. But the pit was full of rubbish up to ground level and also covered with shrubs. However, the Colombo Municipal Council had put up a fence round it," says Assistant Director, Excavations, Nimal Perera.

By December 22, they had unearthed 13 steps, but the holidays intervened. In January they were able to find the other steps too and began looking for the structure of the well. "At the top, the well is a square and gradually, as it goes down it becomes circular. We even hit water. The walls are made of natural kabok. We also found a large number of coins. People may have thrown coins into the well for vows," says Mr. Perera.

Mr. Perera's team also trained the young Peterites who are under the guidance of teacher Mrs. Consy Nonis, in archaeology work. 

What plans for the future? Mr. Perera says the department is hoping to get the holy well gazetted as a Portuguese monument, as only a few such exist in Colombo. "Most of the buildings of that period have been destroyed. We are carrying out conservation and protection work. Then we'll hand it over to the students of St. Peter's to maintain it under our supervision," he adds.

First steps to excavation
In November 2001, Dr. Siran Deraniyagala, former Director General of Archaeology gave a lecture on archaeology to members of the Historical and Geographical Society of St. Peter's College, Bambalapitiya. It was here that Rev. Fr. Felician Perera, Rector of St. Peter's referred to the historic well at the Jawatte cemetery and the need for its excavation and preservation. 

On Dr. Deraniyagala's request, Dr. W. Wijayapala, Director General of the Department of Archaeology authorized the start of excavations at the site of the well under the direction of Nimal Perera, Assistant Director, Excavations. The team consisted of A.V. Alfred de Mel and Susantha Nihal, Archaeological Officers and S. J. Sunil, Museum Assistant. 

The archaeological team began work in December 2001. The excavations revealed a subterranean slanting passage with steps (23 in all cut into the laterite (kabok) soil formation leading downwards to a landing, square in shape with the well cut in solid rock contracted into circular form. The water, though muddy, appeared fresh.

The team also had a bonus - 123 currency coins of the Dutch and British periods and also perhaps of the Portuguese period, found along the steps leading to and on the landing of the well.

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