Bountiful bliss of Batticaloa | Daily News

Bountiful bliss of Batticaloa

Kalladi Bridge
Kalladi Bridge

Sri Lanka is blessed with natural beauty and cultural diversity. The following narrative is from two visits made to Batticaloa. I was able to spend some time to discover her tropical charms. The journey from Colombo was quite long, as we set out at night and arrived early in the morning. After travelling about four hours there was a stretch of road, with jungles on either side.

I observed that there were signboards warning of elephants crossing, which gave us a sense of adventure on this long drive. We did encounter a few elephants and they seemed to be used to the flow of vehicular traffic. It is not advisable to dismount the vehicle and take photographs, either during the day or at night. There are a few shops along the journey to enjoy a cup of tea, even past midnight. Batticaloa town is reasonably developed, and displays an assortment of architecture.

Batticaloa Gate

The first iconic statue is the gold-coloured image of Mahatma Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary falls next month. It is elevated on a cement pedestal. This is in the vicinity of Gandhi Park. People were walking about on a sunny Saturday morning. We then spotted Batticaloa Gate. This gate was supposed to be the entry to the port where boats connected Pulliyanthivu Island to the mainland.

In 1814, the first Christian missionary from the Methodist Mission to Ceylon is said to have landed at this point. Rev. William Ault had set sail to Ceylon on the ship MVLady Melville, accompanied by his wife Sarah and Rev. Thomas Coke.

The long voyage took its toll on his wife and Sarah Ault died at sea. Shortly thereafter, Rev. Thomas Coke also died, leaving Rev. Ault alone. He landed in Batticaloa and began to learn Tamil.

The prudent missionary established eight schools, gaining the love of the people. Within a year of his arrival, he fell ill and passed away in April 1815. A statue of Rev. William Ault could be seen today beside Batticaloa Gate.

The pioneer missionaries played a big role in education in that era. Another venerated person is the Jesuit Father Ferdinand Bonnet of France. He built the St. Michael’s College in 1873. Since then it has been the premier boys’ school in Batticaloa.

An aquatic mystery

The sun was now shining over this exotic Eastern town. We stopped at the famous Kalladi Bridge. At the entrance to it is a cement statue of the legendary Tamil poet Auvvaiyar, carrying her bag and a staff. The pedestal on which she is mounted has four fish, carved into the cement. It is near this location that the maritime mystery of the elusive Singing Fish was first supposed to be recorded. We waited a few minutes kneeling near the bridge hoping to hear an audible tone. I for one don’t believe in mermaids. Local history records that in 1954 a priest named Fr. Lang, who was attached to St. Michael’s College is said to have made the first audio recording of the Singing Fish, which was later aired over Radio Ceylon in 1960. Since then there has been no such audio evidence of this mysterious phenomenon.

The Batticaloa train

The Sri Lankan railway service has extensive track coverage across the island. Taking the train to Batticaloa is another way to explore the region. As the railway lines progressed under the British, they extended the tracks, creating the Batticaloa Line. With the onset of the Northern Line, the Maho Railway Station was opened in 1903. As the demand for rail travel increased, the Northern Line was extended to Anuradhapura in 1926, and the Maho Station upgraded to a Junction Station, which took on a significant position in railway history. From then on, progress was made to construct a line to Batticaloa by 1928, covering a distance of 212 kilometres with 31 stations.

Decades ago, those travelling from Colombo to Batticaloa had only two choices – to travel by steam ship or journey by bullock cart. Prior to this, these regions were really remote. By the 1870s, there was a steam ship SS Serendib which charged Rs. 190 for a return ticket by sea from Colombo to Batticaloa. The vessel operated only once a week.

The East had two seaports, one at the Dutch Bar (where Admiral Spilbergen landed) and the second at Kalkudah Bay. There were two routes proposed for the train to the East. The first was from Badulla, which would be a distance of 92 miles (148km). But the route was along winding rocky roads that required new bridges. The travelling time was calculated at 24 hours, an entire day. The alternate plan was to extend the rail line from the Maho Station. The new train route was nearly 160 miles (258 km). But the travel time was faster and the terrain was safer. The plus point was that the route lay on flat open plains. However, there were two rivers to cross, one at Manampitiya and the other at Oddammavadi.

In 1928, the first train arrived at the Batticaloa Station to the joy of thousands. In the early days, the train began at Colombo Fort and then proceeded to Maho Junction Station. From here, she journeyed past Yapahuwa, Konwewa, Morogollagama, Siyambalagamuwa, Nagama, Awukana, Kalawewa, Kekirawa, Palugaswewa, Habarana, Gal Oya Junction, Minneriya, Hingurakgoda, Jayanthipura, Parakum Uyana, Polonnaruwa, Gallella, Manampitiya, Welikanda, Punani, Valaichchenai, Kalkudah and Eravur, finally reaching the terminus point at Batticaloa.

Today, the Udaya Devi train is powered by an M-4 Canadian diesel electric locomotive. This train journey unfolds a variety of scenes that includes lush green patches of jungle, dry and parched terrain, contrasting with lakes and grasslands.

Lady Manning Bridge

The Kalladi Bridge (old bridge) was erected in 1928 and named Lady Manning Bridge after the wife of Governor William Manning. Taking the form of a truss bridge, it is said to be one of the oldest iron bridges in Ceylon, primarily built to extend the rail line from the south of Batticaloa towards Kalmunai. Building this rail bridge was a daunting task at that time. The bridge was prefabricated in the factory of Patent Shaft and Axletree, and transported by steam ship from London. On reaching Ceylon, the parts were taken by rail to the desired site. Work crews secured these heavy iron parts into the moving waters of the Batticaloa Lagoon. At that time, this was the longest railway bridge in Ceylon.

For those passengers interested in maritime history, Batticaloa also has another secret from the Second World War submerged under the deep sea. During the war, the British Admiralty had stationed many ships in Trincomalee. One of these was the aircraft carrier named HMS Hermes. She was berthed with her escorting destroyer HMAS Vampire (Australian Navy). When the Japanese began their aerial dive bombing, they targeted both vessels, which had begun to sail. HMS Hermes was hit repeatedly and sank nine nautical miles off the coast of Batticaloa. She remains in these deep waters since then and is an active dive site.

Ancient Fort

The fort bordering the lagoon was built by the Portuguese in 1628. Later the Dutch took control and enhanced the fort in 1638. The fort has four bastions. Thereafter, the British occupied this fort from 1745. Presently this fort houses some administrative offices within her ramparts. The view from the fort offers a pleasant picture of the lagoon. Another place to visit is the old lighthouse built in 1913. This solid structure has a height of 28 meters.

The view of the sunset from this vantage point is stunning. Batticaloa is a ‘must-visit’ destination which also offers some good regional cuisine. An active tourism promotion campaign is now underway to attract more local visitors to this remarkable Eastern city.