January 18, 2019
On Friday, January 18, the ship laid anchor at the port city of Trincomalee on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka. Portuguese, Dutch and others colonizers had long preyed upon this ancient, natural harbour so that by the time the British took it over in 1795, it had changed hands seven times.
The ship offered a choice of excursions: a full day tour to Polonnaruwa, a UNESCO site, one of Sri Lanka’s best-preserved archeological cities dating to the tenth century AD or a half-day tour around Trincomalee itself. The Polonnaruwa trip meant a three-hour bus ride each way. I turned that one down in spite of the promised view of “lush countryside” from the coach windows. The rocking movement of the bus would inevitably have put me to sleep and I wouldn’t have seen a thing in any case.
I opted for the half-day excursion to Fort Frederick, once the largest European fort in Sri Lanka. Portuguese invaders built it in 1623 (they called it Fort Triquillimae) only to have by the Dutch wrest it out of their grasp in 1639.
We got off the buses and climbed into waiting tuk-tuks, which conveyed us to the base of the sacred site. The temple sits atop Konesar Malai, a promontory overlooking the Indian Ocean. The tuk-tuks let us off at the base of a hill and we walked along a road, lined on either side with vendors that service just about every religious site up to the temple.
Although the Koneswara temple site is one of the oldest in Sri Lanka, the temple which exists today was built in the 20th century. The original structure (founded around 400 B.C.) was destroyed by the Portuguese in the early 17th century. Built in the classical-medieval style, it is dedicated to Lord Shiva.
After an hour we climbed back into the tuk-tuks, into the bus and sped to the remains of an ancient Buddhist temple complex.
We were welcomed to the ruins of the two-thousand-year-old Velgam Vihara Buddhist temple by the saffron-robed monks who live nearby. According to information provided by the monks, the ancient complex was abandoned in the 11th century when the Sinhalese people were compelled to migrate southward. “Within twenty years, the premises of this Vihara was covered with heavy jungle which was full of wild elephants and leopards.”
We were the only people walking among the partially-excavated site that day. (The pace of excavation depends on the generosity of worshippers and visitors.) The tranquility of the place came as sweet respite from the bustle and hurry of getting from place to place. A hidden peacock screeched in the background.
After that it was back to the ship for two unhurried days at sea until our next stop: Port Blair (Andaman Islands) India. Good, old bureaucratic India, where it takes six to eight people (sometime in groups of three) to examine and stamp your passport before they’ll let you out of the harbour terminal.