Sri Lanka is an incredible island blessed with so much natural beauty. This lush beauty adorns our provinces, giving each province its own appeal. During a visit to Jaffna two weeks ago, I had the privilege of embarking on a rewarding but long journey to witness the wild charm of some lesser-known and visited islands, scattered along the North Sea. from Sri Lanka.
Interestingly, this was my 15th visit to the Northern Province and I was certainly ready for an inspiring trip, having been in the city of Colombo amid the mundane routines of Covid lockdowns.
My trip to Kurikadduwan started around 9 am. The sun was shining brightly and its rays gently touched the palm trees which stood in clusters. Our vehicle passed through the Old Dutch Church and headed for Mandaitheevu Island. It’s a wonderfully serene road, with emerald blue water on both sides and seabirds hovering around.
In the midst of this simple landscape, I noticed that a new building had positioned itself in a positive way, which I hadn’t noticed before. This is the new school building of the Montfort Brothers, a Catholic religious order of monks from India. I also learned that the religious order, the Sisters of Cluny were also there ready to pass on their knowledge to the students in the near future. The residents greatly appreciated this new project which will improve the education of their children. The Montfort brothers can trace their origins to France; it is an order of the ordained clergy dedicated to teaching. It was a great time for me to stop by Mission House and meet Brother Jacob and have some coffee.
We drove to Pungudutheevu Island. Here, the landscape has changed to present an arid area with shrub vegetation; and the road was dusty. I felt like I was in a Tamil movie from the 1960s and the visuals seemed frozen in time. There is an oral tradition that the people of Pungudutheevu are expert cooks. It is true because I tasted their succulent rice and curry, in a cafe on Kathiresan Street, in Colombo. Pungudutheevu’s signature dish is their fried fish. It is an absolute culinary delight that can be sampled in a few shops in Jaffna town.
The spice blend on the fish is a fiercely kept secret among otherwise smiling cooks. By the way, I noticed that the city had a few stores. It was beautiful to see the old shops, which still had wooden planks instead of windows and vintage-type scales. Life was indeed slowed down here and people were happy in the midst of the scorching sun. This is the content of living on remote islands: fewer needs and more human interaction.
A host of Tamil girls were smiling as the tropical wind blew through their long, thick hair. An old man smiled at me, showing off his betel-stained teeth. As we made our way to Kurikadduwan Pier (KKD), the scenery looked like a postcard from paradise. An opulent blue sky, adorned with clouds that gazed lovingly at the blue waters. These scenes are worth the long drive. I noticed a heavy pipeline rising about four feet above the water level, parallel to the main road. It’s the freshwater line and it’s literally a lifeline for residents. We have reached the KKD pier. Some fishermen were in their small boats. The Navy-operated passenger ferry service was underway. I was fortunate enough to board a water jet and we sailed to Neduntheevu.
When we reached Neduntheevu (Delft Island) the sun was quite intense. A cotton hat and a large water bottle are important to pack as you explore this ancient island steeped in marine history from centuries ago. Neduntheevu Island, better known by its Dutch name – Delft Island – is an island located in the Palk Strait in the northern region of Sri Lanka.
It is the second largest island in the country’s territorial waters. It is roughly oval in shape and has a total area of ââaround 50 square kilometers. The maximum length of the island of Delft is eight kilometers, while the maximum width of the island is six kilometers. The island has a semi-arid tropical vegetation cover dominated by palm trees.
The archaeological remains of the island indicate that Delft has been inhabited by humans permanently, since ancient times. At present, much of the area of ââthe island is used as pasture, which is the predominant landscape that I have observed. Developed areas (residential and administrative) occupy about a quarter of the island and are located in a part of Delft less vulnerable to flooding.
One of the first visuals of the pier is the naval station and also the statue of a Catholic priest. There is a beautiful Catholic church with a solitary cross in the garden. On the island of Delft, buses must coincide with the arrival of passenger ships from the mainland. In addition, three-wheelers and small trucks provide limited passenger service within the island.
I have been told that Delft Island has the largest human population of all the islands around the Jaffna Peninsula. It had a population of around 12,000 in 1960, which declined to around 6,200 in 1981. Currently, it numbers around 4,500 people. Precipitation is distinctly seasonal, with two precipitation peaks occurring in the months of April and November. Maximum rainfall (exceeding 100 mm per month) is due to the northeast monsoon, between October and December, while scattered rains are recorded during the southwest monsoon. Most of the island of Delft is covered with skeletal coral soils, making the land less suitable for cultivation.
I would find that Delft Island is covered with a mosaic of various types of vegetation, ranging from natural and semi-natural habitats to highly anthropogenic habitats. Home gardens are the type of vegetation found around farms. This work occupies seniors and young women. Locals told me that the allotment gardens provide them with resources such as fruits, nuts, yams, flowers, vegetables, herbal remedies and firewood throughout the year.
On a remote island, people don’t have gas cylinders and wood stoves are the trusted option. Delft is associated with the traditional fishing industry, which is now being reborn to its full potential. Fishing is the most popular means of livelihood among the people of Delft.
The arid climatic conditions of the area allowed the successful propagation of palmyra in some pockets of vegetation. The belt of coral rocks visible along the coastline is a unique feature of Neduntheevu and is effective in dissipating wave energy and minimizing erosion. We drove to see the baobab tree that towers over this picturesque island. The baobab or monkey breadfruit (Adansonia digitata) was introduced to Sri Lanka by Arab traders, who came to the Indian region of tropical Africa, where the tree is native. It is a strange-looking tree, and its trunk can grow to a large diameter. Trying to get that huge tree into your camera lens is a challenge because it’s so wide.
The island serves as a resting place for many species of migratory birds that cross the Palk Strait. An ornithologist from Colombo told me that a total of 37 migratory species have been recorded, the majority of which are wading birds. A wild population of Delft ponies or wild horses can be seen in the island’s grassland habitats. These hardy ponies were brought to the island originally by the Portuguese. In 1672, Philip Baldeus visited the island of Delft and observed that “these horses which were brought into the Delft produced a certain type of horses which are very small but sturdy”. These harmless animals meander in peace and add to the allure of the island.
According to chronicles, at the beginning of the Anuradhapura period, there were a few Buddhist temples on the island of Delft which were occupied by Buddhist priests who lived in the islands surrounding Nagadeepa (Nainatheevu). This area is known as “Vetiyaracankottai” by the inhabitants of the island.
We saw the remains of the old fort and the lonely dovecote, where carrier pigeons once lived and flew. According to Philip Crowe (1954), an Irish lieutenant named Nolan, who served in the 4th Ceylon Regiment which ruled the island of Delft in the early 19th century, was responsible for laying Irish-style fences which can be seen Nowadays.
These short fences give the island a unique look. The current inhabitants carry on this tradition. In Ireland the rocks are used as a raw material for fences. In the island of Delft, corals are used instead of rocks. The role of the Sri Lankan navy is important on the island of Delft. The presence of the Navy is vital in view of the coastal surveillance which is crucial due to Delft’s proximity to other small islands. A visit to distant Neduntheevu is a fantastic adventure.