Getting to Kachchathivu is by no means easy or straightforward, especially if you live in Colombo. From Jaffna to Punkudutivu is an hour mainly due to the badly maintained roads and at parts is barely enough for one vehicle, let alone two.
Then you are at the discretion of the Sri Lankan Navy. If you are able to take one of their vessels your journey to the island could take up to 45 minutes. However if you are on one of the merchant ships chartered to ferry devotees, then the journey could take over four hours. From the Indian port of Rameswaram the journey is an hour, but do spare a though for pilgrims who come as far as Bangalore.
The feast of St Anthony held on the inhabited island dates back to over one hundred years, the beautiful shrine was built by an Indian Catholic to pay homage to the patron saint of fishermen. The island was originally Indian Territory but given on a conditional agreement to Sri Lanka in 1974. During the decades-long civil war the festival was prohibited. Now it is Sri Lanka and in particular it’s Navy that actively participates in the running of the festival. Proving water, food and transport to the devotees, while also accommodating the many dignitaries and journalists.
The festival is unique as two people sharing the same faith and culture but from two different nations travel by sea to worship a saint. The only other comparison can be made is from dessert nomadic tribes in Arabia meeting to exchange goods and race camels during the holy festival of Eid.
The staging of the festival is hugely significant due to the fact that the Tamil Nadu government disputes the island’s sovereignty; it is an attempt to appease the Tamil community due to the long-standing grievances and distrust. At present there is the issue of fishing rights and many poaching violations by Indian fishing vessels.
When you approach the island you will only realise the audacious feat that people have made to reach this small piece of earth in the Indian Ocean. Over 50 steel bottom-fishing boats can be seen moored of the coast. With small fiberglass speed boats seen beached on the shore as well as naval ship anchored close by.
When you reach ashore you are greeted by the Navy and your identity is checked, after a search like that of an airport you are let threw. Now you need to make the short walk to the other side where the shire is based. This path has shops with people form both nations trading goods such as food items, children’s toys and religious iconography. There is even a bank for devotees to exchange currencies.
This year’s festival saw over 7000 pilgrims make the journey, the small shire has masses of bodies littering the ground where people pray during the many masses that are held. They camp out at these spots under the stars till Sunday morning, when the bishops from Jaffna and Tamil Nadu hold the final mass.
At the festival the devotees from the two nations make vows to the saint to help them with the many problems they are facing. There are sick and elderly people who can be seen touching the feet of the various statues of St Anthony. Devotees with debilitating dieses line the outer edge of the mass of bodies, some with signs asking for donations.
This year saw a very rare sight, the statue of St Anthony that is contained in the shire was removed and placed upon a navy speedboat and taken a short distance into the ocean, to bless the feast as well as the island. The sight was unique as well as having deeper connotations. The Navy was saying to the Indian fishermen that we understand your right to fish in these waters yet it now belongs to another nation. They were trying to satisfy the beliefs of the Christian Tamil community while stamping their authority on the event.
On Sunday the worshipers are woken up by hymns played rather loudly at around 4am. There is then a scramble to get water to have a wash and prepare for church. Children are seen putting on their Sunday best with shiny shoes, women place modest makeup and men have a quick shave.
Then two military marching bands announce the arrival of the Bishop's to the altar where prayers and hymns are given. After a sermon holy mass is conducted and the many priests hand out the body of Christ to the worshipers helped by nuns.
Then as quickly as it has been begun fishermen from the two nation bid farewell till another year and start packing their belongings and head to various fishing vessels. They are seen pushing the small boats out to see or ferrying people to larger ones moored of shore. Tiny specs are all that’s left on a vast expanse of ocean heading to their respective motherlands.
Text and pictures by Dilantha Dissanayake