Tantalising Trincomalee

Text and pix by W. A. M. Wijesinghe
The Eastern bay city of Trincomalee is one of the most fascinating places in Sri Lanka, with its abundance of tropical beaches, historic temples, forts and the natural harbour.
I had a chance to visit this magnificent town and suburbs recently.
Tourists, both local and foreign, throng to Trincomalee to enjoy its lustrous beaches on sunny days. Once a gloomy city, devoured by gruesome terrorism for more than two decades, the city is again shining with tourism industry and peace prevails everywhere.

Trincomalee is in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, which stretches some 320 kilometres along the coast from the Kokkilai Lagoon to Kumana National Park. It is mostly famous for its beaches. Tourist centres have sprung up in the Nilaveli area, 20km north of Trincomalee, and around Kalkudah, around 30km north of Batticaloa. Tamils and Muslims, many of them farmers and fishermen, constitute the majority of the population.
Capital city of the province, Trincomalee, whose harbour is considered one of the best natural ports in the world, was a key Dutch and British outpost during colonial times.
Back in 1775, a teenaged midshipman named Horatio Nelson arrived in Trincomalee Harbour aboard the HMS Seahorse. Later, as Admiral of the British Navy, he remembered it as ‘the finest harbour in the world.’ With its 53 kilometres of shoreline locked in by hills on three sides and protected by islands on the other, it is hard to argue. In size, Trincomalee is the world’s fifth largest natural harbour.

‘Trinco,’ as many people fondly call it, was well-known in other parts of the world even in the ancient past. This may have been the port where Mahinda Thera landed on his way to Mihinthale to convert the Anuradhapura Kingdom to Buddhism. The first recorded European landing was made in 1617 by a Dutch-sponsored Danish vessel. The port switched hands among the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and even the French until 1795, when England finally secured a grip on Trincomalee as its first possession on the coast of Ceylon.
During the Second World War, Trincomalee Harbour was the home base for the combined East Asian fleets of all Allied Powers. It remained a British Royal Navy base for many years after. The Japanese staged an all-out air assault on the Harbour on April 8, 1942. Despite the setbacks, the British succeeded in turning the Japanese away.
Today, Trinco is basking in peace and rapid development projects take place under the flagship of Nagenahira Navodaya.

Visitors to Trinco mostly begin their sightseeing at Fort Frederick, which sits on a promontory at the east side of the Trincomalee town. The site was first used by the Portuguese (1624) and later by the Dutch, whose gateway bears the date 1676. The British named it in honour of Frederick, Duke of York, in 1803. A century and a half of British fortifications can be found around the fort ground.
At the north-eastern tip of the Fort Fredrick’s promontory is a cliff known as Swami Rock, dropping about 360 feet directly to the sea. On its topmost pinnacle is the Tirukonesvaram Kovil, rebuilt on the site of the fabled ‘Dakshana Kailayam,’ the temple of 1,000 pillars destroyed by the 17th Century Portuguese invaders.
Trincomalee may take its name from the site of this temple – perhaps from the Tamil words, ‘thiru kona malai’ – mountain sacred to Konesvara (Shiva). There is a Dutch legend associated with this site called Lovers’ Leap. According to the inscription, a beautiful Dutch maiden named Francina van Rhede flung herself from the cliff as she watched her lover, a seaman, sail away.

North of Trinco, a length of beach runs 15 kilometres uninterrupted up the coast, past Kuchchaveli. One of Sri Lanka’s premier beaches, Nilaveli, is in the centre of this strip, geographically as well as in terms of tourist interest. The major recreations available are sun-bathing, deep sea fishing, skin diving and shell collecting. Pigeon Island takes its name from its importance as a breeding ground for the Blue Rock Pigeon. It is also a breeding ground for poisonous snakes.

About 11 kilometres west of Trinco, just south of the Anuradhapura Road, are the Kinniya Hot Springs. Hindus consider them to be a creation of Vishnu, and there is a small shrine near the site. Each of the seven springs offers water of a slightly different temperature, ranging between about 85 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Bathers draw up buckets of water from the wells. A large crowd of local visitors arrive daily to visit the place, and it is a favourite destination among the visitors.


Feathery visitors

By Shabna Cader
It’s the migratory season and some of the bird species are preparing to take flight, a long journey back to their homeland. They’re shedding their old feathers as of now and are colourful and brighter than in their winter plumage; certainly indicating that summer is around the corner. They’re stocking up on foods and gearing themselves in groups. A beautiful sight indeed if you knew how to identify some of them. Here are brief descriptions of a handful of migratory birds that you could look out for:

Common Sandpiper
This is one common migratory bird that spreads throughout the island from the lowlands to the highlands. In the wet zone it can be spotted in water bodies, canals, as well as on the edges of tanks in the dry zone. The common Sandpiper has a distinctive stiff-winged flight and shows a white wing bar; the white on the under parts curves around the shoulder of the wing.

Roseate Tern
This bird is most beautiful in its breeding plumage, with a black cap, pale grey under parts, rosy tinge on the under parts and a long white tail. In its non-breeding plumage the black on the head reduced to a white forehead and a streaky fore-crown. This visitor can be sighted on rocky islets off the coast, only occasionally on shore and is a rare sight during the migratory season. Strangely enough it is the first bird to arrive during the season and also the last to leave.

Asian Brown Flycatcher
This species of flycatchers are superficially similar to the migrant brown-breasted Flycatcher but is less richly coloured with more grey and dark legs. It is less elective in its choice of habitat and can relatively turn up anywhere. Partial to gardens, the Asian brown Flycatcher can be sighted even in densely populated cities as long as there are mature trees.

Philippine Shrike
This particular shrike is a sub-species of the Brown Shrike and can be distinguished by its clear grey crown, nape, hind neck and upper mantle. The grey on the Philippine Shrike is very obvious and although this species are scarce, they are regular visitors that favour bushy places.

Malayan Night Heron
The Malayan Night Heron is a scarce but regular visitor to the island that differs simply because it can encountered anywhere in suitable forested streams rather than in open wetlands. This bird is also very secretive and keeps to thick cover, stealthily clambering about on vegetation. It is mainly active after dark and is hardly seen on daylight, which adds to why it is rarely sighted and/or reported.

Northern Pintail
As a fairly common migrant to the lowlands of the dry zone, this particular bird can be seen in large flocks especially in the coastal wetlands. Males can easily be differentiated by their chocolate brown head and white stripe tapering up each side of the neck and the long thin ‘pintail’. The females on the other hand are brown overall in colour with dark markings and longish pointed tails.

Little Stint
As little as it sounds, it is the smallest common wader in mudflats and salt pans in dry coastal areas. The flocks actively feed on the water’s edge and are a rather wary species indeed. In its non-breeding plumage it has brownish grey feathers with dark centres on the upper parts and whitish parts. In its breeding plumage the neck, breast and upper parts have dark brown centres. Legs and beaks are black in all seasons. Although it is a common winter migrant it is uncommon or rare in the lowlands.

Black-capped Kingfisher
It is a striking kingfisher with a contrasting back cap, white collar, orangish under parts and purple-blue upper parts. The black-capped Kingfisher is a rare migrant with at most, only a few birds recorded each year. What is more intriguing about this bird is that it may return to the same site in the country year after year. They can be sighted anywhere from mangroves, to rivers and lakes in the dry zone, but is never truly far from water.

Booted Eagle
It is a medium-large eagle with broad, longish and rather rounded set of wings and a square-ended tail in flight. It is a regular but scarce winter migrant to the country.

Indian Pitta
This migrant disperses throughout the island right up to the highlands and can be encountered in forests, village gardens and town parks. The island has a reputation for being one of the best places to see this exquisite bird that is also a shy ground dweller and hops about quietly in the undergrowth.

Yellow Wagtail
As a winter migrant mainly sighted in dry lowlands, it can be distinguished from other wagtails by their olive upper back. Several races have been recorded and the common race has a dark grey head and bright yellow under parts in its breeding plumage. On the other hand, in its non-breeding plumage this bird has a greyish brown head, sometimes with pale eyebrows, and less yellow under parts.

Rosy Starling
Also known as the rose-coloured Starling, this beauty is pink and black in colour during its breeding plumage and gradually becomes duller during non-breeding plumage. It spends most of its time in the island, generally seen in flocks, feeding both on trees and on the ground. Large numbers of the Rosy Starling gather to roost communally. It is seen in coastal areas of the dry zone, mainly to the southeast.