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A saint and an island beloved by two countries

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Fr.Churchil | Dainel and Sellaiah Fr.Churchil | Dainel and Sellaiah

St. Anthony’s Shrine at the Kachchathivu Island celebrated its annual feast of the patron-saint of seafarers last Sunday (march 01) attended by thousands of devotees. The whole event as usual was assisted by the Sri Lanka Navy. The devotees from Rameshwaram were not only the fisher folk, but from several other professions. Sri Lankans who attended the event also represented all the professions and almost all religions.

Festive High Mass was offered by Bishop of Jaffna Diocese Most Rev. Dr. Thomas Savundranayagam with the participation of clergy from both countries. As the only event which visa or passports are not necessary to cross the borders, most devotees were from the South India; especially Rameshwaram. They have paid different amounts to participate at the holy feast of the patron-saint of seafarers.

While the Sri Lanka Navy was making their best to provide necessary facilities, street sellers from both the countries were lined up there with temporary huts to sell something to the devotees. Almost all the devotees were there with genuine confidence and respect for St Anthony, the guardian angel of fishermen. They have different stories to tell about their spiritual leader. One said that his ship was broken into two pieces while sailing on high seas and just drawing a cross, the two broken parts joined and he was able to reach the land safe.

Another devotee told me that St. Anthony lost his team in an island and his team had arrived back while he was there. “He used his upper coat as a boat and reached his team still sailing for their destination,” he told me. I also questioned them about the philosophy of St. Anthony. “He wanted us to donate as he did. He donated everything. He was also ready to sacrifice his life for any good cause” They were telling me. They had the day cards or pictures of their saint. Among them, we also noted some pictures of the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalitha. They conveyed another message and it was about the legal ownership of the premises.

Mutthumani Mari is 56 years old and she is from Matale. She has come for the feast with all her family members. The youngest in the family; Heshani, just eight years old, told us she needs to visit the place again. “All my family members speak about the power of Lord Saint Anthony. Then, I also wanted to come with them”

We met Joshep David who the first Indian pilgrim we talked to. He told me he is just 45 years but my intuition told he should be over 55 years old. Anyhow he was there with a team of 31 persons. “We left Thiruthi after all security clearances were approved. We each and everyone paid Rs. 1500 (Indian rupees) for the journey. Joshep, an electrician told me that the inconceivable power and strength of the Saint Anthony drew him here every year.

Ratnam is the first person who spoke with me about the politics behind the Kachchathivu Island. He is 85 years old and he knew almost all past stories related to the Island. He was frank with me and told me that they need their island back. This was his third visit to the holy land and he is a farmer by profession. But, his specialty was that he spoke about the fishermen of his country. He was wearing the Kachchathivu god in his finger and showed it with pride adding “my spirit”.

I also spoke to priests who have come from Thamil Nadu. The first one was father Jayaseelan. He told me he is from Kintukal. “This god is the most powerful thing in the world.” He said. He needs both Sri Lanka and India to work peacefully with a strong understanding. He also suggests some development projects on the Kachchathivu holy land. When questioned about the ownership of the land, he said that the land should be taken as a religious place which is owned by both the countries. However, he admitted that the legal ownership lies with Sri Lanka. He was very specific that the place is a religious place owned by all.

He also said that he wants to thank the Sri Lanka Navy as they provided almost all the facilities needed for the pilgrims. “Even at the checkings on sea, Sri Lankan Navy was more helpful than the Indian Navy,” he added. However, he also suggested that the Indian government’s should provide more assistance and facilities to the pilgrims who come from both the countries. From Rameshwaram to Kachchathivu, 31 Catholic priests had paid only Rs. 1,000 each (Indian Rupees). Questioned about over the different amounts charged from the devotees, he clarified that Rs. 1,000 for the clergy and Rs. 1,300 for others.

Daneil and Sellaiah are two friends who took part in the Feast this year. While Daniel was revealing to us the difficulties which they underwent during the holy tour, Sellaiah was ready to show us his ‘special pass’ to attend the feast. It has been issued by the Government Agent of Rameshwaram. It has clearly mentioned the times which they should leave and enter back the country border.

Northern Naval Area Commander Rear Admiral Sarath Dissanayake is the person who in charge of the security of the island. Drawing on his experience of organizing, supervising and overseeing the festival in the past years, he told The Nation “The event is becoming more popular. Last year, 5350 devotees from both the countries participated and this year we saw the number as 7,600 devotees.”

He also showed the breakdown of the devotees as 3900 from India and 3,700 devotees from all four corners of Sri Lanka. He also said that while the Navy provides all the facilities necessary for the devotees, Indian government is also making a contribution for the meals of the devotees.

 Fr. Churchill said that among 4,300 from India included around 100 Catholic priests. “We arrived here in 110 boats. We are going to propose the Indian Government to facilitate the feast with safe transport for the devotees from next year onwards. He also thanked the Sri Lanka Navy for facilitating the event in many ways as the shrine was in a jungle area. According to him, the annual feast forges a strong bond between Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils.

He also spoke about the fishing issue between the two countries. He suggested to have a good understanding over the issue and added that authorities should handle fishermen’s and smugglers’ issues separately. He also said that fishermen from both countries fished together in the past, but due to several reasons, the situation has completely changed. At the same time, he also lamented that Sri Lanka is not releasing the boats which they arrested while trespassing the borders. “If they were arrested for using the banned nets or equipment, keeping those is right. But they are fishermen no longer without their boats, it affects their livelihood.” He added. However, when he was questioned about the way Indian authorities behave in similar situations, he said that his proposal is valid for both the countries.


Ownership of the island

The St. Anthony Shrine on Kachchathivu Island has a history goes back to 1905. There are beliefs that the island originated from a volcanic eruption that occurred in the 14th century together with Rameshwaram. There is no human residence in the island and Sri Lankan Navy is deployed there as the legal ownership lies with Sri Lanka.

In 1974, India recognized Sri Lankan ownership of the island. Ownership of the island was controversial up until 1974 as during British Rule the island was administered by both countries. The legality of the transfer of the ownership to Sri Lanka had been challenged in the Indian Supreme Court. The Indo-Sri Lankan agreement had allowed Indian fishermen to fish around Katchathivu and to dry their nets on the island. However that was disturbed during the war period.

The Tamil Nadu government led by Jayalalithaa in 2011 again challenged the ownership of the island filing a petition in the Supreme Court. However, the Indian government has stated that No territory belonging to India was ceded nor sovereignty relinquished since the area was in dispute and had never been demarcated.

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