Journey to the East

I hate sunsets.

It might have something to do with being born and raised in a city on the west coast where sunsets are a daily dance in the sky. So, sometime in the early 2000’s, I drove all night to get to watch the sun come up in Trincomalee and things have never been the same.

I highly recommend doing it a little like this: Friends in tow, set off past midnight with a flask of coffee by your side. Drive slow enough that the windows are down. In Habarana and a little after 4 am, dim the high beams and slow down to a crawl. If you’re lucky, a few dozen elephants may cross your path. So stop, open up that flask and pass it around. A coffee break doesn’t get much better than this.

Pick up speed about a half-hour later and get to Trinco before first light. Park in town and walk down to the ocean’s edge where early morning joggers are up and about. A smattering of spotted deer nibble grass growing out of park benches and a hundred bats make their way home across a horizon that promises to explode any moment now, spilling over beams of light like a silent disco heralding a new day come.

While Sri Lanka maintains a colourful colonial history, Trincomalee has been key to adding more colour to the tale. The Eastern District was captured by the Portuguese in the 16th Century where they proceeded to destroy and loot the sacred Koneswaram Temple on January 1st 1620. Then came the Dutch in 1693 who staked a claim on Trinco by building a Fort to hold one of the most precious natural harbours in the region.

One fateful day in 1782 the British captured their Fort only to see it recaptured by the French a few months later. The French ceded to the British a year later, who in turn ceded it back to the Dutch. For one last time in 1795, the British captured Trincomalee and held it until Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948.

Symbols of these continuous takeovers are scattered across the district and town, including a Commonwealth War Cemetery housing the gravestones of mostly British soldiers who fell in and around our waters during World War II.

Somewhere to the back of the cemetery on Nilaweli Road is a single gravestone, purposely set apart from the others and stubbornly sitting alone. The Unknown Burmese. Was he a cook on a warship, I wondered – and did he jump ship and swim here? I’ve visited other Commonwealth war cemeteries in other parts of the island from Colombo to Kandy filled with the fallen crown, but none intrigue like the Burmese chap buried all the way at the back of the graveyard.

On a hill at the peak of a city mountain are what remains of the indomitable 16th Century Koneswaram Kovil, home to Shiva, the god of crescent moons and world destruction. Across from a giant statue in his name at the entrance to the temple sits Lovers’ Leap, a latter-day legend. During Dutch occupation, the daughter of an officer stationed at the Fort, took her life there in 1687. Francina van Reed continues to be remembered by a stone pillar that tells us her heart was broken. Lesser known and older names for Lovers’ Leap included Swami Rock and Ko-Kannam which meant Ravana’s Cheek for the cleft shape the deadly rocks make all the way down to the sea. The real history of Trincomalee leans toward the Chola Empire and a rich Tamil history, but we seem to shelve this in favour of a colonial one.

The temple itself houses more than shrines and monuments. Its most spectacular feature are a million vows tied to its pillars and posts by pilgrims who continue to come to this holiest of sites in the hope that a change is gonna come. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for anyway?

For a traveller who doesn’t like towns too much, I’m hooked on this one. Trincomalee is not a city by a long shot, but it exists within a giant history, clashes with too many cultures that also sit side by side. From Fort Frederick to Dyke Street, between the Koveswaram and Gokanna temples, and inside the hearts of its people whose homes stretch from China Bay to the Hot Springs of Kanniya beats the real heart of Trincomalee. A town with too many wine stores and shoe shops, and never enough Muslim eateries serving the most delicious food I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. Trinco goes to sleep by 8 at night and rises before the sun.

This place and its people made me shun setting suns in favour of new days. Two decades later and I’m still driving all night to reach her sunrise before I go to sleep again.

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Author: Natalie Soysa
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