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
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,
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,
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,"
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.