Endowed with water bodies that cover over 8.5% of the total land area, the scenic beauty of Batticaloa lies in its lagoons…

By Anam Abdul Azeez

The Batticaloa District in the Eastern Province is bordered on the North by the Trincomalee District, Pollonaruwa and Ampara on the West and South respectively and the shoreline along its East. Among the three lagoons namely – Batticaloa, Valaichchenai, and Vakarai (Panichchankerni), the Batticaloa Lagoon is the largest. The District is also home to the pristine beaches of Kalkudah and Passikudah Bay.

Furthermore, the estuary was an important scenic location where activities such as bird watching, fishing and boating took place. Once more, tourism that declined due to the conflict is gradually gaining momentum in the wake of peace making way to such activities.

In terms of livelihood, the local economy is primarily based on agriculture and fisheries. The waterways of the estuary were once the main mode of transport for local people until bridges were constructed. It also served as the main seaport for trade during the 19th century.

There are several islands within the Batticaloa Lagoon such as Puliyanthivu, Buffalo Island, and Bone Island and  many bridges have been built across the lagoon connecting them to the landmasses. The Lady Manning Bridge located at Kallady is the main access path to the city from the south of the district. Incidentally it is in Kallady, that the famous phenomenon of the ‘singing fish’ was heard in the lagoon on a full moon day. A priest named Father Lang recorded this musical charm and broadcasted it in the 1960s over the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation. However, the singing fish can no longer be heard today due to the emerging infrastructure in their natural habitat.

Puliyanthivu is the metropolitan heart of the city. At the tip of this unusual tortoise- shaped island lies the Batticaloa Fort.  Originally a Portuguese settlement, the Fort of Batticaloa was first constructed in 1628 as a trading and administrative centre.  The Dutch had arrived in 1602, drawn to the prospects of trade and the abundance of pepper and cinnamon grown by the local community. However, it was not until King Rajasinghe in Kandy urged Dutch intervention that the European colonial power took action, capturing the fort in 1638 and establishing sovereignty in the region.

Bordered by a moat on two sides and the lagoon on the other, the stone fort remained in Dutch hands for nearly two centuries before the British entered the country in the late 18th century and took control of the Dutch fortifications. The site has significant religious implications dating back to the Ruhuna Kingdom.

Declared as a monument in danger, by the World Monument Fund in 2010 – sea erosion, insufficient funding, encroaching development, and the tsunami of 2004 have all conspired to damage the structure and its surrounding fortifications. Furthermore, ethnic violence that rocked the island for much of the last 30 years prevented conservation efforts aimed at preserving the Fort. However, plans to restore the Fort as a heritage site open to the public can help unite the community that has endured war, emotional hardship and frequent natural disasters.

The people of Batticaloa must be made aware of the richness of their environment. They must be taught to nurture it, market it and still protect it defensively when it is threatened.

The Future:

Because of its geographical position, the city of Batticaloa is inhabited by a multi- ethnic population, including the indigenous Coastal Veddahs and Dutch community.

Batticaloas’ unique mix of historical, cultural and natural resources present vast potential for future development. The priority of development should be to improve recreation and educational facilities of local people. This type of development will serve as an impetus for attracting a wider tourist market in the dawn of peace.

The only pitfall of this vision in the Batticaloa district is its disengagement with the general public. Despite Batticaloas’ wealth of natural and cultural resources, its people remain ignorant of their blessings. Their priorities, most understandably lie in the simple joys of life, following the end of a conflict.

The people of Batticaloa must be made aware of the richness of their environment. They must be taught to nurture it, market it and still protect it defensively when it is threatened. Human resource is a powerful asset; and must be established before Batticaloa can reap the benefits of tourism.

The development of tourism must be meaningful. ‘Responsible Tourism’ describes tourism that creates better places for people to live in, and better places to visit, taking into consideration the consequences of tourism in relation to the environment, local people and economies.

In a region of new-found peace, abundant land for development and a large working population, Batticaloa has immense potential for development which must be tapped sensitively so that it can contribute positively to its people who have patiently endured both man-made and natural disaster.

It is our responsibility to foster development in the East, which will rejuvenate natural and cultural heritage, provide enjoyable experiences for tourists through meaningful connections with local people, and most importantly involve local people in decisions that affect their lives.