Tag Archives: Palk Strait

Blessed Joseph Vaz: Part 5 – Travel to Ceylon (Sri Lanka)


Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Map - Goa to Jaffna
Map – Goa to Jaffna

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In March 1686, Joseph Vaz left Goa secretly and set out on foot to go to Ceylon without informing anyone. However, he obtained the blessings of his Prefect and the Cathedral Chapter of Goa.

Father Paulo de Souza, Brother Stephen, accompanied Joseph Vaz along with his loyal domestic servant John.

They traveled to Tellichery where people told them that the Dutch were ever vigilant and might deem Father de Souza to be a European because of his fair complexion. Moreover, Vaz noted that it would not be possible for them to land in Ceylon as a group without arousing suspicion. So, Vaz sent his two companions, Father Paulo de Souza and Brother Stephen back to Kanara.

Vaz proceeded to Cochin (now Kochi) with his servant John carrying a bag that contained sacred vestments and other accessories for celebrating Mass.

From Cochin, they traveled on a Moorish ship to Quilon (now Kollam). The ruthless captain of the ship demanded more as fare. Since they had no more money to pay the extra sum, the captain started scolding them. With great patience, they bore the affronts and the insults. The captain then seized their only possession – the bag containing the sacred vestments and other accessories for celebrating Mass. A Christian from Quilon was about to help him, but the Episcopal Governor of Cochin who was there  paid their fare.

In the 17th century, the Portuguese maintained their power in Kerala with their settlements and trade centers. They concentrated mainly on the port towns of Cochin, Calicut, Cannanore, and Quilon. In 1663 due to the Dutch Invasion Portuguese Empire declined. The Jesuits in Kerala transposed their Vaippicotta Seminary to Ambazhakad (Sambalur). The Jesuits started a house of Jesuits, Vidyapeeth (St. Pauls’ College) and a seminary for Christians of St. Thomas.

When Joseph Vaz and John reached the Jesuit College, the Jesuit priests received them cordially. They advised Vaz that if he wanted to enter Ceylon he should put aside his torn, threadbare soutane, and dress like a “coolie”. The Jesuits offered them coarse loincloth like the ones used by the slaves of the Dutch. Vaz humbly accepted their advice and the loincloth.

After reaching the Coromandel Coast, Vaz studied the Tamil language assiduously for that was the language spoken in the Northern part of the Island of Ceylon.

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View of the Dutch port Tuticorin, Coromandel Coast, India in 1672.  'Tutecoryn' by Philip Baldaeus, from 'Nauwkeurige beschrijving Malabar en Choromandel, derz. aangrenzend rijken, en het machtige eiland Ceylon', Amsterdam, 1672. (Source: columbia.edu)
View of the Dutch port Tuticorin, Coromandel Coast, India in 1672. ‘Tutecoryn’ by Philip Baldaeus, from ‘Nauwkeurige beschrijving Malabar en Choromandel, derz. aangrenzend rijken, en het machtige eiland Ceylon’, Amsterdam, 1672. (Source: columbia.edu)

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By the end of March 1687, Joseph Vaz and John reached the Coromandel Coastal town of Tuticorin captured by the Dutch in 1658. The harbour in Tuticorin was even then well known as a pearl diving and fishing centre of the Paravar community.

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'Pearl fishing on the coast of Tuticorin by Paravars using thoni' from 'La galerie agreable du monde. Tome premier des Indes Orientales.', published by P. van der Aa, Leyden, c. 1725 (Source: columbia.edu)
‘Pearl fishing on the coast of Tuticorin by Paravars using thoni’ from ‘La galerie agreable du monde. Tome premier des Indes Orientales.’, published by P. van der Aa, Leyden, c. 1725 (Source: columbia.edu)

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The Paravars used the thoni, one of the oldest known indigenous country sea vessels for pearl fishing. The thoni was also used to transport goods and people between India and Ceylon in the Palk Strait. So, Vaz envisaged to board a thoni from Tuticorin to go to Ceylon. But, the town of Tuticorin and the harbour were under the control of the Dutch.

In Tuticorin, Vaz met a Jesuit priest who had been his companion in the College of St. Paul in Goa. On knowing the reason for Vaz’s disguise as a coolie and to maintain the camouflage, the Jesuit priest treated Vaz like a bondservant. Whenever Vaz ventured out he went about disguised as a mendicant.

A hawk-eyed Dutch officer in charge of the harbour area suspected the furtive ways of Vaz. He presumed that, Vaz in disguise, was waiting for the opportunity to travel to Ceylon by sea. He ordered his subordinates, not to allow anyone to embark for Ceylon without his permission. However, the Dutch officer died shortly. The new officer who took charge, not knowing the reason for the order given by his predecessor allowed Joseph Vaz and John to board a thoni that set sail to Ceylon.

The thoni met with a storm and drifted away from the normal course. After several days of drifting, the vessel reached the island of Mannar. Joseph Vaz, John and the others on the vessel were reduced to skeletons for want of food.

There were many Catholics in Mannar, but Joseph Vaz was not aware of this fact. He and John begged to sustain themselves.

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Painting of a Kattumaram in Sri Lanka (Source: patrickgibbs.com)
Painting of a Kattumaram in Sri Lanka (Source: patrickgibbs.com)

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Two months later, Joseph Vaz and John were taken in a kattumaram (catamaran)  by local fishermen to the town of Jaffna, located at the Northern tip of Ceylon.

When Joseph Vaz and John landed in Jaffna, they were famished and almost half dead. Since they needed food and a place to rest, they knocked on many doors, but were chased away by almost all the Tamil households there.  Finally, a woman allowed them to spend the night in a dilapidated hut near her house.

As a result of fatigue, hunger and thirst, Joseph Vaz suffered from an acute form of dysentery. As dysentery often led to epidemics and death at that time, any form of dysentery was much dreaded by the people both in India and Ceylon. When the neighbours saw that Vaz was not even able to walk, they carried him on a litter to the nearby forest. They left the ailing man there exposed to the intemperate weather and to the mercy of the wild animals.

John looked after his master, day and night. During the day, he went to the town and begged for food to feed the sick man. Eventually, John too contracted the disease.

Without any other alternative left for them, they prayed to God and awaited death.

Their faith was rewarded in the form of a lady who had come to the forest to gather firewood. Out of pity, she supplied them daily a bowl of kanji (broth). After some days, thanks to the kind-hearted woman, their health was restored.

However, Joseph Vaz knew that greater trials and tribulations were in store for him on the island.

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Next → Part  6 – The Apostle of Sri Lanka in Jaffnapattinam

← Previous: Part 4: Persecution of Catholics in Ceylon by the Dutch

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Dhanushkodi – Fifty Years After the Cyclone of 1964


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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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.

 The railway track in Dhanushkodi destroyed by the cyclone of December 22, 1964
The railway track in Dhanushkodi destroyed by the cyclone of December 22 – 25, 1964.

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.

The Pamban bridge after restoration (Source: the hindu.com)
The Pamban bridge after restoration (Source: the hindu.com)

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.

A map showing the ferry route from Dhanushkod, Indiai to Talaimannar , Sri Lanka (Source:-Wikimedia Commons)
A map showing the ferry route from Dhanushkod, Indiai to Talaimannar , Sri Lanka (Source:-Wikimedia Commons)

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).

Ferry service from Dhanushkodi Pier to Talaimannar in the 1950s.
Ferry service from Dhanushkodi Pier to Talaimannar in the 1950s.

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.

St. Antony's Church at Dhanuskodi devastated by the cyclone of 1964 (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)
St. Antony’s Church at Dhanushkodi devastated by the cyclone of 1964 (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

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.

Trinkets and ornaments made from seashells (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)
Trinkets and ornaments made from seashells (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

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.

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Islands in the Gulf of Mannar: Part 1 – Adam’s Bridge


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Myself 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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The Laccadive Sea

The Laccadive Sea or Lakshadweep Sea is a body of water that includes the Lakshadweep islands, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka.

Laccadive Sea
Laccadive Sea

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The International Hydrographic Organization defines the limits of the Laccadive Sea as follows:

  • On the West. A line running from Sadashivgad Lt., on west coast of India (14°48′N 74°07′E) to Corah Divh (13°42′N 72°10′E) and thence down the west side of the Lakshadweep and Maldive Archipelagos to the most southerly point of Addu Atoll in the Maldives.
  • On the South. A line running from Dondra Head in Sri Lanka to the most southerly point of Addu Atoll.
  • On the East. The southeastern coast of India and west coast of Sri Lanka.
  • On the Northeast. Adam’s Bridge between India and Sri Lanka.

The Gulf of Mannar and Adam’s Bridge

The Gulf of Mannar is a large shallow bay, a part of the Lakshadweep Sea between the southeastern coast of India and the West coast of Sri Lanka. The estuaries of the river Thamirabarani of south India and the river Aruvi Aru of Sri Lanka drain into the gulf.

Adam's Bridge separating Gulf of Mannar from Palk Bay
Adam’s Bridge separating Gulf of Mannar from Palk Bay

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An 18-miles (30 km) long isthmus composed of limestone shoals, and coral reefs, popularly known as Adam’s Bridge or Ramsethu, lies between Pamban Island, off the southeastern coast of Tamil Nadu, India, and Mannar Island, off the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka.

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Aerial view of Mannar Island and Adam's Bridge.
Aerial view of Mannar Island and Adam’s Bridge.

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Geological evidence suggests that this bridge formerly connected India and Sri Lanka.

The Rameswaram cyclone of 1964 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 and moved into Palk Strait and made landfall in Dhanushkodi, India. The devastating tidal waves that were 7 metres high submerged all houses and other structures in Dhanushkodi town. The death toll rose to 1,800.

In the past too, high-intensity cyclones and storms often ravaged the area around Rameswaram in India.

Records from Hindu temples say that Ramsethu was completely above sea level that could be traversed on foot, until a cyclone in 1480 AD submerged it.

A study conducted by the Geological Survey of India indicated that in 1948-49 the southern part of erstwhile Dhanushkodi Township, facing Gulf of Mannar, sank by almost 5 meters due to vertical tectonic movement of land parallel to the coastline. As a result of this, a stretch of land of about half a kilometre wide and 7 km in length, along North-South direction, submerged into the sea together with many roads, residential areas, places of worship, etc.

Now, some sandbanks of the Adam’s Bridge are dry, and the sea is very shallow, only 3 feet to 30 feet (1 metre to 10 metres) deep. This geographical feature of the Adam’s Bridge acts as a barrier to heavy vessels that cruise from India’s west coast to India’s east coast and ships have to take the long circuitous route around Sri Lanka.

The chief seaports on the Gulf of Mannar are Thoothukudi (formerly Tuticorin) in Tamil Nadu, India and Colombo in Sri Lanka. These ports can accommodate deep-draft vessels, but the shallow sea in the Adam’s Bridge region allows only small shallow-draft vessels.

In July 2005, the Indian Government envisaged the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project to dredge and scrape out a deep channel to open a direct shipping route for heavy vessels to ply from the southeastern Gulf of Mannar to the northeastern Bay of Bengal and avoid the long trip around Sri Lanka. However, environmentalists have warned that the project could cause grave damage to the sea life of the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait, and thereby affect fisheries in both the southeastern coast of India and the west coast of Sri Lanka.

.                                                                     Next: Part 2 – The 21 Islands of India →

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