In a world of sorrow and fear
Loving souls should gather near
Outlandish by thought or deed
‘Vry person should take heed.
Even one must, though its rare
Yearn to try to stay firm where
Others have fled or tried to flee
Understanding is the key.
It was an early start from us up in the Hill Country. We woke up at 2A.M. The earlier we leave the more we’ll be able to see. So our driver had said. It was a 152kms from Katugastota, our point of departure, to our destination of Trincomalee. The food was ready and all things that we thought we needed were packed and parcelled. I had a brainwave to grab a pillow which did me little good since my sis and female cousins nabbed it from me a couple of hours later. The bus arrived at 3AM sharp. Had some trouble kicking off when the faithful canine Bingo from Grandma’s place suddenly had an urge that he wanted to visit Trinco as well. Having tricked him into thinking that we weren’t going after all and getting him off the bus and a running jump onto the bus from my father we were able to get under way by about 3.15. It was dark as hell and not much to see. Remember that we went as far as Matale because there were some vague references about my cousin’s workplace, the Sampath Bank, which was situated there. After that it was all a haze as I drifted into my pillow.
The next thing I remember is my sister yelling into my ear “Monarek Monarek. Where’s your camera”. By the time I got my unreliable camera up and running there was not even a fallen quill of a peacock much less a full grown bird. Dawn was just breaking around us and the bus was speeding along a road which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. The railroad tracks ran alongside the road as well. We weren’t alone on the road. I could see a bus in a distance and a couple of cyclists riding towards us. We had just passed Habarana. And then suddenly, pay dirt. Spotted a couple of Elephants to our left. It was a bit scary. Because if I remembered correctly This area had a record number of deaths last year due to the Elephant-Human conflict with the behemoths suffering as much as the people. Come to think of it seeing how close the railway is to the main road, the Elephant-Train battle wouldn’t have been that unremarkable either. Though the casualty list would have been a bit different.
The next significant spot we came to was the Kanthale tank. This was in the back end of the dry season in this region and the tank was suffering. We were able to stop on the bunt and take a look. The viaduct that acts as the overflow was totally exposed and hung out to dry. It was now that I saw how many buses were actually travelling on the road. Good quality buses. Long distance buses I thought; must be intercity. Oh! They were intercity alright. I looked at some of the boardings on some of them. Kurunegala – Huh! Kandy – Whaa..! Galle – What on Earth? Hell there was even a bus from the 138 Kottawa route, my home turf. I knew people were going to Trinco these days but this was totally unexpected. We wanted to find a place to have some breakfast and the bare tank bunt offered little shade. We got on the bus and went along the road a little bit further. The impact of the little water collected by the tank was quite obvious the second we passed it. Miles and miles of ripe brown paddy fields, ready to be harvested before the rainy season, graced our eyes. Reminded me how fertile this land is if one was able to incorporate at least a bit of moisture with it.
Military with a Difference
As we stopped near a clump of trees to grab a bite something a bit strange caught my eye. So far we had seen quite a few soldiers along the way. Actually it was on this land the cold war for the Trinco harbour was fought less than 3 years ago. So a lot of military camps n outposts were to be expected. But here was the first sizable camp I saw. It was the camp of the 81th attachment of the 3rd Gajaba regiment of the 22nd Division. It seems as if the boys in the camp had had a bit more free time on their hands. We had seen many cultivations on our way here. But this cultivation was inside their encampment. A barbed wire fence that ran around the camp incorporated two paddy fields and a nice little vegetable patch as well. The driver of our bus, a veteran driver along this route, says “Its the boys from the camp who’s done this. There are a lot of village lads in the army. And when they are off shift they grow stuff. They even sell the crops at the Dambulla Economic Zone.” This was news to me. I think peace can be rewarding in various levels.
It was even more obvious by the amazing array of outposts we had seen on our way. Was able to capture a classic . Definitely one with a farmer’s touch. As we started off again and a friend got on to the bus. He was a soldier on his way to his outpost for his shift. T56 on one hand and a water canister on the other. He couldn’t have been more than 25. When asked if whether the army was still on the alert he said “We are even more alert. There are more VIP’s travelling on this route. The whole 70 odd km’s from Trinco to Dambulla is scanned every morning at dawn and that there are even more outposts now along the way”. So much for taking it easy I guess. He got off after a few minutes at his outpost. A friend of his was waiting for him there wagging its tail. The dog probably enjoys the few morsels from the soldier’s lunch packet and got used to waiting for him everyday. “The dogs sometimes stays with them throughout the night”, our driver dispenses some useful information. Would have been a great help when looking out tigers. The two legged ones I mean.
Then we arrived at the city of Kanthale at about 10A.M. This is where we made the biggest mistake of the whole trip. Well it was actually made when we had planned the trip and since I had not travelled even remotely near the region of the Mahaweli delta I had no idea of it. Apparently it was our driver’s idea. The trip to the Dagaba of Seruwavila required us to take an offshoot off the A6 at Kanthale towards the A15, the Batticaloa-Trincomalee route. From Seruwavila to Trinco along the A15 it was about 20kms so it was all fine. But what the fellow had failed to remember was that the Tigers who had been using the route before the fall had left a small going away present and had blown up the main bridge on the route. They had been using a barge to ferry vehicles to and fro across the lagoon and a lorry had been sunk just last week attempting it. So not knowing this we entered the pathway to hell.
The road along the A6 actually impressed me. Double lanes of well carpeted roads dominated our path up to Kanthale. But the only thing that comes to mind to describe the route along B26 to Seruwavila is Shakespeare’s MacBeth, Act 5, Scene 5 – “Way to a Dusty Death”. And man was it dusty. The road was largely under construction. And we nearly choked en route. I can quite assuredly say that I brought back at least a couple of ounces of dirt back with me to Kandy. And crown to it all it had been Poya the day before and there had been a perahera. So huge crowds were still moving to and fro along it. And if you caught another bus in front of you it becomes even worse. A strong gust of wind that prevailed did little to help with the situation.
We got to Seruwavila at 11.30. There was a fair sized crowd. And it was a pleasant surprise to see the Dagaba actually, all white and shiny amidst that fiery, dusty hell. The monolith which is supposed to have enshrined the “Lalata Dathu”, the forehead bone plate of Lord Buddha, is an old article. The troops guarding the peripheries of the Trinco harbour had fought tooth and nail to protect it during the days of conflict. Their presence is still seen these days and was evident by the departure of a Sri Lankan made Unicorn APC, obviously after supplying security for the poya day festivities. We spent about an hour around the temple complex and headed back. Along that dreaded path. Again. We could have qualified as a group of condemned who had risen from hell.
Halfway back to Kanthale we were stopped at a military attachment. This is it I thought. The first check. But no one got in. Heard the officer talking to our driver. I got up and looked around. Here a small temple with a unique variation caught my eye. The usual stone plaques containing the sentry images were replaced by two statuettes of soldiers bearing national flags. This was the temple of Somapura. The one built by the army after their liberation of Sampur back in 2007. The guard’s voice rang out “Ara ammalata enna kiyanna” – Call those two mothers. Two elderly women came and got on our bus. “Drop these people at Kanthale” The officer commanded. And we got underway again. “Ammala koheda yanne?” – Where are you going? I asked the newest additions to our crew. They had come from Polonnaruwa for the Sil observing campaign at the Seruwavila temple the day before. “Mage putha inne me langa camp ekaka” – My son is posted at a nearby camp, one lady said. It was him who had found them accommodation in an army camp.
We finally got to Kanthale at about 1P.M. After dropping off our two travellers we turned onto the A6 and along what should have been our original path. The minds wanted to get to Trinco as soon as possible but our stomachs thought otherwise. We located a good shady spot and settled down for lunch. There was an outpost near with its single sentry at his lone vigil. These people had spent a good amount of time here and they must love this torrid and harsh land like their second home. This was obvious when a polythene bag which we brought got caught up in the wind and sailed far off. Our driver who was the culprit had given up the hope of retrieving it when the rough voice of the sentry called him over and sent him on a trip hunting for it. Poor fellow finally found it at the expense of getting hot and sweaty and a thorn in his foot. But the sentry intended no malice. He just wanted to protect this place from the hordes of tourists who were coming in great numbers. And come they did. The amount of buses that sped by while we were eating could have rivalled the Galle road any day.
There was a magnificent sight across the road from where we were. A gigantic herd of cattle were grazing and having their daily fill. What was significant about this herd was the number of white cows and bulls in it. Except for a few all of them were Caucasian. And they appeared to be bigger and meaner than ordinary cows we see everyday. Must have been an offshoot or a separated breed altogether was my father’s opinion. A bull wandered near us and eyed us warily. Must have been the Alpha male. Was able to snap a picture without getting my hide ripped to shreds by its horns. OK lunch finished. Everything packed up. Said goodbye to the sentry at the outpost. And we were on our way to Trinco.
The Final stretch
Along this final stretch we saw much more construction going on. The road up to Kanthale was good but on this part the work was still under way. The road was being expanded to have two proper lanes. We saw scores of 1 foot diameter water pipes, each 4 meters long in a vast field. A drinking water project it seems was under way. On the right side a huge block of land was cordoned off and was being cleared. “Proposed site for the Trincomalee Economic Zone” – A board proclaimed the allocation of the land. Development was slowly arriving to the Northeast. Now we were really getting into the thick of things. The outer border of the Trinco Naval base doesn’t look like much but a lone boulder bearing the ensign of the 2nd Special Forces stands as fair warning to any that might wander into the perimeter when out on a night stroll.
We badly wanted to go to Nilaveli beach that we bypassed the Trinco town centre on our final approach into the town. Turning left at Palaiyoothu it was still 12kms to Nilaveli beach. We crossed a couple of bridges that bridged the opening of the lagoon into the sea. The drought and its outcome was again visible on this stretch of land where the lagoon was usually about a couple of meters higher than what we saw today. It had receded so much that it looked like a slow moving river. Across the bridge I saw the most beautiful check point I’ve ever seen. Placed on a high embankment overlooking the white salt crystal encrusted lagoon it almost glittered against the setting sun. While rows of silver barbed wire encircled its periphery the inside walls were made entirely by inverted palm tree trunks. A small garden that was built before it had flowers and bushes. The ground of the entire installation was covered with dead corals. It seemed as if we had found a little Shangri-la in the middle of this hot desolate plain. I would have snapped a photograph had not both the soldiers in the outpost been women and the hawk eyed and foreboding looking officer in charge looked as if he would arrest anyone on the spot. He seemed a little upset about all the new arrivals into his domain. They let us go after carefully taking down information about our vehicle and driver. And off to Nilaveli. Finally. The turning to the famed beach looked to be a bit difficult to find. We finally found it due to two foreigners coming back after a dip, asking a soldier where they could get a taxi. Well good luck to them. We hadn’t seen one for miles.
Trincomalee and its surrounding areas have seen a lot of invasions and battle during its time. Looking past the countless wars against the invading tribes from India, the Dutch acquisition, the British occupation, the Second World War and the civil war that ranged for the past 30 years are some of the more recent ones that come to mind. But what we saw on the final approach to the beach was a totally different kind of invasion – The invasion of the marauding tourists. They didn’t kill or pillage but they sure looked to leave a wake of destruction in their path. The number of buses and vehicles which were crammed into three or four small patches of land and the ones right up on the beach could have rivalled the Pettah bus stand any day. The crowds weren’t that bad either. The thing that struck me most was the diversity of the vehicles. While there were plenty of everyday buses that dominated the stretch I could see the occasional Intercooler, SUV’s with tinted glasses and cars whose owners had modified the crap out of them. The crowd reflected this as well. Leaving the men aside I could see some stunning females that I might usually meet at either Majestic city or the Cinnamon Grand or any other place that the elites of Colombo society may socialize. And they all wanted the beach. The beach. The beach. The beach. It was like a mania. Men and women scantly clad in either shorts or jeans and tank tops carrying the occasional towel were all heading to the beach.
I had heard great things about this beach. Emerald blue waters that were so clear that visibility exceeded to 100’s of meters; Sandy white beach that stretched for about 50 meters even at high tide – Not quite. For one thing I could not see the sea when I got to the beach. It was all a set of bobbing heads that looked to be bouncing on a grey carpet. I had never in my life seen as many people on a beach ever. It was madness. It was as if all the other beaches in Sri Lanka had disappeared instantly and Nilaveli was the only one left for a dip. We moved along the beach to the right and that was when I saw. The grey carpet had been the sea. The cause was the sand. There was way too much sand in the water that it looked grimier than it usually was. It was the wind some person said. The strong wind that was prevailing these days was upsetting the sand he said. Someone else said, it’s the people; too many people in the water are upsetting the sand. I tended to agree with the latter on this one. There must have been very easily more than a 1000 people in the water. Maybe even 2000. All crammed into a beach a kilometer across. There were the young and the old all wanting to take a dip. The older people tended to hold back a bit while the bolder younger ones went in further to ride the waves. There was a crowd of posh young people near the place where we went in. A few couples of lovers and a group of their friends having the time of their lives in the sea. The girls in the lot were very open it seems. See through tank tops and skimpy shorts were worn by quite a few. One of them was even wearing a bikini. There was a papare being played on the beach by one group and liquor seemed plentiful. Throw in a few restaurants and organize a karaoke with strip tease dancing, Nilla Fest could have given Hikka Fest a good run for its money.
We had a nice time at the beach actually despite the sand which didn’t turn out to be that much of a bother in the end. Riding the swells and having the surf crash all over us, it was good fun. And refreshing as well after the trip through that dust bowl. After about 2 good hours in the water we came out at about 5 in the evening. As we made our way towards the bus we saw the local onion farmers were having a very lucrative day selling their crop. We had seen quite a few onion cultivations on the way and finally after years of hardship the hard working farmers were reaping rewards. A kilo of onions was only Rs.70/- one of my aunts said, quite a bargain it seems. She bought 2 kilos. Back at the place where we parked our bus it was near chaos. Without proper accommodations to change, people were changing everywhere. In buses, behind buses, behind bed sheets. Have a thought for the poor ladies. There was a guy who had well on his piece of land offering water to wash and clean out the sand and salt water at Rs. 10/- a bucket. After peering in and seeing the quality of the water I thought another dip in the sea might be worthwhile.
The Long Trek Back
After getting spruced up and cleaned we revved up the engines and headed in the direction of Trincomalee town centre, our destination being the Koneshwaram Temple. Even as we were leaving we could see more buses heading towards Nilaveli. It was nearly 6P.M. and darkness was falling. What were they expecting to see and enjoy at this time of day. As we were going a long trail of exhaust from a jet was visible overhead. Heading towards home after flying a CAP over the island I guess. Yet it reminded me of the chaos and destruction that had been experienced by the people of this region and prayed that they would never see it again.
As we entered Trinco town centre I saw a place that was buzzing with all the newly attained attention that they had received. If this trend continues I could see a great future for the people of Trincomalee on their path to prosperity and fortune. As we got closer to the Koneshwaram temple bad news fell on our ears. Due to security concerns and the influx of a huge number of people, vehicles were not allowed to go right up to the temple. The approach had to be on foot along a 2km route. And again due security concerns no one was admitted into the temple complex after 6.30PM. And it was past 6.15 now. After being baked in the hot sun and sandblasted to hell none of us were in a mood for an evening jog. Had we not taken the detour to Seruwavila, courtesy our driver, we would have had plenty of time. So feeling that Koneshawaram had to be on another day we started on our way back home.
This is when my “trusty” old camera captured something queer. We were travelling around the bay area when I snapped a picture of the Sangamitta Temple which was at the starting point of the rocky out crop that held the Koneshwaram temple. The bus was travelling and the picture was shaky. You can just make out the shape of the Dagaba over the roof of a house. But the significance of the picture is not the dagaba but the spots of light that appeared on it. Never in my experience with this camera had ever resulted in such a picture. This was supposed to be a phenomenon called the capturing of “Dewatha Eli” or light deities on camera. This has happened on a couple of occasions around the Somawathi dagaba in the recent past. Never thought I’d capture such a thing on camera. This is not saying that I am an obsessed believer. But the picture did come out this way and I can’t explain it. Open for interpretation.
As we made our way back along the A6 a startling metamorphosis was happening to the environment. The moon had risen slowly over the horizon unknowing to anyone and had started painting a visual extravaganza with the landscape. Poya had been the day before and it was a near full moon that was lighting things up. With its hazy silverrish light it was bathing the earlier desolate landscape in an ethereal glow. Though I was able to capture the moon I was cursing my camera since it did not have the capability to get a good picture of the scenic countryside. So it was quite a unique experience travelling in a dark vehicle with the internal lights off. Nearly everyone on the bus had dozed off and all was silent. The otherworldly panorama out side, the wind in my face and my favourite artists on my mp4 player was too much for me to handle. I dozed off at around 8PM. Or was it 8.30? Not sure.
When I woke up next we had arrived in Dambulla. Looked at my watch and was flabbergasted. It was 10.30. I had slept 2 hours straight. Looking around I was dumbstruck again. It seemed that only Dambulla had enough facilities to support the hordes that were travelling along the A6. All the people that had gone to Trinco had descended upon the town in search of their dinner. Every place where there was food available was packed to the rafters. I can assuredly say that there wouldn’t have been a scrap left to eat in the entire town the next morning. We went to our usual restaurant The Bentota Bake House which hails from Kandy and found it bursting. We had to wait an excruciating 15 minutes to get our serving of hoppers. But it was worth it. The spicy chilli sambol and hot coffee really warmed us up. We got on our bus for the final stretch of our journey home. And still more buses were coming into town. With the roads to Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and now Trinco running through Dambulla this town has a huge growth potential as the nexus into the North East of the country.
Another stiff sleep later we arrived back in Katugastota at about 12.30. Faithful Bingo was still waiting for us near the turning into the main road where we left him nearly 24 hours earlier. It had been a tiring trip and everyone was bushwhacked. After a chilly encounter with water at the well in freezing whether I hit the sack at about 1.30 the next day. So ended one of the most unique experiences of my life.
The inside fire
Burning you up
In a self made pyre.
Some say it’s needed
While others say no
And some say it’s like salt
Too little – life looses taste
Too much – the broth is spoilt
Without the need of
Too many cooks.
I see it sometimes
With its fiery eyes
A deep dark red.
It haunts me
Like a ghost
It follows me
Leaving a trail of embers
In its way.
The weak willed
The faint hearted
Buddha foresaw it.
Eliot reminded us
For when your soul’s sold
To this Red Devil
You burn slowly inside
until you’re dues are paid.
I Do Care
You aren’t blind just open your eyes
Listen harder and hear you will
Work your mind and try to rise
Your best friends be your heart and will.
The road be mine but the choice be yours
For the path you choose will lead thy way.
Experience is the greatest teacher
So learn as you live.
Am not a judge but an observer
Let your Conscience be the judge.
Handicaps is life’s challenge
While courage be the salvation.
For those who believe in justice will surely get theirs
In the highest court of all where only the just be spared.