Kachchativu: A feast to link two nations | Sunday Observer

Kachchativu: A feast to link two nations

The Holy Mass in progress
The Holy Mass in progress

Located on a small hillock, St. Antony’s shrine in Kachchativu with its white walls decorated with flowers and lights of different colours provides a serene atmosphere to Catholic devotees who have thronged there after long sea journeys. The Kachchativu island with a sandy land space of 285 acres and surrounded by clear blue waters, has become a hive of activity with thousands of devotees from Sri Lanka and India to worship at the shrine dedicated to St.Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of fishermen.

With no differences of caste, creed or religion, thousands of devotees worship Saint Anthony on this small island which is enveloped in total silence after the two-day festival with light and sound.

Jayaseeli Fernando of Negombo and Mary Jaquline from Madapuram, Tamil Nadu are sitting next to each other under a shady palmyrah tree that protects them from the scorching Northern sun.

“I believe a lot in the miraculous powers of Saint Anthony. He always helps poor people like us,” Fernando, says while enjoying a packet of lunch given free by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN).

It is a four-day journey for Fernando and 54 other people, including her mother Siriya Pushpa (72), her sister and granddaughter who first invoked blessings at the Madhu Church in Mannar before starting the three-hour sea journey to Kachchativu.

“My husband, who died in 2018 due to cancer, and the younger daughter’s family were living in our house just covered with wooden planks. Last year, we built our small house with bricks after we made a vow at the church. We couldn’t get a loan all those years but my daughter was able to get it. It is a miracle for us,” Fernando said.

Mary Jaquline, who made a 12-hour journey from Madapuram to Rameshwaram and then to Kachchativu with her 17 relatives is happy that they have been given full protection during their stay in the island.

“I was worried about security and other facilities before coming here as some of our people warned us about some difficulties including security. Now, I have a different positive picture about our visit,” she says. Except for the two days on which the pilgrims are allowed to spend time during the festival, no one lives in the Kachchativu Island where the SLN has a naval base. The new church was built by the SLN. Sermis from Rameshwaram who had visited Kachchativu eight times is a boat owner. He transports Indian devotees from Rameshwaram.

“This festival is an annual feature in my calendar. I have brought over 250 devotees from India so far.

I am doing this free and my devotion to Saint Anthony is growing each time I come here,” he says while commending the improved facilities provided by the SLN each year. He says each year the SLN adds some new facilities to look after the pilgrims well and also to provide a good service to them.

Sylvester, a Chennai based designing engineer, is looking forward to strengthening friendships with Sri Lankans apart from worshiping Saint Anthony. He plans to visit Kachchativu with his family next year as security in the island is well organised.

Sixty-five-year old Mary from Kodaikanal in Thinntukal district, India feels she is lucky and privileged to make this pilgrimage a reality.

“We should thank the SLN for looking after us well and providing meals for us. The security arrangements from both the sides were also good,” she, ( who came with 31 devotees in a boat), says.Rev. Fr. Simon Benjimin of the Selam Diocese, says over 100 pastors and nearly 2,500 pilgrims belonging to the Sivagangi Diocese from Trichi, Kumbakonam and Selam areas of South India have visited the Kachchativu festival, this year.

“This is my first visit and first experience at Kachchativu. The entire island looks pristine and beautiful. Now people can take part in church activities peacefully. The event is well arranged and seems like parties and governments involved in arranging the feast have cooperated well. We feel comfortable here,” he says thanking the SLN. Fr. Benjimin, who came in a boat from Chengalpattu and Chennai to the island with 35 priests, says he has a message to take back with him to convey to his people about how people interact, take care of each other, the good hospitality and the security provided to make feel them safe and secure.

“There would be more devotees from India, if not for the COVID-19 fear,” he says.

Rex from Thinntukal district , working in Chennai in an IT company, says everything went smoothly.

“Sri Lanka received us well without an issue and hassle. We set off from Rameshwaram around 10am and arrived here at 2pm. I’m convinced that I should return to this place next year as well,” he says.

The Bishop of the Galle Diocese, Rt. Rev. Fr. Raymond Wickramasinghe, in his homily said that they the devotees are privileged to worship God freely due to the peace which has dawned, because of the commitment of the Tri-forces including the SLN, which is committed to hold the Kachchativu festival.

“We see the Navy’s dedication for days within the island facilitating this annual feast organised for the past couple of years. We also extend our sincere thanks to the Sri Lanka Army, Sri Lanka Police and their officers. I see your dedication as a symbol of coexistence, mutual respect and recognition towards each other and their ideas and observances,” he says.

The Bishop of Jaffna, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Justin Bernard Gnanapragasam extends his thanks, especially to the former Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Ravi Wijegunratne, Commander of the Navy Vice Admiral Piyal De Silva and Rear Admiral Jayantha De Silva for building the new church on the island.

“We must thank these three people for building this beautiful church for us and joining with us to celebrate the festival every year,” he says while thanking Jaffna Security Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Ruwan Wanigasooriya and all other officers who are committed to hold the festival successfully.

SLN Commander Vice Admiral Piyal De Silva explains the tedious process of getting the church and the island prepared by the SLN two months before the commencement of the festival.

“The Northern Naval Commander Rear Admiral Kapila Samaraweera, and his team have worked tirelessly in making this annual event a success. Almost 500 Navy personnel are assigned for duty during St. Anthony’s Church feast. In addition, the Navy has also deployed ships and craft to meet the scale of logistics required for the Kachchativu island which is remotely located in the fringes of the western border of the International Maritime Boundary Line,” he explains.

According to the SLN Chief, the SLN has transported over 500,000 litres of water from the mainland, facilitating drinking and sanitary requirements of the devotees.

“Last night we provided dinner for almost 9000 people. I also would like to express my gratitude to the Jaffna District Secretary, the Army, Air Force, Police, Sri Lanka Customs and the Immigration Department for the collaboration and cooperation extended in the smooth conduct of this event,” he says. He says according to statistics, a total 8,583 pilgrims including 2,510 Indian devotees in 86 boats have visited Kachchativu.

“It is praiseworthy that despite the fear of Corona Virus outbreak, devotees visited the island to celebrate the feast,” he says.

SLN provided devotees with all facilities including sea transport, food, water, medical and sanitation. The Navy had taken strict measures to ensure the security of people who stayed from the night of the day prior to the Mass. Everyone who landed the island was subjected to medical screening due to the current threat of COVID 19.

The Mass was conducted in Tamil, Sinhala and English by the Bishop of Jaffna, the Rt. Rev. Fr. Dr. Justin Bernard Gnanaprgasam, Bishop of Galle Diocese Rt. Rev. Fr. Raymond Wickrmasinghe and Vicar General of Sivagangai Diocese, India Rev. Fr. Joseph Lourdu Raja. Like Fernando and Jaquline, thousands of devotees repeat visiting Kachchativu church as they feel there is a miraculous power in it. Whether they are from Sri Lanka or India, all of them have a reason to visit Kachchativu, where the security is well guaranteed by the SLN and there is strengthening of bonds between the two nations.

“In this holy land, we are not Sri Lankans or Indians but we feel we belong to one family. We do not know each other’s language but when we smile with each other by sitting under the same palmyrah tree, we feel we know each other,” Fernando says. 

Text and pix: Courtesy Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka