Fish and loaves with devotion | Sunday Observer

Fish and loaves with devotion

15 December, 2019
REMNANTS OF THE PAST: Christianity was brought to the coastal fishing communities centuries ago
REMNANTS OF THE PAST: Christianity was brought to the coastal fishing communities centuries ago

Many parts of Negombo have a sizable Christian population. Duwa is a tiny island, south of the calm mangrove-fringed lagoon – but now connected to the mainland by a causeway. The population of this island is 3,500, and the area is 26 acres in extent. It is a teeming fishing colony, adjacent to Negombo, where inhabitants are Catholics and fishermen by profession.

I visited Duwa exactly a decade ago, and again last week, I had the opportunity to visit this village on the eve of Christmas to train my camera lens on the fisherfolks’ devotion to religion. Duwa is considered as one of the most picturesque hamlets in the island and is a photographer’s paradise.

Fishermen in the coastal areas of Duwa belonging to the Karava fishing community, were among the early converts to Christianity in Sri Lanka, in the mid-16th century, and they became Roman Catholics. The villages in these coastal towns each have one or more churches and they play a crucial role in binding together the fishing community. The churches are not merely a place for prayer, but also one where men could relax after a tiring day at sea. Women get together here while their children attend various classes held there.

Thus, the church and prayers remain central to the fisher community, to this day. In these fishing villages, people attend mass at least twice a week and come in to pray whenever they find time. Religious symbols of a localized nature can be found everywhere: an array of boats painted in stripes of red, yellow and blue, bear the symbol of the Cross on their deck; figurines of Mother Mary in shining yellow silk sari line the coast. Furthermore, walking along the main road to Duwa, I caught a glimpse of colossal statues of Jesus Christ built along the roads while there are miniature statues of Mother Mary and pictures of Christ placed in small shrines at the junctions where the faithful get blessings offering flowers and lighting candles. All the business premises too carry pictures of Christ.

Duwa’s Roman Catholics host the island’s only Passion Play throughout the Christian Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Easter. The colourful native pageant is presented in a simple fashion, but with strong faith. It is a curious mixture of puppetry and live theatre, combining straight prose dialogue with a stylized song-drama form called Nadagam. Much of the action takes place off stage on the streets of the village. The Good Friday climax, when the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is re-enacted, is indeed a moving scene.

The tiny island of Duwa has grown to become a tourist spot, where believers can find a venerable place of worship as well as a soothing beach nearby. Foreign tourists to Negombo never miss a visit to the hamlet of Duwa because of its fishing activities which take place in the fishing market known as Lellama, one of the busiest places in the village.

All important events in the life of the fishing folk, be it a wedding, or the blessing of a new boat, happen in the church. It is also a space where the community finds emotional and financial support in the wake of disasters, natural or man-made.