Nagadeepa

The islands off the coast of the Jaffna peninsula have always intrigued me and I promised myself during this trip that I would visit as many of them as I could. Anchored by coral, these sandy islands are surrounded by shallow seas and lagoons not more than a few feet deep. Beaches of sand and coral surround each island whose semi-arid hardy vegetation grows in isolated clumps. The people living on these islands are predominantly Hindu with small Christian and Muslim communities scattered throughout.

No natural streams or ponds are found anywhere on these islands but there is water everywhere. Silvery slabs of brackish groundwater from recent monsoon rains fill the low lying areas, the grey, partly grassy soil soon to be exposed by the relentless sun. Hardy local residents use water pumped manually from deep natural aquifers which provide an endless supply of sweet fresh water.

Kayts

Narrow causeways connect many of the larger islands but others require a journey by boat. The islands are controlled by the Sri Lankan navy and everyone has to go through a checkpoint when using the causeways. The lagoons surrounding the islands are abundant with small fish and crustaceans, the fishermen forced to share their bounty with local and migratory birds who demand their take insistently.

Fishing nets and traps lined both sides of the road as we entered the causeway next to the Jaffna Fort. The old Dutch fort which is the second largest fortification on the island was used as a military base for centuries and had been almost destroyed during the civil war. It’s currently undergoing major restoration with help from the Dutch government and visitors climb its wide ramparts every evening to watch the red sunset over the lagoon.

LagoonFisherman2

The old causeway road was bad but yellow markings by engineers indicated that plans were well in place to expand and re-carpet its surface. Flat shallow lagoons and long sandy dunes capped by groves of palmyrah palms greeted us when we entered Kayts, the largest of the dozen or so islands. Small herds of goat and cattle wandered aimlessly through the open fields cropping at the short grass. The occasional house surrounded by plantain trees and vegetable plots, and a few cyclists on the road were the only signs that people actually live in this remote place.

In the town of Kayts, the crumbling Fort Eyrie built by the Portuguese when they ruled the coastal areas of Sri Lanka lay in ruin. In the distance, on a man-made island in the middle of the channel, the perfectly preserved Fort Hammenhiel built by the Dutch a century later controlled approaches into the Jaffna lagoon and city from the sea. The old but well maintained churches which dominate the town was proof that fishing folk on the island still followed Catholicism, brought into the country by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

HinduTemple

Colorful Hindu temples dotted the landscape as we island hopped on causeways built many years ago. Reaching the pier where the road ended we joined dozens of pilgrims from the mainland and crossed the narrow channel to the island of Nagadeepa on a wooden boat which had seen better days. Only the presence of smartly dressed naval personnel who ensured that everyone was issued a life jacket, gave us some confidence that a visible authority was watching over us.

The island of Nagadeepa or Nainativu as it’s known locally is sacred to both the Hindus and the Buddhists. I couldn’t help but think that with its famous Buddhist temple, a Muslim mosque, two Christian churches and fifty two Hindu temples and sanctuaries, that this small island had to be the most religious place on earth!

Fort Hammenhiel Jaffna

Sun-burnt fishermen outside the temple gates sold conch shells harvested from the sea, the intricate and expensive shells used by both Buddhists and Hindus for their sacred rituals. The vividly colorful Nagapoosani Amman Hindu temple was in stark contrast to the gleaming white Nagadeepa Buddhist vihara just a kilometre down the road where the Lord Buddha stopped on his second visit to Sri Lanka. Barefooted Hindu pilgrims filled the temple courtyard while Buddhist pilgrims dressed in white walked from one temple to the other, reverently praying at both to the individual deities.

There is no doubt in my mind that these remote islands are a national treasure of Sri Lanka and should be preserved as such. It was unfortunate that I was unable to visit the furthest island of Delft named after a Dutch city, with its wild ponies and Baobab trees brought by Arab traders over a thousand years ago.

Perhaps at another day and time.