A seaborne adventure | Daily News
Kurikadduwan to Neduntheevu:

A seaborne adventure

A massive baobab tree
A massive baobab tree

Sri Lanka is an amazing island bestowed with so much natural beauty. This lush beauty adorns our provinces, giving each province its own appeal. On a visit to Jaffna two weeks ago, I had the privilege to engage in a rewarding but long journey to witness the rugged charm of some lesser known and visited islands, scattered along the northern sea of Sri Lanka.

Interestingly this was my 15th visit to the Northern Province and I was certainly ready for some inspiring travel, after being in Colombo city amidst the mundane routines of the Covid lockdowns.

My journey to Kurikadduwan began at around 9.00 am. The sun was shining brilliantly and her rays gently touched the palmyrah trees that stood in clusters. Our vehicle journeyed pass the Old Dutch Church and towards Mandaitheevu Island. This is a blissfully serene road, with emerald bluish water on both sides and marine birds hovering around.

Amidst this simple landscape I noticed a new building had positively positioned itself, which I hadn’t noticed before. This is the new school building of the Montfort Brothers, a religious Catholic order of monks from India. I also learnt that the religious order, Sisters of Cluny were also at this location ready to impart their knowledge to students in the near future. The local residents were very appreciative of this new project that will enhance the education of their children. The Montfort Brothers can trace their origins to France; they are an order of ordained clergy dedicated to teaching. It was a beautiful moment for me to stop at the Mission House and meet Brother Jacob and have some coffee.

We drove towards the island of Pungudutheevu. Here the landscape changed to present an arid area with shrub vegetation; and the road was dusty. I felt as if I was in a Tamil movie from the 1960s and the visuals seemed to be stuck in time. There is an oral tradition that the folk of Pungudutheevu are expert cooks. This is true as I have tasted their succulent rice and curry, at a café in Kathiresan Street, Colombo. The signature dish of Pungudutheevu is their fried fish. This is an absolute culinary delight which can be enjoyed in a few shops in the Jaffna town area.


Old court house

The spice mix on the fish is a fiercely guarded secret among the otherwise smiling cooks. As we drove by, I noticed that the town area had a few shops. It was beautiful to see the old shops, still having wooden boards instead of windows and the vintage-type weighing scales. Life was indeed at a slow pace here and the people were happy amidst the hot sun. This is the content life on remote islands: fewer needs and more human interaction.

A bevy of Tamil girls smiled, as the tropical wind blew their thick long hair. An old man grinned at me displaying his betel-stained teeth. As we headed towards the Kurikadduwan (KKD) pier the landscape looked like a postcard from paradise. Opulent blue skies, adorned with clouds that lovingly gazed down into the blue waters. These scenes are worth the long drive. I noticed a heavy pipeline rising about four feet above water level, running parallel to the main road. This is the fresh water line and is literally a lifeline to residents. We reached the KKD pier. Some fishermen were in their small boats. The passenger ferry service operated by the Navy was on its way. I was Fortunate to board a water jet and we sailed towards Neduntheevu.

As we reached Neduntheevu (Delft Island) the sun was pretty intense. A cotton hat and a big water bottle are important to take as you explore this ancient island studded with marine history from centuries ago. Neduntheevu Island, known more widely 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 within the territorial waters of the country. It is roughly oval in shape, and has a total extent of approximately 50 square kilometres. The maximum length of Delft Island is eight kilometres, while the maximum width of the island is six kilometres. The island features a semi-arid tropical vegetation cover dominated by palmyrah palms.

Archaeological remains from the island indicate that Delft has been inhabited by humans permanently, since ancient times. At present, much of the land area of the island is used as pasture land, which is the predominant landscape that I observed. Developed areas (residential and administrative) occupy about a quarter of the island, and are located in a section of Delft that is less vulnerable to floods.

One of the first visuals from 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 Delft Island, buses are scheduled to coincide with the arrival of the passenger boats from the mainland. In addition, three wheelers and small lorries provide a limited passenger service within the Island.

I was told Delft Island has the largest human population of all the islands located around the Jaffna Peninsula. It had a population of around 12,000 in 1960, which declined to around 6,200 in 1981. Presently it has about 4,500 people. The rainfall is distinctly seasonal, with two rainfall peaks occurring in the months of April and November. Peak rainfall (exceeding 100 mm per month) occurs due to the northeast monsoon, between October and December, while scattered rains are experienced during the southwest monsoon season. Most of Delft Island is covered by skeletal coralline-based soils making the land less suitable for the cultivation of crops.

I would discover that Delft Island is covered by a mosaic of diverse vegetation types, ranging from natural and semi-natural habitats, to highly anthropogenic habitats. Home gardens are the vegetation type found around homesteads. This work keeps the seniors and young women occupied. Locals told me, home gardens provided them with resources such as fruits, nuts, yams, flowers, vegetables, herbal medicines and firewood throughout the year.

On a remote island people don’t have gas cylinders and firewood stoves are the trusted option. Delft is associated with the traditional fishing industry, which is now being revived to its full potential. Fishing is the most popular livelihood among the Delft people.

The arid climatic conditions of the area have enabled the successful spread of palmyrah in some vegetation pockets. The belt of coral rocks seen along the seashore is a unique feature of Neduntheevu, and is effective in dissipating wave energy and minimizing erosion. We drove to see the baobab tree which dominates this quaint island. The baobab or monkey-bread tree (Adansonia digitata) was introduced to Sri Lanka by Arab traders, who came to the Indian region from tropical Africa, where the tree is native. It is a strange looking tree, and its trunk can attain a large diameter. Trying to get this huge tree within your camera lens is a challenge, as it is so wide.

The island serves as a resting place for many migratory bird species that cross the Palk Strait. An ornithologist in Colombo has told me that a total of 37 migratory species were recorded, a majority of which were waders. A feral population of Delft pony or wild horses can be seen in the grassland habitats of the island. These rugged ponies were introduced to the island originally by the Portuguese. In 1672, Philip Baldeus visited Delft Island, and observed that “these horses that were brought into the Delft produced a certain kind of horses that are very small but hardy.” These harmless animals meander in total peace and add to the allure of the island.

According to the chronicles, during the early Anuradhapura period, there were a few Buddhist temples on Delft Island that were occupied by Buddhist priests that lived in the islands surrounding Nagadeepa (Nainatheevu). This area is known as ‘Vetiyaracankottai’ by the local inhabitants of the island.

We saw the remains of the old Fort and the solitary dovecote, where messenger pigeons once lived and flew about. According to Philip Crowe (1954), an Irish Lieutenant named Nolan, who served in the 4th Ceylon Regiment that ruled the island of Delft during the early part of the 19th century, was responsible for the laying of Irish-style fences that can be observed to the present day.

These short fences give the island a unique appearance. The present inhabitants continue this tradition. In Ireland, rocks are used as the raw material for the fences. In Delft Island, corals are used in place of rocks. The role of the Sri Lanka Navy is prominent on Delft Island. The presence of the Navy is vital in view of the coastal surveillance that is crucial due to Delft’s close proximity to other small islands. A visit to remote Neduntheevu is a fantastic adventure.


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