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Fort Frederick and Swami Rock

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A mighty promontory jutting out into the Indian Ocean, Swami Rock divides Trincomalee’s Back Bay from the Dutch Bay. It’s an impressive natural landmark and has always played an important role in the city’s affairs. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Swami Rock was home to the world-famous Temple of the Thousand Pillars. Currently, it’s occupied by the massive Fort Frederick.

Fort-Frederick-Trincomalee-Sri-Lanka

The Portuguese were the first colonial power to exert control over Sri Lanka, and the island couldn’t have found a more callous master. They razed temples and kovils wherever they could, erecting Catholic churches in their stead. Tragically, the Temple of the Thousand Pillars (Koneswaram Temple) was among the destroyed. This amazing building, which had led early explorers to pronounce Trinco the “Rome of the Orient”, was literally pushed off the rock and into the ocean below. Thanks, Portugal.

In 1628, the fort was erected. Control soon passed into Dutch, who expanded the construction and provided it with its current name. The French won it from the Dutch, and the British from them. Fort Frederick remained a British garrison until 1948, when Sri Lanka gained independence. It’s still militarily active today, although open to tourists (and deer).

A visit to the fort was the first thing we did in Trinco, and we really enjoyed it. The Koneswaram Temple has been rebuilt, though the new construction is nowhere near as grand as the original. Luckily, the outstanding views over Trinco from the top of Swami Rock were something that not even the Portuguese could destroy. One tree, clinging to the cliff face, is burdened underneath flags and a huge number of light baskets tied onto the branches by couples hoping to get pregnant.

Even if you’re just in Trinco for the beaches, a visit to the Fort should definitely make its way onto your itinerary. We walked, but you can also hire a tuk-tuk to take you to the top.

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April 2, 2012 at 6:17 am Comments (0)

Fun in the Sun at Keerimalai

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Set on the northern coast of the Jaffna Peninsula is one of the more entertaining places of worship we’ve ever visited. The Keerimalai Kovil, which overlooks the Palk Strait separating Sri Lanka from India, doubles as a popular pool and hang-out zone for people taking a break from their regular lives. My church’s attempts to combine fun and worship were like, Amy Grant Dance Party. Hindus have us beat.

Keerimalai-Tank-Pool

The large sacred pool is a part of the temple grounds, and the faithful can either tranquilly submerge themselves in its blessed water, or (more likely), get their friends to hoist them into the air for an attempted back flip. Or, sneak up on some unsuspecting victim and body slam him into the water. Or, jump into the water from the walls. Cannonballs, diving, splashing and a lot of laughing. And a total disregard of signs reminding people to remain quiet and respectful.

We were just spectators at the pool, much to the dismay of the kids urging us to jump in. After talking to a few people eager to show off their English, we walked down along the coast and sat for awhile looking out over the ocean. Keerimalai has an incredible setting, and we could have stayed here for hours.

Inland, across the road, the main temple of Keermalai was lying in wait. Like approximately 99.4% of the buildings in Jaffna, the temple was under construction, but it was open for business. A ceremony was already underway when we ventured inside and we watched the proceedings for awhile, underneath the curious, distrustful gaze of a little girl.

The temple and pool, let alone the spectacular seaside setting, provide more than enough reason to venture the extreme northern coast of the peninsula. A bus connects Keerimalai to Jaffna, albeit on a round-about route which makes no sense on the map and requires at least an hour each way.

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March 31, 2012 at 6:44 am Comments (2)

Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil

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An enormous, 100-foot golden tower announces the presence of the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, on the northern end of Jaffna. This is the largest and most important place of worship on the peninsula, and holds multiple daily ceremonies. Jürgen and I removed our shoes and shirts (oh quiet down, all you squealing tweens!), and stepped inside for an afternoon observance.

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The original Nallur Kandaswamy was built in the 1400s, and destroyed when the city was conquered by the Portuguese, who rather rudely constructed a Catholic Church on the site. The current temple dates from the early 17th century, during the occupation of the more religiously-tolerant Dutch, and it’s been the center of Hindu religious life in Jaffna ever since.

The temple has an odd design. The massive golden tower faces south, and isn’t anywhere near the entrance, which is around to the east. In order to enter the temple, you have to walk around the building, painted in circus-like red and white stripes. This provides the opportunity to appreciate its size. Inside, there’s even room for a large pool.

Once inside, we joined a group of locals watching the ceremony. I won’t pretend to have any idea what was going on — it involved incense, fire and ear-splitting music produced by a horn. We followed the horn player and a drummer on a long, clockwise lap, stopping at each of the many shrines set around the temple (to Ganesh, Subrahmanyan and others).

Every year in August, Nallur Kandaswamy is home to a 25-day long festival, whose importance to the people of Jaffna is underlined by the fact that it was even held during the years of war. The biggest event is the Chariot Festival, when thousands of people converge to help pull a giant temple car around. A shame we wouldn’t make it to that, but we still had an interesting time at Nallur Kandaswamy.

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March 29, 2012 at 8:03 am Comment (1)

Sri Subramaniya Kovil

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Found on Slave Island, Sri Subramaniya Kovil is one of Colombo’s most impressive Hindu temples. We were welcomed inside on a balmy February morning, and had a great time watching the ceremonies. When we left, it was with colorful dots on our foreheads and a beginner’s appreciation of Hindu.

Hindu Blessing

Slave Island takes its name from the days when Colombo was ruled by the Netherlands. It’s actually an inland peninsula, enclosed by Beira Lake, which provided the colonialists a handy place in which to confine their African slaves. Only one side needed to be protected against escape attempts, because the dastardly Dutch had filled the waters with alligators. It’s as though they delighted in pure evil! (1) Subjugate an island nation. (2) Ship in foreign slaves. (3) Guard slaves with man-eating monsters. They probably wore handlebar mustaches, too.

When our tuk-tuk pulled up in front of the Sri Subramaniya Kovil on Slave Island, my jaw dropped. An 82-foot tower reaches up to the sky, covered with what must be hundreds of Hindu deities. The sculpture work is intricate, colorful and not a little gaudy.

After removing our shoes, we stepped inside. Nobody seemed to mind us our presence and, to the contrary, we were made to feel welcome. A number of brahmans were wandering around, and gave us some flower petals to place before the shrine of our choosing, then put dots of color onto our foreheads: a tilak, which represents the “third eye” common to many of the Hindu gods.

This was my first time inside any sort of Hindu temple, and it was fascinating. There were a number of shrines inside, which people were circling in a clockwise manner. Priests were carrying offering plates to the various shrines and blessing the faithful. There was fire involved. Elephant gods. Face painting. Incense. Requisite shirt-removal. Bells, flowers and chanting. My overall impression? Hinduism is kind of a blast.

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February 9, 2012 at 3:38 am Comments (4)

The Multi-Cultural Chaos of Colombo

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Although the official capital of Sri Lanka is the nearby satellite city of Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, Colombo is definitely the island’s top dog. Boasting by far the largest concentration of people, industry and commerce, Colombo is a noisy, dirty, and vibrantly alive city; an ethnic melting pot both invigorating and exhausting.

Colombo 2011

Thanks to its natural harbor, Colombo has been an area of trade ever since ships first sailed the Indian Ocean, but didn’t become a city of any importance until the arrival of the Portuguese. But it’s made up for lost time. With a current metro population of over five million, Colombo is a vast urban sprawl which stretches for miles up and down the coast. The words “Sri Lanka” usually conjure serene images of tea plantations, rain forests and pristine nature, so landing in Colombo is a startling wake-up call to the busy modern life of the island.

We immediately fell into the rhythm of the city. Not difficult, since Colombo is fun. There’s the insane bazaar of the Pettah, the strangely militarized Fort District, the gorgeous temples around Beira Lake and Slave Island, tuk-tuks clamoring for business every two meters, historic hotels, excellent restaurants and a buoyant urban vibe which owes a lot to the city’s fantastic mixing of cultures.

On our first full day in Colombo, we visited a Hindu Temple, a Mosque, a Christian church, and a Buddhist temple. We got into conversations with practitioners of all these various faiths. Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim… it didn’t matter: everyone was eager to talk with us, to find out where we’re from and what we’re doing. And they were especially interested to learn our impressions their country. A fail-proof way to elicit a huge Sri Lankan grin, is to gush about how wonderful Sri Lanka is. They’re very proud of their country… and their hectic capital city.

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February 7, 2012 at 11:16 am Comment (1)
Fort Frederick and Swami Rock A mighty promontory jutting out into the Indian Ocean, Swami Rock divides Trincomalee's Back Bay from the Dutch Bay. It's an impressive natural landmark and has always played an important role in the city's affairs. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Swami Rock was home to the world-famous Temple of the Thousand Pillars. Currently, it's occupied by the massive Fort Frederick.
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