When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, it was not only one of the worst catastrophes but in terms of terminology, it was the first time, most Sri Lankans heard the word tsunami. Yet there is a background to it in the ancient chronicles, the Krakatoa volcanic eruptions and the tidal waves [...]

Sunday Times 2

Stories from the waves before 2004 tsunami


When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, it was not only one of the worst catastrophes but in terms of terminology, it was the first time, most

Sri Lankans heard the word tsunami. Yet there is a background to it in the ancient chronicles, the Krakatoa volcanic eruptions and the tidal waves which hit Sri Lanka in 1881 and 1883. The writer, a retired Chief Justice, outlines the background

Fourteen years ago on December 26, 2004, a deadly tsunami devastated the coastal areas of the Southern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. It took away the lives of about 40,000 people while destroying houses and properties. This tsunami was a result of a massive earthquake of 8.5 magnitude in the Richter scale. It occurred in the Indian Ocean, north of Aceh in Sumatra, Indonesia. The tsunami affected mostly the Aceh province in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. More than 200,000 people lost their lives. The damage it caused was so extensive that it cannot be properly estimated. Those who survived had the horrible experience in seeing their houses being destroyed and dear ones swept away by the waves. A large number of people became homeless within minutes.

When the 2004 tsunami struck, Sri Lankans were wondering whether there was a tsunami in the living memory. There was none. We had heard of the Vihara Maha Devi episode recorded in ancient chronicles like Mahawansa and Rajavaliya. According to the chronicles, during the reign of Kelanitissa, a huge tidal wave swept the Kelaniya area and swallowed a large extent of land.

In the nineteenth century, Sri Lanka experienced two tidal waves in 1881 and 1883. The word tsunami came to be used only in the twentieth century). The tidal waves were accurately recorded in tidal gauge stations in India.

The Vihara Maha Devi episode
Between the 2nd and 1st Century B.C, a sub king by the name of Tissa, a descendent of Devanampiyatissa’s brother, was the ruler of Kelaniya. He was known as Kelanitissa. Known to be a hot-tempered king, it is said, he killed the chief priest and his queen, suspecting that they had an illicit affair and threw their bodies to the sea. According to Rajavaliya, as the body of the Arahat touched the waves, a storm lashed his kingdom and this was followed by huge waves that swept across the land and destroyed villages. The waves reached 15 miles inwards. The people thought that the Devas’ curse had fallen on the people due to the outrageous act of the king. When they complained to the king, he decided to sacrifice his only child Devi to appease the Devas and save the country. Devi was placed on a boat which was allowed to drift away in the sea. The boat landed in Magama in the South. Devi was found near a viharaya by King Kavantissa. Hence she came to be known as Vihara Devi. She married Kavantissa and became the mother of two princes — Dutu Gemunu and Saddatissa.

According to Rajavaliya, the city of Kelaniya was located 15 miles away from the sea. The floods reached the gates of the city and swallowed a large extent of land. According to historical records, this was the first tidal wave that occurred in the country. However, there is no archaeological or geological evidence to support this story.

The Krakatoa  volcanic eruptions
A volcanic explosion occurred in the island of Krakotoa, also known as Krakatau, in August 1883. This island is situated in the Sunder Straits between the islands of Java and Sumatra in Indonesia.

The name Krakotoa is referred to a group of islands and the main island is called Rakata. Western travellers in the 17th century, especially, the Portuguese and the Dutch had given descriptions of the islands lying in the Sunder Straits. The island is referred to by various names such as Crackatou, Cracatowa and Krakotowa.

Dutchman Woulter Schouten, who passed through the Sunder Straits in 1658, referred to the island as ‘high tree covered Island of Krakatau’. There are several versions as to how the island came to be known as Krakatoa. The most probable theory is that it is derived from the Sanskrit word Karka or kataka meaning lobster or crab. The Main Island Rakata means “Crab” in the older Javan language.

In 1883, the volcano reached the height of about 2,500 feet above the sea level. The slopes of the volcanic mountain were covered with green vegetation. This was observed by the seamen passing through the Sunder Straits and it was a significant landmark. Volcanic activity was observed in 1883 and there were minor explosions before the major eruptions in August.

The series of explosions which culminated with four massive explosions on August 26 and 27, 1883 is regarded as the most violent and the loudest explosion recorded in modern history. The sounds of the explosions were heard in faraway places such as Perth in Western Australia, the island of Rodrigues near Mauritius, Port Elizabeth South Africa, Ceylon and other faraway countries.

According to the official records, 165 villages were destroyed and 132 seriously damaged near Krakotoa. It destroyed nearly two third of the island. The official death toll was 21,007 and several thousands seriously injured. However, it is stated that about 45,000 people were killed. According to some sources, the death toll was much higher. Many people died or received injuries as a result of tsunamis that followed. This volcanic activity shattered not only the Krakotova island, but also the neighbouring islands and it created small new islands.

The eruptions triggered several tsunamis with waves reaching about 100 feet in height. They wiped out the entire settlements in the neighbouring islands and reached far as the Indian sub-continent. The sound of the explosion was so loud that it is stated that it damaged the ear drums of the crewmen of the ships sailing miles away. Dust and particles entered the atmosphere and with the winds blown miles and miles away reaching distant countries. Pieces of pumice were seen floating in the coasts of Madagascar and islands in the east coast of Africa. The dust and particles blown into the high atmosphere blocked the sunlight, resulting in darkness. It spread to far away countries.

The Atlantic Monthly Magazine published in 1884 reported that some sea captains had reported seeing sun rises that were green, with the sun remaining green throughout the day. The sunsets around the world turned a vivid red in the months following the Krakatoa eruption. The vividness of the sunset continued for nearly three years.

Tidal waves in Ceylon in August 1883
In 1883, there were volcanic activities in Krakotoa. In August there were minor explosions followed by massive explosions on August 27 around 10 a.m. This was the loudest explosion ever recorded. The sounds of the minor and massive explosions were heard in Sri Lanka. It was first thought that it was due to the sounds of discharge or firing of cannons. The volcanic eruption triggered an earthquake followed by tidal waves which reached Ceylon in the afternoon. The tidal waves mostly affected the southern and eastern provinces. In the 1880s, the population of the country was low and the coastal areas were not densely populated. There was only one death reported and damage to property was minimal. However, a few vessels were damaged.
In March 1984, the Colonial Secretary requested Acting Surveyor General J. Stoddart to inquire into the extraordinary rise and fall of the tide in August 1883. He was required to report on four matters:

The extreme rise and fall of tide, and the number of times the waves appeared to come and go.
If noises were heard, or any motion of the earth felt.
The exact time, as near as obtainable.
If any crack or fissure had been observed inland or along the coast.
Stoddart called for and received reports from master-attendants from various harbours, ports, assistant government agents, village headmen and others. District Judges, police magistrates and public officials in coastal areas supplied valuable information. He submitted a report dated March 31, 1884, in condensed form, to the Colonial Secretary. Selected extracts of the report are reproduced below:

The Master-Attendant Colombo reported that he had observed four rises of the sea on the 27th August, the rise of the sea to be about 15 inches above the highest spring tide and that shortly afterwards within 15 minutes the sea fell to about three feet below the lowest spring tide.
According to the report, there was a strong current in the harbour which carried away the stern moorings of some of the steamers in port and swung them round against the wind.

Stoddart stated that the information he received from the Negombo station was meagre and he had no reports from Chilaw or Puttalam.
The Dutch Bay Preventive Officer forwarded his report through the Police Magistrate in Kalpitiya, stating that about two or three chains in extent, including the burial ground had been washed away. The tide had come in and out three or four times in a space of one hour on the 27th around 3 pm and the sounds were heard that day resembling ‘the rumblings of distant thunder, or rather that of a booming of canons which lasted from 7 to 10 a.m.’
In Mannar, there was no reliable information to show that anyone had observed the sudden rise and fall of the sea although loud sounds resembling report of cannons were heard from a distance. Mr. Fowler, Assistant Government Agent, reported ,“I may mention that there has been a curious change in the colour of the sun’s disc noticed in the early morning and in the evening since the 19th instant (September 1883). It has appeared to be of a bluish-green colour.”

It appears that the tidal wave became week or exhausted when it reached the Gulf of Mannar.
Mr Twynam, Assistant Government Agent, reported that ‘nothing unusual was noticed in Jaffna and Kayts in regard to the tide’.
However in Kankasanthurai, Velvetithurai and Point Pedro, a sudden rise and fall of tide of 2-3 feet above the normal level in quick succession was observed.

A report was submitted by the Chief Clerk of Royal Engineers’ Department, Trincomalee based on reliable information furnished by the head mason who was building a sea wall at Fort Fredrick. It was stated that the “extreme rise of the tide four feet at an average: the extreme fall of tide 4 feet at an average. The number of times waves appeared to come and go was about 13 times of which the 6th, 7th and 8th were those that caused more or less the extreme rise and fall above stated, and the rest were of course of a kind not to attract much notice of the working men, bearing simply the appearance of a little extraordinary ebb and flow of the sea water….. The sea receded three times and return with a force in a manner that would attract any one’s notice on the spot. And no sooner the ground from the shore to a distance of about 30 feet appeared bare and displaced its sediments with fishes struggling about, and few men (fishers) could have attempted to try their luck, than the sea returned. In about five minutes the sea on that day would have receded and returned twice. A similar change , I remember took place at Gun Wharf Pier when work was going on there with as light shock of an earthquake on 31st December,1881, at 8 o’clock a.m.”

Similar observations were furnished in the reports submitted by the Acting Government Agent Elliot of Batticaloa.
Arugam Bay which is situated in the eastern coast between Batticaloa and Hambantota was also affected by the tidal waves. Ships used to anchor in this port. Village Headman of Panama reported that when three Moor women, three children and a man crossing the bar a strong wave came from the sea and washed them inwards. After the wave receded fishermen fishing in the estuary rescued them. One woman died two days later due to injuries sustained by her. She was the solitary victim of the tidal wave. The headman was informed by the tindals (masters) of the ships anchored in the Bay that their ships suddenly went downwards and saw the ground and the vessels were moved seawards. Anchors were exposed to the sight. After sometime waves came in and raised the vessels and overflowed the Bar.

Byrde, Acting Assistant Agent Hambantota, reported that “Between the hours of 12 and 2 o’clock sea kept on rising several feet above its ordinary level, and receding to a great distance, leaving the jetty almost dry, the water at the extreme end of it not being more than knee deep. About every 20 minutes the sea completely covered the jetty and rose so high that it washed away one of the old surf-boats that was high and dry near the main road. I sent a canoe to bring back the boat, but the current was so strong that it was impossible to save it, as it was carried with great rapidity across the bay and then dashed to pieces on the opposite shore.”

Henry Parker, officer in charge of irrigation works at Tissamaharama in his letter to ‘Ceylon Observer stated, “You will be interested to learn that the explosion which occurred at the recent volcanic eruption in the Straits of Sunder were very distinctively heard by many persons at Tissamaharama near Hambantota and at some places along the southern coast. The sounds which closely resembled distant and occasionally rapid cannonading, lasted throughout the greater part of two days.”

He stated that they first thought that the sound was due to rock blasting in connection with irrigation works, but when it continued in the afternoon they assumed that vessels on the Indian fleet engaged in large gun exercises while sailing along the coast.”
The Master-Attendänt, Galle reported that four unusual waves were noticed in the port at the hours of one, two, three and half past four in the afternoon of 27th August. He has described the last waive as follows:-

“The most unusual receding of the sea; the small boats at their usual anchorage being left by it,- a thing I have never seen before during my tenure of office since 1860”. He had observed a rise of the sea followed shortly by a recession.

Tidal Wave of December 31, 1881
When tidal waves occurred in 1883, it reminded the government officials of the tidal waves in 1881. This wave was recorded in the Indian Tidal stations but did not receive much attention outside India. The earthquake occurred in the west of the Bay of Bengal under the ocean bed and it was strong and violent in Nicobar and Andaman Islands. It was felt in Ceylon and east coast from Madras to Calcutta. This was followed by sea waves which were recorded in tidal stations in India. When the waves reached the shores of India and Ceylon, they had exhausted theiri strength. They were mild and the effect negligible. That is why it did not receive muc attention outside India. When the tidal waves came in 1883, it reminded the people of the 1881 tidal wave.
Chief Clerk of Royal Engineers’ Departments, Trincomalee in his report submitted to Acting Surveyor General J. Stoddart in connection with the 1883 tidal wave made a reference to 1881 tidal wave thus: “In about five minutes the sea on that day would have receded and returned twice. A similar change , I remember took place at Gun Wharf Pier when work was going on there with as light shock of an earthquake on 31st December, 1881, at 8 o’clock a.m.”
Mr. Elliot, Government Agent Batticaloa, in his report, submitted to Acting Surveyor General J. Stoddart made a similar reference to 1881 tidal wave. He reported thus: “ What was going on was an effect of an earthquake somewhere, as a similar phenomenon occurred here on the 31st December 1881, immediately after the shock of an earthquake felt”.

It came to light after the tidal wave of 1883 that Ceylon did not have a proper observatory and an observer with a self-registering tidal gauges of its own. Lieutenant-General Walker, Surveyor General of India, in his paper titled ‘Earthquake Disturbances of the Tides on the Coast of India’ which appeared in “Nature” of February 14, 1884 lamented, “the absence of tidal stations in Ceylon, such as have been established for years at 17 different places round the coast of India, also at Aden in the west and as far east as Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. After the tidal wave the Indian Government gave assistance to establish two tidal gauge stations one in Colombo and the other in Galle. Major Baird visited Ceylon and selected the sites which commenced operation on February 2, 1884.

Rising of sea level and the sea waves of 1881 and 1883 were referred to as tidal waves. This may be due to the fact that the word tsunami was not used in the nineteenth century. All tidal waves are not tsunamis. Tidal waves could also be generated by gravitational pull of the moon and the sea.
The word tsunami is a Japanese word which is also now used in the English language. According to Wikipedia, “tsunami sometimes incorrectly referred to as a tidal wave, also known as a seismic sea wave, is a series of waves in a water body caused by the displacement of a large volume of water, generally in an ocean or a large lake.” It is different from a normal tidal wave but a series of sea waves originated from an earthquake, volcanic eruption, under water explosion or landslide.

The 1881 tidal wave was due to an earthquake in the Bay of Bengal and the 1883 tidal wave was a result of an earthquake triggered by the volcanic eruptions in Krakatoa. Therefore both tidal waves are tsunamis.

Aceh in Sumatra was the most affected area due to the 2004 tsunami and is now preparing for the 14th commemoration event in the Grand Mosque of the Aceh Bazar regency which is one of the worst affected areas. This is to reflect on the tragedy and also to appreciate people and organisations who contributed to the recovery of the region. Get together and be alert is the theme for the event. Similarly in December, Sri Lankans, too, should remember the victims of 2004 tsunami and appreciate those who assisted in the recovery.

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