Historic Kachchathivu Festival Goes On Without The Indians
by Ashanthi Warunasuriya
Pictures by Lalith Perera
When we reached Kachchathivu Island it was 6 am in the morning. The premises was full of Sri Lankans at that time. The Navy was on duty assisted by the police. A new church in Kachchathivu has been built for this year’s festival. The mass at St. Anthony’s church in Katchathivu can be identified as the only Catholic religious ceremony in Sri Lanka that is attended by Indians and Sri Lankans. Every year, thousands from India and Sri Lanka participate part in the mass.
However this year the festival was held without the Indians who boycotted the feast in protest over an alleged attack on Indian fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy.
The Kachchathivu Island is situated in a remote area in the far north of the country. The island is blessed with natural beauty. The blue ocean and beaches add colour to the island. The military is present to ensure law and order. Navy patrol boats and private vessels were seen in large numbers. The first mass was conducted at 6.30 am in the morning. It was a Sunday.This year it was held at the newly built church. The church was built by the Navy. The day before, many Catholic devotees have arrived at the premises and had found a spot to sit in the mats. Most of their faces were seen filled with joy and religious devotion. The Sri Lanka Navy is the main service provider for this ceremony and it has provided food, infrastructure and sanitary facilities for the people. Parallel to the ceremony the newly built Jetty in Delft and Kachchathivu have also eased up the transport problem. Furthermore, the Navy had also carried out a project to distribute water to solve the long time water problem in the Nallinakkapuram village in the area.
Due to better facilities Catholic devotees from all over the country were present at the ceremony this time around. Sylvester Tiron was among the devotees. A resident of Weliweriya, Sylvester Tiron was attending the ceremony for the first time. He praised the navy for the facilities provided for the devotees.
Furthermore, many other devotees who spoke to us said that it would have been better if the mass had been carried out in Singhalese. By taking the language problem into consideration, it would have been better to hold the mass in an appropriate manner next year considering the demographics. The language barrier had also created some racial problems among the people at the ceremony. Furthermore, at several locations, some devotees had faced problems due to technical faults of their boats. But in the end everyone was able to participate in the mass peacefully.
“We started on the 10th at 10am. by boat and arrived at 6pm. We had a problem with the boat’s engine on the way. We also had issues about sanitation. But when we asked the Navy to help us, they said that they could not drag the boat. It would be better to have a proper procedure to look after the pilgrims” Sylvester said. He is a member of a party of 30 people who had travelled from Biyagama Weliweriya area. When queried, the Navy said that if there are problems in private boats, the owners of the boats should solve it. In the future we hope that the government should take steps to rectify these issues.
The absence of Tamil people from Tamil Nadu was also a hot topic at the ceremony. Usually, people from Kanyakumari, Rameswaran, Kerala and Tamil Nadu attend the annual ceremony both for religious reasons and to meet their relatives. Although people were expecting their arrival this year due to the fishermen’s problem that has occurred have caused them to boycott this year’s mass. But the devotees at Kachchathivu said that they were unaware of such problems. Most devotees said that they wish everyone was present at the ceremony. While the unity was being built up at that part, there were also problems about Tamils not allowing Singhalese to use the toilet facilities in the area. Sandra is a Tamil woman in the area who is 70 years old. “There are many relatives of ours in Madurai. We expected that they would come this year. But due to these problems they did not come. We don’t have phones. So there is no way to get information. So we have to wait another year to see them again” she said. The recent incident involving the alleged shooting of Sri Lankan navy resulting in the death of an Indian fisherman was the reason for the problems and the Indian fishermen said they would boycott the ceremony this year as a result of it. According to reports, even those who were willing to come have been prevented from coming by these fishermen. However this issue has caused problems for the right to religion of these people.
There were many vendors at the premises trying to sell sweets and other goods for the devotees at the ceremony. Mercy Fernando has been taking part in the ceremony since 2014. She is a resident of Chillaw. She said that she participates in almost all main masses in the country including Madu, and Kochchikade.
“My son said not to go because of the problem between Sri Lanka and India. But I have faith in this place. If the time is right we cannot stop anything from happening. Here Tamils give prominence to their own when using sanitary facilities. The food is very tasty this time. Previously we had many problems with transportation. But this year the roads have been repaired” she said.
The Hindu newspaper had reported that the Verkodu Parish in Tamil Nadu, which organises the annual Indian pilgrimage to Katchchativu had decided to boycott the festival in protest against the gunning down of fisherman K. Britjo (21).
Verkodu parish priest Rev. Fr. L. Sagayaraj, the chief coordinator of the festival, had announced that Indian pilgrims would boycott the festival to register their protest against the killing of the young fisherman.
This year, a record number of 4,991 pilgrims, including 3,610 men and 1,118 women had registered for the festival. The parish has also made ready a 35-foot high teak wood flag mast and four-foot tall statue of St. Antony to be installed at the newly built church in Katchativu.
The St. Anthony’s festival is conducted every year in February and March with the participation of many devotees. According to archeological findings, this island has risen up from the sea around 115,000 to 130,000 years ago. The Portuguese had started operating in this island for the first time and since the early periods the island has been controlled by the Sri Lanka Navy. The historic St. Anthony’s church has been built in the 1900’s and St. Anthony is considered as the patron saint of these fishermen communities. Even today, there is a Navy unit stationed at Kachchathivu. When we spoke to the Tamil people in the island, they said that they would not object to the presence of the Navy in the island. This island is situated very close to India and during the war it had provided an easy route for terrorists to obtain their supplies. Hence even today the security forces have tightened up security in the area.
The island has an area of 1.5 Sq. km and it is situated 20 km away from Delft Island. However, fishermen have been using this island for many years to repair their fishing gear. The small church in the island has a large number of devotees in the area. Under advice from Rev. Bernard Gnanaprakasam, the Bishop of the area, and the Navy Commander Vice Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, the Navy has taken steps to construct a new church in May 2016. Within seven months the construction of the church has been completed and on December 23 2016, the new church was handed over to the Catholic Church.