The “Island In The Sun” is the title song of the 1957 movie bearing the same name. It was written by Irving Burgie and sung by Harry Belafonte.
Oh island in the sun
Willed to me by my father’s hand
All my days I will sing in praise
Of your forest waters, your shining sand
As morning breaks, the Heaven on high
I lift my heavy load to the sky
Sun comes down with a burning glow
Mingles my sweat with the earth below
Oh island in the sun
Willed to me by my father’s hand
All my days I will sing in praise
Of your forest waters, your shining sand
I see woman on bended knee
Cutting cane for her family
I see man at the waterside
Casting nets at the surging tide
Though this song addresses the island of Jamaica, it is equally applicable to Sri Lanka the pearl of the Indian Ocean and nature’s treasure chest.
The island paradise, formerly known as Ceylon until 1972, is in the northern Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of the Indian subcontinent in South Asia. Sri Lanka has maritime borders with India to the northwest and the Maldives to the southwest. It is one of the most delightful destinations in the world to visit.
Sri Lanka is the home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Though the island’s documented history spans over 2,550 years, evidence shows that it had prehistoric human settlements dating back to at least 125,000 years. Its history boasts of planned cities, magnificent palaces, temples, and monasteries, expansive reservoirs, green forests and gardens, monuments and works of art.
Sri Lanka due to its geographic location and endowed with natural harbours has been the cynosure of strategic importance from the time of the ancient Silk Road through to World War II.
Today, Sri Lanka is a republic and a unitary state governed by a presidential system. The capital, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, is a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city.
Sri Lanka is home to many races speaking diverse languages, and following different religious faiths. It is the land of the Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils, Moors, Burghers, Malays, Kaffirs and the aboriginal Veddas.
The island has a rich Buddhist heritage spanning from the time of the Indian Emperor Ashoka Maurya (304–232 BC) of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost all the Indian subcontinent from circa 269 to 232 BCE. The first known Buddhist writings of Sri Lanka, the Pāli Canon dates back to the Fourth Buddhist Council in 29 BCE.
The island is one of the most beautiful and delightful destinations in the world for tourists to visit. Its historical planned cities, magnificent palaces, temples, dagobas, monasteries, monuments, sculptures and other works of art, expansive artificial reservoirs, green gardens, etc., illustrate the characteristic rich history of its ancient rulers.
Here is a video titled “Heritage of Sri Lanka” produced by The Ministry of National Heritage Sri Lanka, which I enjoyed viewing and I hope you too will be delighted to view it as well.
“Blessed Joseph Vaz was our beloved Apostle. In many ways, he was a pioneer in the history of our country and the Christian faith. In fact, after Dutch persecution, which lasted 150 years, there would be no priest on the island without him.”
– Bishop Vianny Fernando, President of National Joseph Vaz Secretariat.
In 1591, André Furtado de Mendonça led the second Portuguese expedition to the Jaffna kingdom. The capital of the Jaffna Kingdom, also known as the Kingdom of the Aryacakravarti was Nallur. During that expedition, the King of Jaffna, Puviraja Pandaram (Tamil: புவிராஜ பண்டாரம்) was killed.
The Portuguese then installed the dead king’s son Ethirmanna Cinkam (Tamil: எதிர்மன்னசிங்கம்) as the King of the Jaffna kingdom. This arrangement gave the Catholic missionaries freedom to propagate the Christian faith. However, the incumbent king, resisted the missionary activities. In 1595, the King of Portugal ordered to remove him from the throne. But colonial authorities in Goa did not oblige as Ethirimanna Cinkam was not overly disruptive to their colonial interests.
In 1617, Cankili II (Tamil: சங்கிலி குமாரன்) a tyrant, came to the throne after a bloody massacre of the royal princess and the regent Arasakesari. The Portuguese colonists in Colombo rejected his regency. He then invited military forces from Thanjavur Nayaks and Malabari Corsairs to help him fight the Portuguese.
In 1618, Phillippe de Oliveira built the Portuguese Fort in Jaffna.
Phillipe de Oliveira moved the center of political and military control from Nallur to Jaffnapatao (Jaffnapattinam).
The subsequent rule by the Portuguese deployed forced conversion of the population to Roman Catholicism. Most people fled the core areas of the former Jaffna kingdom due to excessive taxation.forced conversion of the population to Roman Catholicism.
After a three-month siege, the Portuguese lost their last stronghold in Ceylon, Fort of Our Lady of Miracles (Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora dos Milagres de Jafanapatão) to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) on June 24, 1658 . With the fall of Fort at Jaffnapattinam, the Dutch took Portuguese as prisoners of war and expelled all Portuguese from Ceylon.
Joseph Vaz in Jaffnapattinam
Joseph Vaz presumed that like in Mannar, there ought to be Catholics in Jaffnapattinam too. Cured of dysentery, Vaz wanted to find the Catholics in Jaffnapattinam and begin his mission. So, he wore a rosary around his neck and started begging for food, all the while observing and studying the reactions of the natives. He was fully aware that if the Dutch or any native Calvinist knew that he was a Catholic he would be subjected to ill-treatment, and death would soon follow.
Dom Pedro of Jaffnapattinam
One family in particular treated him well and he guessed that they were Christians. One day he asked the head of that family, whether he would like to see a priest and receive the sacraments. The man froze. The next time Vaz went to beg at that house, the man took him to the house one of his friends, a young man named Dom Pedro.
Dom Pedro belonged to the Tamil Vellalar caste, a dominant group of agricultural landlords who migrated from the neighbouring Southern Tamil kingdoms in India since the 13th century. He was rich and his family members, all Catholics, were held in esteem by the Tamils of Jaffna.
In the hope of getting an appointment to a high Government position under the Dutch, he had renounced the Catholic Faith and had become a Calvinist. However, a few years later, Emmanuel de Silva, an old friend of his father, made him realize the enormity of his defection from the Catholic faith. Troubled by his apostasy, Dom Pedro disavowed Calvinism. He did severe penance and reconciled with the Catholic Church.
Joseph Vaz then understood through his friend that though Dom Pedro was on good terms with the Dutch, he was, in fact, a fervent Catholic, but behaved as if he were not, to hoodwink the Dutch.
After the preliminary introductions, Vaz revealed his identity to them. He showed his credentials as Vicar Forane of Kanara, which he had conscientiously brought with him.
The apostleship of Joseph Vaz began that night when he celebrated the first Mass in Jaffna. The Catholics were happy because for more than 30 years they did not have the privilege to attend Mass. The young members of the community had never seen a priest. They had been baptized and instructed in the Catholic Faith by their parents.
From then on the Catholics of Jaffnapattinam met in Dom Pedro’s house in secret for some time. Dom Pedro and his friends told Vaz that Jaffnapattinam being the headquarters of the Dutch command in the north of Ceylon, it was dangerous for him to remain there. They advised him to go to Sillalai, a hamlet ten miles away from Jaffna.
Joseph Vaz in Sillalai
Rich in vegetation, and surrounded by paddy fields in the North and West and villages in the South and East, Sillalai got its name from a ‘small oil mill’ (Tamil: ‘siria aalai‘) in the area which extracted oil from gingelly seeds, margosa (neem) seeds and the seed of the honey tree or butter tree (ill upai). Over time, ‘siria aalai‘ became Sillalai.
The villagers (even now), venerated the statue of ‘Kathirai Matha‘ (‘Chair Mother’) – a rare depiction of Mother Mary seated on a chair holding baby Jesus on her lap. The Portuguese who landed at the small port of Sambil, about three to four kilometres west of Sillalai brought the statue to the hamlet.
The villagers took great pains to protect the statue from the Dutch. They moved it from place to place and hid it in deep wells and abandoned huts.
As advised Vaz went to Sillalai. The Moopar (local catechist) provided a walled house for Vaz and John. The villagers built a hut nearby and Vaz used it as the church. From then on, Sillalai became the headquarters of his apostleship. From Sillalai, he visited Jaffnapattinam and the surrounding villages. Wherever he went, the Catholics hid him in their houses.
To avoid suspicion, he performed his apostolate at night with small groups of Catholics in attendance. He would walk from Sillalai to Jaffnapattinam at night to avoid the Dutch.
In Sillalai, if anyone gave him any gift or money he would send that person to his host, the Moopar. He distributed the entire collection of money among the poor.
The “sammanasu swamy”
Joseph Vaz lived a simple life. He always ate sitting on the ground with rice served on a banana leaf. He slept on a grass or bamboo mat spread on the floor. His life of poverty can be summarized in his own words from a letter written to his nephew:
“Be content with what you are provided in the Community; be it in the refectory, or in the infirmary or in the wardrobe or in the cubicle, do not desire anything more by any other means, take the things assigned to you as the best in these places.”
Joseph Vaz a model of chastity. He was a modest, well composed, grave, cautious and reserved person. In the confessional, his eyes were always low and would never raise them to stare at the ladies confessing to him. In a letter to his nephew, Joseph Vaz wrote:
“Grid us Lord with the girdle of purity and extinguish in our loins the fire of lust, so that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in us”.
The people admired Joseph Vaz. Because of his virtues they called him “sammanasu swami” (Tamil: “சம்மனசு சுவாமி”) meaning the “angelic priest”.
Guided by the catechist, Joseph Vaz traveled throughout the Jaffna peninsula. He found the task of caring for the flock, was a bit burdensome for one priest. On December 14, 1688, Vaz wrote his first letter from Ceylon to the Provost of the Oratory requesting him to send a helper.
At that time, Laurens van Pyl was the Governor of Dutch Ceylon. The Dutch commander of Jaffna region was forcing the people to follow Calvinism. He was annoyed to note many people believed to be apostates of the Catholic Church and enjoyed the favours of the Dutch authorities were no longer frequenting the Calvinist Kirk. Dom Pedro, in particular, was one such person.
The Commander imputed the change in the Catholics of the Jaffna peninsula to the Jesuits of Manapad in South India, who, he believed, had succeeded in coming over to Ceylon in secret.
The Dutch arrested many people they believed to be Catholics. He tortured them to denounce the person or the Jesuit priests responsible for bringing about this situation. The Commander then announced a reward for the head of the Catholic priests. But the faithful Catholics watched over Joseph Vaz.
On Christmas night of 1689, Dutch soldiers surrounded the house where the congregation was celebrating the midnight liturgy with Joseph Vaz administering the sacraments. On entering the house, the soldiers arrested those inside. They desecrated the sacred images and divested the women of their clothes. They rounded up around 300 Catholics that night in and around the neighbourhood. But to their dismay, the priest was not among the prisoners. The soldiers wondered how he could have escaped.
In 1690, Father Andre Freyre, the Jesuit Provincial of Malabar, gave an account of this incident in a letter he wrote from Manapad to Dom Miguel de Almeida, the Portuguese Governor of Goa. He wrote:
“Fr. Joseph Vaz, a Brahmin, who was sent from Goa to take charge of the Christians at Jaffna, discharges his duties with such devotion, that all consider him a saint. He not only looks after the natives but after the Europeans too. Although the heretics search everywhere for him, they can never come upon him, for, like another Proteus, he escapes them under a variety of disguise.”
In the morning, all the arrested people were brought before the Commander of Jaffnapattinam. He let off the women and children. He retained eight rich and influential men, including Dom Pedro and Emmanuel de Silva. He let the others go after imposing heavy fines.
The Commander ordered them to abjure the Catholic Faith or face death. All said that they were ready to die for their faith. Thinking that the sight of torture would denounce their Faith. the Commander ordered Dom Pedro, the youngest among the eight, to be beaten with rods, until he should abjure Catholicism or die under the blows. Dom Pedro bore the torture unflinchingly. When the young man lost consciousness, the Commander ordered his bloody body to be thrown into prison with the other seven. When Dom Pedro regained consciousness, he beseeched his companions to persevere in their Faith with courage, and then died peacefully.
The Commander, then confiscated the properties of Emmanuel de Silva and the six others and condemned them to hard labour for life.
The Commander, then confiscated the properties of Emmanuel de Silva and the six others and condemned them to hard labour for life. He sent them to a fortress, which the Dutch were then restructuring, as labourers. None of them even thought of escaping this torture by renouncing the Faith. Eventually, they all died martyrs. The martyrdom of Dom Pedro and of his seven companions was the most glorious fruit of the apostolate of Joseph Vaz at Jaffna.
Joseph Vaz fled Jaffnapattinam and went deep into the jungle to escape from the Dutch. He crossed to Vanni, the mainland area of Northern Sri Lanka. From there, he reached Puttalam, then, a part of the Kandy kingdom, ruled by King Vimaladharma Surya II, who had ascended the throne in 1687, the same year that Joseph Vaz had entered Ceylon. He was the son of King Rajasimha II (1635 – 1687).
With the help of some Catholics, he continued his apostolate in Puttalam.
A cyclonic storm now referred to as the 1964 Rameswaram cyclone or the Dhanushkodi cyclone started with the depression that formed in the South Andaman Sea on December 17, 1964. On December 19, it intensified into a severe cyclonic storm. From December 21, it moved westwards, 400 km to 550 km per day. On December 22, it crossed Vavunia in Sri Lanka with a wind speed of 280 km per hour.
On December 22-23 night, the cyclone moved into Palk Strait and made landfall in Dhanushkodi, at the southern tip of Rameswaram island, on the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu, India. The devastating tidal waves that were 7 metres high submerged all houses and other structures in Dhanushkodi town with heavy casualties.
On December 22, 1964, the tidal wave smashed into the Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger train and washed it into the sea while it was crossing the viaduct during the cyclonic storm.
More than 100 passengers drowned in the sea. The death toll was estimated to be anywhere between 115 and 200. The variation is due to the many ticketless travellers. The railway line running from Pamban Station to Dhanushkodi Pier was washed away.
The 1¼ mile-long Pamban Rail Bridge over the Pamban Channel, that links the Indian mainland with the island of Rameswaram was also badly damaged; 126 of its 145 girders collapsed. However, the lift span was barely damaged.
Most of the girders were salvaged from the sea and the Pamban viaduct was working once again in a span of just three months time.
The metre gauge branch line from Pamban Junction to Dhanushkodi was abandoned after the cyclone destroyed it.
Prior to the cyclone, Dhanushkodi was once a flourishing town. Then, the Railway line to Dhanushkodi, destroyed in the 1964 cyclone, went directly from Mandapam station to Dhanushkodi without touching Rameswaram. In those days Dhanushkodi had a railway station, a small railway hospital, primary schools, a post office, customs and port offices. There were hotels, dharmashalas (religious rest houses), and many textile shops that catered to the Hindu pilgrims and travellers to Sri Lanka.
Dhanushkodi is about 18 miles (29 km) West of Talaimannar, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). There was a steamer ferry service which operated daily from the pier on the south-east of the Dhanushkodi town to the pier at Talaimannar. The ferry transported travellers and goods, across the Palk Strait.
In the 1950s and 1960s, I used to travel to Ceylon by the Dhanushkodi-Talimannar steamer ferry.
The Indo-Ceylon Express, also known as the Boat Mail train, plied from 1915 to 1964 on a metre gauge track between Egmore Station in Chennai (then known as Madras) and Dhanushkodi. It took almost 19 hours to complete the journey of 420 miles (675 Km).
After the Boat Mail train reached Dhanushkodi Pier at 15:05 hours in the afternoon, the passengers after alighting from the train had to pass through the customs before boarding the ferry which used to leave the Indian shore soon after 16:00 hours. Depending on the weather, it took between 2 and 3½ hours to cross the very shallow Palk Bay and reach the Talaimannar Pier in Sri Lanka. The voyage used to be bumpy and nauseating when the sea was rough.
The name of the train changed from Indo-Ceylon Express to Rameswaram Express after the 1964 cyclone. Now, it is a 12-hour journey from Chennai to Rameswaram on a broad-gauge track.
On June 12, 2014, my wife and I along with relatives left Chennai on Rameswaram Express to attend a wedding at Pamban town. We reached Rameswaram the following day around 5:30 am and lodged in a hotel. We hired a van and left the hotel around 11:00 am to see Dhanushkodi.
After travelling for 20 minutes, we reached Dhanushkodi. Even 50 years after the cyclone of 1964, Dhanushkodi remains a dilapidated strip of land.
The driver stopped the van at a spot on the Indian Ocean side where many other vans carrying tourists were parked.
The driver said he cannot go farther as local regulations, meaning rules set by the local cartel of van drivers, forbids it. But the members of that association ply a number of their own vans to ferry the travellers to the end of Dhanushkodi and charge ₹100/- per person. At the end of the journey we paid ₹2,200/-.
After 35 minutes of a bumpy ride by van, on shallow waters and muddy tracts, we reached the tip of Dhanushkodi where Adam’s Bridge, a chain of sand shoals between Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar begins. The distance from the tip of Dhanushkodi in India and Talimannar in Sri Lanka is about 18 miles (29 km). The Dhanushkodi fishermen say that some sand dunes are just 50 yards in length. Surprisingly, the smallest land border in the world, is a shoal in Palk Bay between India and Sri Lanka – just 45 metres in length.
An eerie stillness prevailed around us except for the chatter of the few tourists subdued by the sound of waves. There were a few marine birds pecking on the soggy earth searching for food and many sea eagles circling in the air ready to swoop on any prey they could spot in the shallow waters or on the muddy land.
We saw many Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Palk Bay. The Hindus believe that pilgrimage to the holy city of Kashi (Benares / Varanasi) in North India would not be complete without having the ritual bath at the tip of Dhanushkodi, considered a sacred confluence of the Palk Bay and the Indian Ocean, before completing their pilgrimage to Rameswaram.
It was heartrending to see only thatched huts and no buildings with standing walls. The only walls we saw were the dilapidated walls of St. Anthony’s church and of a school devastated during the cyclone of 1964.
The main trade other than fishing was the sale of conch shells, and trinkets and ornaments made of shells sold at exorbitant prices to tourists and pilgrims.
Eventually, we left Dhanushkodi around 2:30 pm with a heavy heart after having seen the ravages wrought by the 1964 cyclone.