Rocky haven

Warana is a majestic, rocky mountain close to Veyangoda, off the Colombo-Kandy road at the Thihariya junction. From Thihariya junction off Nittambuwa, this winding mountain road leads to Kalagedihena where it runs through sprawling rice fields interlaced with coconut plantations. Looming over this is a prominent mountain called Warana in the shape of an elephant's head with its wrinkles carved in the rock. Warana is another name for the elephant. The mountain on its right facing this rock temple is called Miriswattagala.


Trinco's spoils of war
By a staff reporter
Rusty, old cannon belonging to the age of sailing ships and European men-of-war that
roamed the Indian Ocean as they helped expand colonial empires stand at the entrance to the museum.

Torpedo used in the Second World War

Overlooking the harbour entrance are massive gun emplacements of the Second World War with their six-inch guns that dominate the approaches to the anchorage.

The weaponry on display at the naval museum in Trincomalee, atop a ridge at the navy's sprawling base, provides a remarkable glimpse into our naval history, bearing testimony to the battles fought for control of this great deep-water natural harbour during different historical periods.

Other displays are of more recent vintage - automatic cannon taken off patrol boats of the Sri Lanka Navy and contact mines deployed by the Tamil Tigers in the early phase of the Eelam war.

Second World War vintage contact mine. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

On the same ridge are the ruins of ramparts built even before the coming of European colonialists - by the island's monarchs who used Koddiyar Bay as an anchorage. These were subsequently overlaid by Portuguese, Dutch and British fortifications.

The old cannon at the entrance, meant to keep at bay enemy men-of-war, were excavated from the ground where they had been long buried or recovered from the sea inside the inner harbour area.

There are more such cannon on the bottom of the sea off Elephant Island, according to Lt Commander Jayantha Gamage, the officer-in-charge of the navy diving school. The experienced diver has seen the cannon during numerous dives in the deep-water harbour. The navy has not recovered the cannon because of the difficulties of preserving the objects once they are out of the water.

The fortifications built by European colonialists were meant to protect the island's lucrative trade, particularly in spices. They were used either to ward off attacks by the Sinhalese of the Kandyan Kingdom or keep at bay competing European trading companies.

This was during the struggle for supremacy by the world's maritime powers when the sheltered waters of Trincomalee - what W.A. Nelson in his The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka (The Military Monuments of Ceylon) calls the "greatest naval prize of the Indian Ocean" - became the focus of fighting between rival fleets.

A fortress built on Ostenburg ridge, which commands the entrance to the inner harbour and on which the museum is sited, has been called "the most powerfully gunned fort in Ceylon" with strong batteries at sea level and many guns on the ridge above them. Unfortunately, its remains are not to be seen today.

In 1795, the Dutch who were in occupation of Ostenburg at the time, surrendered to the British fleet after a siege and a brief bombardment.

Trincomalee again became the focus of naval activity in the Second World War when, in April 1942, Japanese carrier-based aircraft attacked the harbour and the Royal Navy fleet.

It was during this raid that the Royal Navy aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, was bombed and sunk off Batticaloa as it sailed from Trincomalee.

At Hoods Tower, an observation post built by the British that gives the museum its name, World War 2 vintage field glasses on swivel mounts are still in working condition and provide a good view of the entrance to the harbour.

The huge gun emplacements and underground ammunition magazines that make up part of the museum today were first built in the 1920s by the British. The six-inch guns have a range of about four kilometres and could destroy enemy ships approaching Trincomalee.

The underground magazines are impressive construction works with winches and conveyor belts to bring ammunition up to the surface.

The steps leading down into the chamber some 30 feet underground are coated with silica, making them luminous in the dark. This was to help defenders to find their way down without the use of lamps when under attack.

Inside, it is surprisingly cool - the massive walls and well-placed ventilation holes helping to keep out the heat. The magazine's chambers are connected by corridors with sharp turns - meant to prevent shock waves from nearby explosions reaching the ammunition.

The gun positions have been restored and are well maintained - the massive turrets with the barrels can still rotate.

The gun position itself has holes bored into its concrete sides - to store ammunition for immediate use. The guns themselves were hauled up to the top of the ridge with the use of elephants - as depicted by a painting of the event reproduced on a board nearby.

Three such guns have been restored at the museum. There used to be guns on all the ridges overlooking the harbour entrance. The remains of gun emplacements and an observation post can still be seen on Elephant Island.

One magazine has been turned into a weapons museum with an interesting collection of Sten guns, Very pistols, and an old "coaxial gun" used to pass messages or documents between ships sailing alongside each other at sea.

There are improvised LTTE contact mines with fuses recovered by navy divers. In another chamber are guns, mostly improvised, used in the JVP uprising of 1971.

Although the navy has done a good job in collecting the weapons and equipment used in the wars that Trincomalee has witnessed over several centuries and in restoring the abandoned gun emplacements and underground magazines, the museum itself is very rudimentary. There are hardly any explanatory notes about the objects on display nor any brochures or information leaflets for visitors. The pressure of war has kept the navy from developing the museum. Hopefully, if the truce holds and peace talks get off the ground, it could pay more attention the island's naval history and future visitors to the museum might be able to see the weaponry of more recent naval action.

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