Batticaloa: land of the singing fish | Sunday Observer

Batticaloa: land of the singing fish

14 July, 2019
Dutch Fort
Dutch Fort

There are two major towns in the Eastern Province that are embellished with natural beauty and maritime history. One is Batticaloa and the other Trincomalee. These areas have their own captivating charm. On a recent assignment to Batticaloa I was able to spend some time to discover her tropical charms and appreciate the cultural diversity. The journey from Colombo was quite long, as we set out past midnight and arrived in the morning. There is a stretch of road, with jungles on either side, and there were sign boards warning of elephants crossing, but thankfully we did not encounter any on the way. In the early hours of the morning I noticed people cycling in the Valaichenai junction. Legend has it that one can hear ‘singing fish’ close to the Kallady Bridge in Batticaloa. It remains one of the desired mysteries of visitors from Colombo.

Batticaloa Gate

The Batticaloa town is vast, but we did not notice any significant high rise establishments. The first iconic statue was the gold coloured image of Mahathma Gandhi elevated on a cement pedestal. This is in the vicinity of the Gandhi Park. People were walking about and children playing under the shade of trees. As we walked along a solid arched formation, built with granite and bricks the words Batticaloa Gate came into view. This iconic gate was supposed to be the port entry where boats connected Pulliyanthivu Island to the mainland. According to legend there are two theories of how this island got its name. One is derived from nature herself- the island was full of tamarind trees decades ago. The Tamil word for tamarind is pulli - hence, island of tamarind trees. The second is from the idea that there was a clan of folk called Pulinther- thus the name Puliyanthivu.

In 1814 the first Christian missionary from the Methodist Mission to Ceylon is said to have landed at this point. Rev. William Ault had set sail to Ceylon on the ship MV Lady Melville, accompanied by his wife Sarah and Rev. Thomas Coke. The long voyage took its toll on her and Sarah Ault died at sea. Shortly thereafter Rev. Thomas Coke also died, leaving Rev. William alone.

Dutch Fort

He landed in Batticaloa and began to learn Tamil. The prudent missionary established eight schools, gaining the love of the people. Within a year of his arrival he fell ill and passed away in April 1815. A statue of Rev. William Ault could be seen today beside the Batticaloa Gate. The pioneer missionaries played a big role in education in that era. Another venerated priest is the Jesuit Father Ferdinand Bonnet of France. He envisaged and built St. Michael’s College in 1873. Since then it has been the premier boys’ school in Batticaloa and produced top basketball players.

Our next stop was the Old Dutch Fort on the Puliyanthivu Island. The Fort was not as large as those in Trincomalee, Jaffna or Galle. Yet, for centuries it had managed to hold its defensive position as part of the Dutch maritime security strategy. Originally built by the Portuguese in 1628, the fortified bastion was captured and modified by the Dutch. Subsequently, in 1745 the dominant British took control of the Fort. Some of her outer fortified walls were covered in green moss. Today, the Government Agent of the area has his official residence in the Fort. Two sides of the Fort structure have manmade moats and the other two sides are protected by the lagoon. A flight of steps leads to the first level, where sentries would have patrolled day and night. The walls are built with coral and granite, and the guard turret is similar to the small Fort in Kalpitiya. There are no details of the number of cannons or the firepower possessed by the Batticaloa Fort, yet we can assume it held its defensive role in that era. In the past few years new buildings within the compound seem to have stolen the aesthetic visual appeal of the Dutch Fort. The Puliyanthivu Island is today home to the Municipal Council, Post Office and District Secretariat.

Singing Fish

The sun was now shining in all her splendour over this exotic eastern town. We stopped at the famous Kalladi Bridge. At the entrance to it is a cement statue of the legendary Tamil poet Auvvaiyar, carrying her bag and a staff. The pedestal on which she is mounted has four fish, carved into the cement. It is near this location that the maritime mystery of the elusive singing fish was first recorded. We waited a few minutes, but according to some locals the marine singing takes place at night, under the moonlight. In 1954 a priest named Fr. Lang, who was attached to St. Michael’s College is said to have made the first audio recording of the singing fish, which was later aired over Radio Ceylon in 1960. Since then there have been no such audio evidence of this mysterious phenomena.

Kalladi Bridge

The Kalladi Bridge is of great importance to the Batticaloa residents, as this was the first bridge in this area and the longest bridge in Ceylon at that time. Prior to the train service there was a steam ship named Serendib which charged 190 rupees for a ticket from Colombo to Batticaloa. Today, there is a new bridge for motor vehicles running parallel to the old iron rail bridge. The massive truss bridge was prefabricated at Patent Shaft & Axletree and transported by steamship from London. It was a challenge for engineers to set up the bridge over the flowing waters of the lagoon. It was completed in 1928. The bridge was named as Lady Manning Bridge in honour of the then Governor’s wife. The view from the bridge is serene.

At the end of the new bridge, on the right side of the road is another impressive cement structure that displays a large fish, swimming gracefully with four other orange hued fish. This display is actually mounted on a blue circular pond, and has become a modern reminder of Batticaloa’s singing fish story.

The town and surrounding areas have much to awe the visitors. The local food reflects a multi cultural cooking influence. The sunset over the lagoon is a picture perfect visual. Batticaloa is a must visit destination.