By Aysha Maryam Cassim
Located on the east coast of Sri Lanka, Trincomalee is a classic port city steeped in history which became famous for its deep-water natural harbour and many other notable attractions on land and underwater.
How did Trincomalee get its name?
The historical chronicles of Mahavansa indicate that the Port of Trincomalee has been a popular destination during the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods.
During the ancient times, the port was identified as Gokarna, Gokanna Thitha, Gonaka Grama, Tirikonamalai, Thrimandalaa and Gonagammapattana. The present-day name Trincomalee is derived from the anglicized version of the Tamil word Tirukonamalai (‘Lord of the Sacred Hill’); a hill situated at the end of a natural land formation that resembles an arc.
Trincomalee’s Harbour is a natural deep-water harbour, which is renowned for its size and security unparalleled to any other in the Indian Ocean. The harbour was found to be an extraordinarily deep canyon rich in abundant fish resources and large marine fauna such as whales and dolphins.
The Harbour is flanked by high cliffs on the seaside which also protects the port from the monsoon winds. The sheltered water of the Harbour is capable of accommodating a large number of vessels in all weathers.
The available water and land area in Trincomalee Port are about 10 times as much as the Port of Colombo which offer water depths suitable for movement and berthing of small, medium-sized and large deep drafted cargo ships, oil tankers and super-tankers.
Trincomalee’s Port formerly used to be a British Naval Base, and later was taken over by the Sri Lankan Government in 1956 to be developed as a commercial port. When the civil war prevailed in the Trincomalee area, the maritime operations in the port were severely affected.
At present, SLPA (Sri Lanka Ports Authority) is in the process of redeveloping Trincomalee as a metropolis growth centre to cater to bulk cargo and port-related industrial activities such as heavy industries, tourism and agriculture, etc.
Along with princes, princesses and fleets of invaders, great seafarers like Marco Polo, Ptolemy and merchants from China and East Asia entered the island through the Port of Trincomalee. Its strategic importance also attracted the great European powers from the 16th-19th century.
The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the English vied for Trincomalee’s much-treasured natural Harbour located on the left bank of the Mahaweli River estuary. Trincomalee Harbour was also of immense interest to the British during World War II. The port city served as the main base and shore headquarters of Eastern Fleet, British Royal Navy during World War II.
Fort Frederick in Trincomalee is a fort built by Portuguese in 1624. Located inside the naval dockyard, this famous gateway overlooks the sea and highlands of Trincomalee.
Fort Frederick was built encompassing the summit of Swami Rock, from the debris of an ancient Hindu temple that was destroyed by the Portuguese general Constantine De Saa in 1724 A.D.
Local rulers like King Senarath and King Rajasinghe II had historically attempted to free the Trincomalee Port and surrounding areas from the Portuguese. The Fortress was captured by a Dutch fleet under Admiral Westerwald in 1639 and later by the British in 1795.
The artillery and Cannon and the colonial buildings in the enclave around the Fort can be explored on foot watching deer grazing under trees. It’s a beautiful walk that you should not miss.
Hindu and Buddhist connections
Excavations conducted within the fort premises and under the shore had led to the discovery of sculptures of archaeological interest which reveal the Hindu Buddhist connections in bygone times.
The Vayu Purana refers to a Siva temple on Trikuta hill on the eastern coast of Lanka in the 3rd century. A Tamil rock inscription belonging to the 16th c. A.D. is found at the main entrance to the fort, indicating the destruction of a Hindu temple by the Portuguese.
King Mahasen (275-303 A.D.) is said to have demolished the Jaina monastery that existed on the Swami Rock and built a Buddhist temple with a preaching hall.
Perched on top of Swami Rock overlooking the Dutch Bay of Trincomalee and the port town, Koneswaram remains as one of the most important surviving and influential temples of the classical Dravidian architectural period of the early 17th century. It is visited and venerated by hundreds of devotees around the world.
Koneswaram temple is built as one of the fixed Pancha Ishwarams (abodes of Shiva) to honour the supreme God of Hinduism. The temple was historically known as the Thirukonamamalai Konesar Kovil, the Temple of the Thousand Pillars.
The coast of Nilaveli
The rock seabed along the east coast supports extensive reef habitats. Around the coastline of Trincomalee, larger boulder type reefs of crystalline rocks can be found along the coast in Nilaveli, Pigeon Island, Coral island, Dutch Bay, Back Bay, Coral Cove and Foul Point to Batticaloa.
These areas are famed for snorkelling and diving, being home to hundreds of exotic marine species and the most breathtaking coral reefs.
The British War Cemetery
The British War Cemetery in Trincomalee is meticulously maintained by a gardener with a family tradition. Located on the Trincomalee-Nilaveli main road, this cemetery houses the graves and memories of those were laid to rest in many faraway lands during WWII. The headstones are respectfully looked after with their own shrubs and flower plants.
Museums in Trincomalee
The Orr’s Hill Open Air Army Museum is situated inside the 22nd Division Army Camp. It has a collection of Infantry weapons, armoured vehicles, artillery guns and a resource person-manned audio-visual room.
One can get a glimpse of colonial and recent military history by visiting this museum, situated atop the popular ‘Orr’s Hill’ overlooking the picturesque and soothing Trincomalee Harbour. A tour guide will escort you through the museum while explaining the significance of every exhibit.
The Maritime and Naval History Museum in Trincomalee gives the visitor an interactive educational experience on the commencement and evolution of naval craft and tools and techniques used in maritime technology and communications, maritime warfare as well as commerce, tourism, maritime cultures, traditions and environments.
Kanniya hot water wells
Kanniya hot water springs have a history dating back to Ramayana period. According to the legend, Ravana, the king of Lanka, wanted to perform the last rites of his mother. It is believed that when he pierced the soil with his arrow seven times, seven springs appeared.
There are seven hot springs within varied temperatures which are now converted to bathing wells. The water from the wells supposedly have therapeutic healing powers that can cure many ailments.
Arisi Malai Beach
Arisi Malai is a beach that lies about 50 km north of Trincomalee in the town of Pulmudai. To reach the beach you will have to wade across a river estuary, pass a military checkpoint and park your vehicle. Then follow the forestry path that leads to the beach.
The beach is best known for its rice-like sand. Arisi Malai – which literary means Rice Hill in Tamil – has an important historical and archaeological value.
It is believed that two traders named Tapassu and Bhalluka carrying a lock of Lord Buddha’s hair had entered the country through the Arisimale port and enshrined the sacred relic of Lord Buddha in Girigaduseya stupa in Tiriyaya.