Mannar island is the bit of Sri Lanka that sticks out closest to India. On the map it looks like a peninsula but study closely and you see it’s approached via a long causeway across a shallow sea, with a short bridge at the end. From its furthest tip, Talaimannar, a string of sandbank islands extends across the shallow Palk Strait to India; once the ferry used to run from Talaimannar Pier to India. That’s how Sally’s family finally left Sri Lanka in 1971, in a Mini Moke and an Austin 1300 to begin their epic overland journey to England. The pier is still there along with the old customs shed and the remains of rail tracks. A sign warns that it is an unsafe structure and to enter at your own risk, so we did. Wouldn’t be allowed in England, which is one of the smaller reasons why we don’t live there any more! It’s good to be allowed to take responsibility for your own safety rather than having nanny state do it for you. Talaimannar summarises one aspect of Mannar – the continuing legacy of the war and the continuing state of tension with India over the disputed fisheries of the Palk Strait. Wrecked boats still lie just offshore and there’s a strong military presence even now. It’s a wild, forgotten and beautiful place. Odiyar, the manager of the Palmyrah where we stayed (and thoroughly recommend) took us out in his 4×4 in an attempt to drive through the shallow waters onto the first of the sandbank islands. We didn’t make it – this being the wet season the waters were too high to get across. But we saw a big flock of grey franklin (partridges) which was a good consolation.
They are building more accommodation on this land and also extending the Palmyrah. Smart investors are discovering Mannar. Unlike Kalpitiya to the south, though, it seems that so far – mercifully – they are people who want to attract small-scale discerning tourism rather than coachloads of trippers looking for cheap deals in identikit multi-storey hotels.
Mannar is also now the only place in Sri Lanka where flocks of flamingoes gather and Odiyar showed us where to find them – out on the salterns (man-made shallow beds where the sun evaporates the sea water leaving the salt behind). There were at least four hundred of them when we visited. Not as pink as their African cousins – their diet is different – but an impressive sight.
Like Kalpitiya, Mannar is home to countless feral donkeys. Depending on what you read these are descendants of beasts left behind either by the Portuguese colonists or by Arab traders centuries ago. They are everywhere. Driving in Mannar means slowing to a crawl every hundred metres or so while donkeys or goats choose to get up at their own convenience and make their way slowly to the edge of the road. Or sometimes they just lie there in the middle and wait for you to go around them.
Certainly the Arabs are responsible for the baobab trees dotted around Mannar and found nowhere else on the island. The most famous is the biggest baobab in Asia, in Mannar town. As you can see from the photo the Catholics seem to have claimed it as their own despite its Muslim origins. And that’s another of Mannar’s strangenesses. Again, like Kalpitiya, its population is mainly Christian (almost all Catholic) and Muslim in contrast to the Buddhist/Hindu make-up of Sri Lanka as a whole.
Sri Lanka has many impressive Dutch forts. Two I have yet to visit – Jaffna in the north and Matara in the south – but of those I’ve see Mannar is the most fascinating. Originally built by the Portuguese the Dutch flattened their efforts and rebuilt on a much grander scale as elsewhere. Then the Brits took over but had less time for sea forts so neglect and tropical weather took their toll. Finally the suffering old place was taken over by the Tamil Tigers and then further smashed by the Sri Lankan army. A surprising amount remains, none of it signed or interpreted so you have to try to work things out as you go around. Just as spotted deer have taken control of the battlements in Fort Frederick in Trincomalee, the donkeys now patrol Mannar fort.
What was obviously once the chapel contains ancient Dutch monuments and inscriptions. The Dutch government helps pay for the maintenance of some of the other forts in Sri Lanka, notably Galle which is the biggest and best preserved, and one can hope that they can extend their generosity to preserving and interpreting Mannar fort. Meanwhile it’s a bewitching place to explore and lose oneself in an imagined past.
As I said, smart investors are discovering Mannar. Much needed, provided of course that it’s sustainable and benefits local people. The infrastructure is still pretty poor but the big exception is the railway. Like the line to Jaffna, this was abandoned in the war and has been entirely replaced and re-opened. Though there are only a couple of trains per day and almost everything continues to come by road – and the roads are pretty awful still. Mannar town is a lot like Batticaloa but if anything even poorer. The fish market gives you a flavour of the town – you can almost smell it.
Out on the mainland, but still in Mannar district, stands the remains of one of the most ambitious buildings ever created by the British – the Doric Bungalow built by a former Governor who wanted somewhere he could watch over the activities of the pearl divers. Mannar was once a world centre for pearls and Bizet’s opera ‘The Pearl Fishers’ was set there – though in a highly romanticised version of reality. Much of it now lies on the beach below the low cliff on which it is set. Unlike the fort, the Doric Bungalow is splendidly signed and interpreted.
Mannar is not much visited by tourists. That will change. Hopefully so will the grinding poverty of many of its people. But whether that can be done without destroying its sense of mystery remains to be seen.