An ancient village, a ruin by the sea and stories of pearls from Taprobane

A Journey to Mannar – part 2
By Nimal Chandrasena

Having left Mannar, travelling south along the north-western coastline on December 10, we visited Arippu, which is an extremely important village in Sri Lanka’s history. Robert Knox, the famous British prisoner of the Kandy King during 1660 to 1679, finally escaped by reaching the Dutch Fort at Arippu on a Sunday in October 1679, via Anuradhapura and along Malwatu Oya. His vivid 1681 account of the arduous escape provides first hand insights on what the terrain was like at that time.

In a recent article, M.A.U. Tennekoon (The Island, December 10, 2010) pointed out that the British used Arippu as the main seaport for the importation of ‘indentured labourers’ from India to work in Sri Lanka’s tea plantations until the second half of the 19th century. Tennekoon refers to authentic records, given by R.W. Ievers, a Government Agent of the North Central Province (NCP) during the early 1890s, of the hardships suffered by the indentured South Indian Tamil labourers after disembarkation at Arippu, and during their long march from there to the central highlands through Wilachchiya, Medawachchiya, Rambewa, Kekirawa, Dambulla, Naula and Matale.

Many wayside Sinhalese villages in the Mannar District and the NCP were wiped out by cholera epidemics, a likely consequence of large numbers of sick Indian labourers disembarking at Arippu, who were marched through those villages. As a result, many ancestral villages were abandoned and Sinhalese people moved far in to the jungles to escape the cholera epidemic and establish safe, new settlements. The untold sufferings of the Tamil labourers, ancestors of today’s plantation workers in the up-country, during this long march must have been frightful, but is part of the island’s history.

“The Doric” building

At Arippu, we visited an early 19th century building, ‘The Doric’, residence of the first British Governor of Ceylon Frederick North (1798-1805), the 5th Earl of Guildford. He was a son of a British Prime Minister, of the same name - Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guildford.

As the signboard at the site reads, the Governor’s residence was built on a low cliff, a stone’s throw from the then prevailing beach.

A scholarly article by Wisumperuma in 2005 (see Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, Vol 51: 79-96) discusses the mansion’s history and architecture. It seems that the term ‘Doric’ refers to one of the three column types of ancient Greek architecture. Records indicate that Frederick North built the mansion as his residence during visits to the pearl fishing that took place near Arippu. It was subsequently used by other governors, government agents, and other officials, including superintendents of pearl fishery.

Pearl fishing

Mannar District has been famous for pearl fishing since the early part of the 19th Century. Richard Boyle (2001) writing in Himal Southasian pointed out that pearl fishing was an integral part of Sri Lanka’s colonial history, and the island’s north-western coastline enjoyed a pre-eminent reputation for producing the best pearls in the world.

According to Tennekoon (2010), pearl fishery was the number one revenue source of the British who needed funds to administer the Colony. This was the reason for establishing a permanent post in Arippu, and why the Mannar Administrative District received so much attention at the beginning of the 19th Century. Until 1889, the fishery headquarters was located at Silavatturai – ‘the port of the pearl fishery’ (Boyle, 2001) – in normal times a lonely place just south of Arippu, on the coastline.

All that’s left: Ruins of the historic Doric building on the cliff threatned by sea erosion

Siriwira, in an article, which appeared in Daily News on May 25, 2011, refers to 2400-year-old, ancient Greek records of pearls from the Isle of ‘Taprobane’, and other reliable references to Sri Lanka’s pearl fishery. It appears that the Chinese traveller - Fa-Hsien, who arrived in the island in 411 A.D.; and the Arab traveller, Ibn Batuta, who visited in 1344 A.D., reported actually seeing precious collections of pearls in the King’s treasury.

Records indicate that the British earned considerable revenue from Ceylon pearls; for instance, from March 1828 to May 1837 alone, Sterling Pounds 227,131 were credited as revenue into the Ceylon Treasury on account of the pearl fishery (Siriweera, 2011)

Reflecting on Mannar and the Pearl Fishery, I was also reminded of another famous name, that of the British Civil Servant in ‘Ceylon’ – Leonard Woolf, of the ‘Village in the Jungle’ fame. Colonial records indicate that in the period 1905-1911, Woolf, then a young man in his mid-20s, spent a considerable amount of time in the Mannar and Puttlam Districts, at various times, supervising pearl-fishing communities.

A final word

We didn’t quite get to see “Thambapanni” – the beach with brazen sand or “copper sand”. The road had got washed off north of Illavankulama, on the banks of Kala Oya, on the Puttalam-Mannar coastal road. The Army Officer, who escorted us, explained that the beach at Point Kudiramalai is located inside the boundaries of the Wilpattu National Park. It appears that a ‘copper-mixed ore’ is prevalent in the area, and these extend to the sandy coastline. It is possible that the Vijayan immigrants may have come across these.

During the two days in Mannar, we learnt so much about a region of our country that was somewhat inaccessible for about three decades, due to the conflict. Steeped in Sri Lanka’s history, the region deserves special attention, now that the war is over. It is obvious that the ‘Mannar Island’, its various places of historical interest, and possibly the entire Mannar District, require a renewed and planned re-development.

Visiting Mannar and the ‘Dancing Sands’ was a delightful adventure, because we traversed land that was the first landing areas of Prince Vijaya and his men from India. We reflected on our origins - the ‘colonising immigrants’ from West Bengal, who were perhaps of “upper-class” descent, hence, “noblemen” (Aryans? as claimed by the Sinhala elite). Their cadre likely comprised of skilled sailors; navigators; artisans; craftsmen; soldiers; and governing officials - people who could set up a regime in a new land, and govern.

Having seen the Malwatu Oya (Aruvi Aru) and Giant’s Tank (Yoda Weva), located within Mannar District, it was evident that Sri Lanka’s famous hydraulic civilisation commenced in the region. Irrigation agriculture would have been the only way to settle the dry and partly arid region in the early centuries (up to 400 B.C.). The spread of the early settlers to find other inland areas to settle would have also logically occurred along the Malwatu Oya. The Mahawamsa (VII.44) refers to Upatissagama, which is Tantirimale; and Anuradhapura; two areas through which Malwatu Oya flows. These areas were founded by Vijaya’s Chief Ministers, Upatissa and Anuradha, respectively, and were subsequently colonised.

It is necessary to remind ourselves that only 20 years ago, Sri Lanka’s biggest rice harvest was from the Mannar “rice bowl”. Over 60% of Mannar’s population are involved in rice cultivation (see article by Anushka Wijesingha in The Island, May 11 2009). After the District was liberated from the LTTE in 2009, programmes are underway to get rice cultivation back on track in Mannar. The ‘Yali Pibidemu’ project of the Ministry of Nation Building appears to be working towards increasing the rice harvest obtained from the ‘Rice Bowl’ area. The farmers in the area are now free to cultivate rice as lands have been de-mined. Nearly 25,000 acres are to be cultivated under this programme.

The importance of Mannar Island from a national security perspective is huge, which means that the Armed Forces need to be there in strength to prevent the Tamil Nadu fishermen, smugglers and other opportunists taking advantage of our island. It cannot be easily forgotten that the island has had many South Indian invasions in the vicinity of Mannar as historically recorded. In addition, illicit immigration thrived around Mannar in the early 50s and 60s; smuggling of contraband/drugs and narcotics still continues to be a serious threat. The LTTE used the Palk Straits extensively for their logistics and links with Tamil Nadu; hence, the beaches need continuous surveillance if we are to protect our sovereignty.

During the recent near 30 years of civil war, it is plainly clear that Sri Lankans, in general, have not been able to get anywhere near some of the areas of interest in our history, such as Wilpattu or Arippu, let alone preserve our history. However, the ‘winds of change’ are certainly blowing in Mannar. Active reconstruction is well underway, and the Armed Forces are on alert for any mischief or ethnic conflict. We were privileged to have been briefed by Brig. Maithree Dias - the current General Officer Commanding 54 Division and the Co-ordinating Chief for the Mannar District and his Staff.

They explained to us in some detail, the re-construction efforts championed by the Armed Forces, who lead many development projects and activities. It appears that these efforts are being increasingly appreciated by the Mannar District community. Security is an integral part of re-building; the Armed Forces are an essential part of the reconstruction process.

We left with the hope that, combined with the Giant’s Tank, the Malwatu Oya and its water will continue to feed and nourish the vast area of the Mannar District, and the area will once again become the most significant rice-growing region for in the country.

We also hoped that security, infrastructure and other conditions in the District would improve over time, so that more Sri Lankans could visit and ‘feel the pulse’ of the area – where it all, presumably, began!

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