We reached Dambakolapatuna, Sri Lanka Navy Holiday Home around 6.30 in the evening. At 2.00 am, the following day, we set out on the somewhat arduous trip to the Kachchativu Islet, an area of 1.15 sq kms - 90 kms off Kankasanthurai and 20 kms off Delft. The small islet is sandwiched between Sri Lanka and mainland India. We were seaborne to Kachchativu by the Sri Lanka Navy’s Prathap ship under the command of Commander Ruwan Rupasena.
Most pilgrims travel by bus up to Kurikattuwan and ferry to Kachchativu by navy boats. Shakthi and Tharaki are ships which could transport over 100 passengers. Indian pilgrims use multi-day craft. Northern Navy Commander, V.P.I. Priyal de Silva, the Chief Operating Officer was in-charge of the logistical services and the security network. The media personnel in Prathap were ferried by dingy boats to the Islet. Resonating hymns sung by the church choir were heard from afar.
The two-hour morning High Mass that commenced at 8 a.m. was conducted by the Jaffna Bishop and priests in-charge of Northern Parishioners. The Jaffna Government Agent, Navy Vice Admiral, Ravindra Wijegunawardene, Northern Province DIG and the top navy brass and their families were also present at the feast.
The Kachchativu church, a ramshackle structure at one time is now developed into a fully-fledged church and consecrated to St. Anthony, the patron saint for the fisher folk whose destinies in the bottomless sea lie in his hands when they wrestle with tidal waves for a meagre catch.
Kachchativu is an arid islet with no vegetation except for a single coconut tree which impresses the words, “I am the lord of all that I survey”. The Islet comes to life blissfully for a few days, once a year, by end February or early March, when ardent Catholic devotees from Sri Lanka and India throng in their thousands to pay homage to the patron saint, St. Anthony, venerated world over. When the feast is over, the hallowed shrine of St. Anthony relegates back to the wilderness.
Geologists believe, the Kachchativu Islet would have come into existence many thousands of years ago. The Kachchativu feast is a grand occasion for Catholics in Sri Lanka and South India. Sri Lanka Navy Vice Admiral Wijegunawardene said, “St. Anthony, the Catholics believe, is the patron saint who guards the sea. Fisher folk invoke his blessings when they venture out to sea. Our Navy too respects the faith reposed in St. Anthony,” he said.
The Navy personnel have made it a habit to light a candle and seek blessings at St. Anthony’s statue at Kochchikade, Colombo, before they start their day’s work.
The Sri Lanka Navy is solely in-charge of the arrangements for the Kachchativu feast. Vice Admiral Wijegunaratne said, the Navy is happy that it could accomplish the Jaffna Bishop’s request in putting up a church building in Kachchativu, in place of the old.
Food, pillows, mattresses, bed sheets, tents, sheds and toilet facilities were supplied free of charge to pilgrims by the Navy which was ready to meet every contingency.
The simmering dispute between Sri Lanka and India over Kachchativu was finally resolved amicably by former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her Indian counterpart, Lal Bhadur Shastri, at the negotiating table. Today, the status quo relating to Kachchativu is often disturbed when South Indian politicians of various political hues clamour for the retrieval of the Islet, presumably for political mileage. The recent alleged shooting of a South Indian fishermen by SL Navy has become a hot topic and it is to be resolved amicably, as relations between the two countries remain cordial. However, the Indian media story about the alleged shooting had its after effects when Indian devotees did not participate in the church festival, as they did in previous years. It was good news to the media when it was reported that the number of Catholic pilgrims had doubled this time. Vice Admiral Wijegunawardene said, the SL Navy is of the view that modern GPS technology could be used to verify the veracity of the shooting incident. Meanwhile, Jaffna Bishop Rt. Rev. Dr. Justin Gnanapragasam who conducted the Kachchativu feast said, the Indian devotees deprived themselves of the golden opportunity to take part in the annual feast when there was no difficulty or problem whatsoever preventing their participation. The prelate invoked blessings on devotees who stood as one in paying homage to St. Anthony, ignoring all racial, religious or language prejudices. The SL Navy deserves accolades and praise for their organization skills in fulfilling the needs of the devotees for almost a week.
Members of the security forces, the church dignitaries, various organizations and those in nearby Islets extended their support to the Navy to make the feast a complete success. We convey our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Lt. Commander Dinesh Karunaratne, Lt. Swarnahansa and their staff for their sincere commitment to the job, ensuring an incident free environment.
Pix: Saman Sri Wedage