The Grim And Violent Past Of Trincomalee

Trincomalee is a slice of paradise; it is one of the finest examples of a natural harbour and is surrounded by the clear waters of the bay and dense, green jungle lands. Trincomalee is also home to a diverse community of Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims, who had settled here many centuries ago. Fast forward to today: Trincomalee is a growing tourist destination, with luxury resorts, hotels, and golf courses.

A map of the Trincomalee bay and harbour area. Image courtesy

But it wasn’t until a few years ago that peace really settled in this quiet district. Trincomalee has existed for several millennia, with references that date back to the Mahabharata, which refers to it by its ancient Sanskrit name, Gokarna. For many centuries afterwards, Trincomalee suffered violence at the hands of many, from European colonists to Japanese fighters to Tamil Tigers. Its earliest and most invaluable loss, happened many hundreds of years ago…

The Great Loot And Destruction Of Koneswaram

The name Trincomalee is derived from another ancient name for this area, Tiru Kona Malai, which means ‘mountain of the three pagodas.’ Many centuries ago, the Pallava rulers of the area had built three temples at the cape of the Swami Rock, a majestic rock that overhangs the pristine blue sea of the bay. The most prominent of the three temples would be the Koneswaram Temple, which was not only considered sacred in Sri Lanka but also highly venerated in India. According to a 17th Century stone inscription, the temple dates back to 1580 BC. Although this is unconfirmed, it is established that the temple existed well before the arrival of Prince Vijaya in the 6th Century BC. Another legend has it that King Ravana, who ruled Sri Lanka over 5,000 years ago, was devoted to this temple.

This temple was built to magnificent proportions. After the Pallava Dynasty, the Chola and Pandyan kings continued to maintain the temple and its ceremonies. The temple really flourished during the time of  the Chola King, Elara Manu Needhi Cholan, in 205 BC. He envisioned the temple to resemble the great Dravidian temple cities of South India, and developed it as such. The ‘temple city’ of Koneswaram took up almost the entire area of Trincomalee, and the main shrine, the Tirukoneswaram, was built of hard black granite. There were many shrines dedicated to various Hindu deities in the complex. Another notable feature was the grand hall of thousand pillars, which led to the Portuguese dubbing it the ‘Temple of a Thousand Pillars’. The famous Catholic priest at the time, Fernão de Quieroz, called it ‘The Rome of the Pagans of the Orient.’

There is said to be inscriptions on the archway of the Fort Fredrick (built later by the Portuguese) with insignia of the double fish symbol, which speak of the Pandyan’s connection to the temple, around the 13th Century. Lesser known to many of us is the arrival of a Danish fleet in 1619, on a ship called the ‘Øresund’ and four small vessels. They proceeded to occupy the area of Koneswaram, and start the first fortifications that would later be developed and ruled by other European colonists.

The rebuilt Koneswaram Temple, on Swami Rock . Image courtesy

Sadly, the temple was entirely destroyed and razed to the ground in the 16th Century, and for the most unfortunate reasons. This great destruction was a part of what has been informally called the Portuguese’s ‘reign of terror’ over the island, in which they destroyed thousands of sacred shrines that had been revered for centuries.

A giant golden statue that sits at the newly built Koneswaram Temple. Image courtesy wikipedia

It had been known for long that the Portuguese colonists, who arrived in Sri Lanka in the 15th century, paid no attention to Trincomalee as an important trading point. Their interests lay in Kotte, where they had begun their trade of cinnamon to the west. However, when Dutch colonists arrived in the island around a hundred years later, and formed an alliance with the Emperor of Kandy, the Portuguese feared it would be soon before the Dutch were able to establish themselves on the island. The King of Jaffna also refused to support them in their mission to build a fort in Trincomalee. This resulted in the Portuguese waging war on the Kingdom of Jaffna and, as revenge, destroying 500 sacred shrines in the area.

Then they proceeded to seize control of the ports of Batticaloa and Trincomalee, and ruthlessly destroy the ancient Koneswaram Temple on 14 April 1622, on the day of the Tamil New Year. On this day, hundreds of pilgrims had gathered at the temple for worship, but were brutally massacred by Portuguese soldiers. These soldiers, apparently camouflaged as priests, also looted many invaluable items from the temple, such as gold statuettes, gems, and priceless silks. This was later called ‘the greatest loot of one of the richest temples of Asia’.

Statues of the ancient Koneswaram Temple that lay under the sea. Image courtesy D

As a result, many of the temple’s most worshipped idols were lost forever. Parts of the temple were pushed into the sea and the rest of it was used as material to build the Portuguese fortifications in the area, the most significant being the Fort of Trinquilemalê (later Fredrick), which still stands today. Some of the symbols that survived this great sacrilege were transferred to a temple in Tamblegam by those who escaped the massacre. Other symbols, which were hidden around the area by priests, or given away to the sea, just in time before the Portuguese could destroy them entirely, have been rediscovered from time to time by archaeologists and deep sea explorers. Interestingly, some of the first ruins to be discovered were done so by Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Mike Wilson. In July 1950, three figures that belonged to the ancient temple were found ‒ Siva as Chandrasekhara, Siva as Somaskanda, and Parvati. Later discoveries included four more figures, including those of Ganesha and Parvati.

The Hindus of Sri Lanka still show great respect to the place where once the ancient temple stood. Every year, there is a large festival that takes place at the cape of the Swami Rock. Hundreds of devotees come to this site with offerings of fruit and flowers, and perform Hindu rituals.

Western Europe Fights For Control

After the great destruction and during the time the Portuguese ruled this area, Trincomalee also played battleground for the Portuguese, who were fighting Europe’s Thirty Year’s War under King Philip II.

The entrance to what remains of Fort Fredrick today. Image courtesy

The fort was carefully planned and built to withstand the enemies of the Portuguese, but in 1639, the Dutch were able to seize control of the area and the fort, under the leadership of Admiral Waterworld. In 1665, the fort was rebuilt and further expanded, and given the name it is known by to date, Fort Fredrick.

But the fight for control didn’t stop there; the administrative control of this natural harbour would trade hands many times before Sri Lanka gained independence from colonial rule in 1948.

The French, who had little to no presence elsewhere on the island, made two attempts to gain control of Trincomalee. One intriguing incident took place in March 1672, when a French fleet commanded by Admiral De La Haye arrived in the bay of Trincomalee. Their arrival is said to have flustered the Dutch, who were in control at the time, and they set fire to their own fort and retired. The French then occupied two islands off the Trincomalee harbour. They called them Soleil and Caron (later called Sober Islands by the British). The King Rajasinghe of Kandy at the time was seeking an ally to fight the Dutch, and signed a treaty with the French to build fortifications in Trincomalee. But the French suffered from the sun and lack of meat and other provisions, and soon its army was weakened. When the king sent soldiers to fight the Dutch, the French then declined to fight, claiming they were formally at peace with The Netherlands (then Holland).

Soon, the initial army of 400 Frenchmen depleted to just a 100, and Admiral Haye left Trincomalee soon after the Dutch were able to cut off supplies that were coming from France.  The Dutch were able to regain control of Trincomalee for another hundred years.

Plan of Fort Trincomalee, made by Chevalier de Suffren in August 1782. Image courtesy

The second attempt by the French came in the late 18th Century. During the American Independence War, France openly declared its support for America and, as a result, the British seized control of several French strongholds in South India. This led to a series of battles between the British and French off the coast of South India. At the time, the British had gained control of Trincomalee from the Dutch and, in 1782, Bailli de Suffren together with another small French squadron, landed 2,400 troops in Trincomalee. During a surprise entry into the fort, the troops took the 43 garrison men as prisoners. After three days of relentless attacks, the British Garrison Commander, Captain McDowell, surrendered, and the French were once again in control of Trincomalee. However, the French handed back Trincomalee to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1794, as part of an agreement not to interfere with British commercial operations in the Indian Ocean. From 1795 to 1948, the British governed Trincomalee, making it the home port of the Eastern Fleet of the Royal Navy, after the fall of Singapore.

Under Attack By The Japanese

Far less discussed in Sri Lankan history is the role the island, then known as Ceylon, played during the Second World War. At the time, the British had built a large naval and air force base in Trincomalee. The Royal Air Force (RAF) Base here was built in China Bay, a quiet village in Trincomalee, along with a large airfield that is used to date.

Remains of the oil tank that was destroyed by the Japanese. Image courtesy

The Trincomalee harbour was attacked by the Japanese on 9 April 1945. The Japanese launched 85 bomber and nine fighter aircraft to destroy the British vessels, both in Trincomalee and Batticaloa. During the attack, within just three hours, the British lost the world’s first-ever aircraft carrier, the HMS Hermes, as well as the HMS Vampire and HMS Hollyhock. The RAF is said to have lost at least eight Hurricanes. One Japanese aircraft carrier out a suicide attack on one of the giant fuel attacks of Trincomalee, which sat just north of the China Bay aerodrome. According to eyewitness Michael Tomlinson, the fire lasted seven days. Around 700 people died during this attack, and some of its ruins can still be seen today.

Remains of the HMS Hermes that lay underwater. Image courtesy

The sunken HMS Hermes is today one of the most popular shipwreck dive sites in this area. The engine of the Japanese plane that plunged into the fuel tank, as well as the tank’d own burned remainders, can be seen in a barbed wired enclosure in the area. Within the former RAF Base in China Bay, now occupied by the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), is the notable 65 Building. Today, the building has been renovated to its former glory, and serves as the residential quarters for married officers.

Suffering The Sri Lankan Civil War

However, the attack by the Japanese was not the last blow Trincomalee suffered due to war. In 1976, the British handed over the air force base in China Bay to the SLAF, who continued to use it as the Sri Lanka Air Force Academy for cadets joining the air force. In the early 1990s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Realm (LTTE) launched an attack within the air force base, destroying three helicopters and two airplanes. Today, a part of the site of the attack has been converted to an open-air theatre, with film screenings on the weekends for those living in the camp.

Enveloped between the strongholds of the LTTE in Vanni in the North and Batticaloa in the East, Trincomalee continued to experience attacks by the LTTE throughout the ’90s. The Sri Lanka Navy suffered immensely, losing many vessels and sailors during attacks by the Sea Tigers and suicide cadres. Civilians in this area also suffered, despite being a multicultural community that had coexisted for centuries. One of the most horrifying acts of human rights violations at the hands of the Special Task Force (STF), the Five Students Case, forever scarred the people of this area, and answers are still being searched for. The Air Force airport closed operations from the mid-90s till ceasefire operations in 2005, and again once the war was declared over following the death of Velupillai Prabhakaran, in 2009.

Marble Beach in Trincomalee, as seen today. Image courtesy

It has been six years since the war ended, and Trincomalee has cleaned up, a lot. Today, a visit to this area sees almost no signs of its former violent past, save for the few memorials in remembrance of the many lives that were lost due to war and violence. The Trincomalee War Cemetery is considered one of the most beautiful war memorials in Sri Lanka, honouring the French and British soldiers who fought to win over what Horatio Nelson called ‘the finest natural harbour in the world’.

Despite its past, there are still signs of coexistence and resilience all around Trincomalee. The Tirukoneswaram Kovil, where once the revered ancient temple stood, is visited by all communities in Sri Lanka. To visit on a day religious rituals are performed makes for a truly enchanting experience. Trincomalee is also home to the Seruvila Mangala Raja Vijaya, built by King Kavantissa in the second century BC and perhaps the only Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka to be revered by both Buddhists and Hindus, alike.

Trincomalee may have moved on; physically, its beaches are once again bright and open to the public, families and backpackers flock to go snorkelling and take a peek at the ocean from the famous Lover’s Leap, and hotel proprietors are fast moving to make it a luxury holiday destination. But the echoes of its past still linger on, and one can only hope that peace prevails and Trincomalee can finally be enjoyed by those to whom it rightfully belongs, the communities that call it their home.

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