Despite its size, Sri Lanka has more than its share of history dating back to the time of the Yakkas around 500 BCE and even beyond that to the Palaeolithic people who are said to have lived here as early as 500,000 BCE.
This deep, rich and mysterious history has a way of unveiling itself, in subtle and sometimes obvious ways. And the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka, although comparatively less known for its ancient significance than the north-central plain, contributes so many stories to the island’s greater chronicles.
Travelling from Kalpitiya to Jaffna, you will encounter the historic village of Pomparippu, which is famous for the eponymous burial site. Covering some 1.6 hectares, the site is thought to house around 8,000 burial urns containing skeletal relics of 12,000 or so people from the Iron Age.
Moving northwards beyond Portugal Bay is the historically renowned town of Kudiramalai Point. This ancient port town is even referred to in Ptolemy’s Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, in which it is called Hippuros.
French biblical scholar Samuel Bochart also says that this town is in fact the port of Tarshish mentioned in the Old Testament during King Solomon’s reign.
Said to have been inhabited from the 1st century BCE up to the 7th century CE, Kudiramalai was the abode and kingdom of the legendary Tamil queen Alli Raani who it is said, was born via an immaculate conception on a lily – and she apparently reigned along the entire northwestern coast of the island with a female army in a milieu where men were employed only as servants.
This Amazonian ruler is reputed to have been skilful in martial arts and equestrianism, which is why she is thought to have traded pearls from Mannar for horses from Arabia. The abundance of horses – called kuthirai in Tamil – would explain how the town got its name and Kudiramalai its reputation.
With a history of between 2,000 and 3,000 years, the pearl banks of Sri Lanka located next to the Gulf of Mannar are where the island’s once famous oyster pearls – mentioned in the adventures of the legendary Sinbad the Sailor of Arabian Nights fame – were found in profusion. A thriving industry during British rule, pearl oysters are said to be abundant on rocky paars located about 10 metres below the waves.
In the colonial days, free diving was the only way to extract these pearls and divers would tie a stone (to weight them down) and a rope to their bodies, and dive with only a basket into which to put the pearls. When they ran out of air, they’d tug on the rope so that their manduck (helper) would pull them back up to the surface.
The British took an interest in the pearl industry. Which is probably why Ceylon’s first British Governor Lord Frederick North built his residence – Doric House – close at hand in Arippu to overlook the pearl fisheries.
And the abode’s thick columns, which are the only remnants of the complex, clearly reflect inspiration from Greek (Doric) architecture. The house was supposedly planned by the governor himself and some records, although unsubstantiated, claim that it was initially built by the Portuguese and used to protect Dona Catherina of Kandy in 1580.
The nearby Arippu Fort, with two bastions and a neat square structure, is another Portuguese built complex that was handed over to the Dutch in the 17th century.
This fort is where English sea captain Robert Knox escaped to after being held prisoner for 19 years by the King of Kandy.
Mysterious, rugged and largely off the beaten track, the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka is where legends became history waiting to be revealed.
Compiled by Ruwandi Perera