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THE VERTICAL

The Uneasy Dreamscape of Katchatheevu

A dispatch from a church festival on a largely uninhabited island that has long been the site of a contentious border dispute between India and Sri Lanka.
VOL. 2 ISSUE 1
DISPATCH

AUTHOR

AUTHOR

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A statue of St. Anthony, patron saint of the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka’s north and India’s south, is nestled in an arch just below the roof of the church. Courtesy of the author.

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A statue of St. Anthony, patron saint of the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka’s north and India’s south, is nestled in an arch just below the roof of the church. Courtesy of the author.

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16 Jun 2023
Dispatch
Katchatheevu
Dispatch
Katchatheevu
Sri Lanka
Island
Palk Bay
Jaffna
Tamil
Tamil Diasporas
Indian & Sri Lankan Tamil Communities
Church Festival
Rameswaram
Border Dispute
Fisherfolk
Fishing Crisis
Disputed Territory
Pilgrimage
Low-Income Workers
Trawling
Transnational Solidarities
Internationalist Solidarity
Sri Lankan Civil War
Indentured Labor

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You can almost taste the excitement on the boat as it nears Katchatheevu, people craning their necks out of windows, and perching on the steps to catch their first glimpse of it. For most passengers, it seems to be their first time visiting the island—abandoned, uninhabited, and closed to civilians for all but two days each year for its annual church festival. Standing on some bags to gain height, I catch flashes of the island—a statue of the Virgin Mary encased in glass peeping out from some foliage; with trees for miles, and waves lapping the shore.

 

The four-hour boat journey from mainland Sri Lanka to Katchatheevu is surreal. I’d never heard of Katchatheevu until November last year. From a sparsely-populated Wikipedia page, I’d learned the island was only open for visitors during its March church festival, so I resolved to go.

 

Katchatheevu lies in the Palk Strait between southern India and northern Sri Lanka, a contentious and liminal space that has historically been contested between the two countries. Under British rule, the island belonged to India, and after Independence it became a disputed territory. In 1976, it was ceded to Sri Lanka by then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in a series of maritime boundary agreements with her Sri Lankan counterpart, then President Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

 

However, this decision has always been hotly contested by Tamil Nadu politicians ever since, who have long called for the reacquisition of Katchatheevu, ostensibly on the behest of Indian fisherfolk. In 1991, the Tamil Nadu Assembly adopted a resolution for its retrieval. In 2008, then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu argued to the Supreme Court that the agreements on Katchatheevu were unconstitutional. As recently as last year, the 1974-76 maritime boundary agreements over Katchatheevu have remained hotly contested.

 

Katchatheevu was closely surveilled during the Sri Lankan Civil War, which ended in 2009, suspected to be a base for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant group fighting for an independent state in the country’s north, from which they smuggled weapons. Since the end of the war, the island has been controlled by the Sri Lankan navy, with Indian fishermen allowed to dry their nets on its land. But conflicts between Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen continue to rage around the space, with Indians accused of crossing the maritime boundary to poach in Sri Lankan waters. Many poor Sri Lankan fisherfolk returned to these waters after the Civil War, by which time they found a landscape dominated by Indian trawlers they could not compete with.


View of the island from the boat. Courtesy of the author

These unresolved disputes of land and livelihoods make the seemingly peaceable annual church festival even more intriguing, since regulations on movement to and from the island are abandoned for the festival. Pilgrims from both sides of the strait collide in a rare meeting point of communities who speak the same Tamil language but have historically met mostly under difficult conditions; the line between southern India and northern Sri Lanka became porous during the civil war as people fled Sri Lanka in droves as refugees. In centuries prior, hundreds of thousands of Indian Tamils were brought over to Sri Lanka as indentured laborers by British colonizers. Indian Tamils were denied citizenship by Sri Lanka upon independence; many were deported back to India, with others in a state of limbo for decades. Communities in both countries have thus experienced statelessness and rejection on the other’s land, making Katchatheevu a contested space, all the more significant as a fleetingly-inhabited melting pot of experiences and cultures. It becomes a rare waypoint through which the porosity of borders and violent history of the region can be seen through its visiting Tamil communities.

 

Yet it remains a little-known and incredibly underreported place, with the specifics of its historic legacy rarely discussed in a wider context.


 

Traveling with two friends on the boat, I try to glean as much as I can about Katchatheevu’s history. My friend and I befriend a fellow passenger. She tells us a story about how St. Anthony’s Church, the only building on the island, was built. A fisherman who almost died at sea promised God he would build a church if he was saved. After the fisherman survived, he stayed true to his word, and built the church using materials from Delft island, about two hours closer to Sri Lanka’s mainland.

 

As we disembark onto a temporary and very shaky gangway assembled by the Sri Lankan Navy, which administers the island year-round, we spot a crowd already assembled on the shore—Indian pilgrims. For the church festival, all disputes and regulations are suspended, and pilgrims from both countries land on the island in a rare meeting point of communities otherwise totally separated by the Palk Strait. We are shepherded into four different queues for navy checks—Sri Lankan women, Sri Lankan men, Indian women, and Indian men. The Indian and Sri Lankan sides look each other up and down with  bemused curiosity.

 

On the other side of the checkpoints, Katchatheevu is wild and bare, untamed vegetation crowding the sides of a wide and sandy path. The early afternoon sun beats down heavily on us, and juice vendors have wisely set up shop to serve cold drinks to thirsty pilgrims. Families separated by gender wait for their relatives to come through the queue, and I spot an interesting exchange between two pilgrims from India and Sri Lanka that highlights how monumental the festival is as a reminder of the liminal space Katchatheevu occupies.

 

“Where are you from, son?” asks the aunty from Bangalore, clad in a light brown sari, speaking in a dialect quite far removed from Jaffna Tamil.

 

“Jaffna,” replies the young man sitting next to her in a collared shirt and trousers.

 

“Where’s that? Sri Lanka?” the aunty asks.

 

“You don’t know where Jaffna is?” he replies, looking shocked and slightly offended. “Yes, it’s in Sri Lanka. It’s world famous!”

 

After our friend arrives, we trek towards the church to set up camp. Along the way, we spot pilgrims industriously clearing patches of vegetation to find a spot to bed down, and others who have come organized with lunch carriers and huge containers of water, because there is no drinking water available on the island. We select a spot just in front of the church, next to a trio from Colombo, and lay out the bed sheet I’ve brought from home. A few minutes later, a voice over the loudspeaker announces that the prayers will soon begin.


 


St. Anthony, patron saint of the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka's north and India's south. Photography courtesy of the author.

The nuns begin to chant repeatedly: “Punitha Mariye, Iraivanin Thaaye, paavikalaa irukkira engalukkaaka, ippozhuthum naangal irappin velaiyilum vendikollumaame. [Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death].”

 

The church itself is a rich cream color, with a statue of St. Anthony, patron saint of the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka’s north and India’s south, nestled in an arch just below its roof. Another statue, larger and more imposing, is positioned on a podium in front of the church. Dressed in brown robes with fair white skin and brown hair, St. Anthony holds a small child and looks out into the sea of pilgrims as they kneel on the ground and pray, many of the women covering their hair with lace veils and turning rosaries in their fingers. Indian pilgrims work their way through the crowd, distributing sesame sweets.


One of the temporary stalls set up by vendors from both countries. Photograph courtesy of the author.

I decide to wander through the temporary stalls set up by vendors on an otherwise abandoned patch of vegetation. Enthusiastic sellers assume I’m from India and quote me prices in Indian rupees. One salesman asks me to take his photo, and predicts that I’ll soon be headed abroad. He inspects my palm, and informs me that my first child will be a boy. I spot the tent of Silva, a pilgrim from Bangalore.His tent has both Indian and Sri Lankan flags pinned on the front. He tells me he’s been coming to Katchatheevu for the last nine years.

 

“They’re always in brotherhood, no?” says Silva. “Nobody can divide it. They’re always binding, very lovely people,” adding that Katchatheevu inspired him to visit mainland Sri Lanka.

 

I chat with a fisherman from Rameswaram who’s visiting for the first time with a party of four other people. He tells me Katchatheevu is well-known in his hometown, but not many people make the journey over. Soon, religious songs blaring over the loudspeaker begin to drown out our conversation, and the Walk of the Cross begins. Young boys clad in red and white robes stand at the head of the procession. A wooden cross carried on the shoulders of Reverend Fathers behind them towers overhead.


Photograph courtesy of the author.

As they walk, songs accompany their steps, and a huge crowd walks around the church’s perimeter as the sun sets, taking us to the beach where groups of men are bathing in the clear blue water, standing and laughing amongst themselves. Every time the cross stops, people fall to the ground behind the cross and begin to pray, and a sermon is delivered from the church’s pulpit by Indian and Sri Lankan clergy, in variously inflected accents that inform us where they might be from. Some sermons are pointedly political.  They talk of the Sri Lankan Tamils forcibly disappeared during the civil war. Of mothers still looking for their children. Some mention the ongoing economic crisis Sri Lankans continue to face. Others appeal directly to the pilgrims, telling them to be more loving and accepting of others and the pain they might be facing.


 

It’s during the Walk of the Cross that I spot the original St. Anthony’s Church, the one built by the saved fisherman. It is a sharp contrast to the new church, with a decaying facade with plaster peeling off it, but stark in its simplicity. Pilgrims stream in and out to pray to old statues of St. Anthony placed on a ledge, overlooked by a chipped wall hanging of Jesus on the cross. Others camp in front of it, chatting and watching the Walk.

 

“We’re devotees of St. Anthony,” one man from Thoothukudi, India tells me, perched on a blanket with his friends. “We have a very famous church for him there on the seaside, and we go and stay there every Tuesday… We’d heard about Katchatheevu before but we never had the opportunity to come, so this year when we got the chance we decided we had to come.”

 

They’ve decided to buy soap at the stalls as souvenirs for their family, and joke about how much more expensive tea is in Sri Lanka due to the economic crisis. But the conversation takes a serious turn when they ask me about conflicts between Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen, and they say Indian fishermen are really struggling and have been shot down when trying to fish near Katchatheevu, despite it previously belonging to India. “If it were ours, there would be no shooting,” one of them says. They say that India has “extended a hand in brothership” towards Sri Lanka, but it has been met with “disgraceful behavior” by the latter. However, they’re adamant that India shouldn’t try to reclaim Katchatheevu, saying it’s been “given and that’s it.”

 

Once the Walk of the Cross is over, the mass takes place at the front of the church. I perch next to my friends on the blanket as the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary are chanted repeatedly in Tamil. I realize it’s the first time I’ve been to a mass in Tamil, and listen intently to the words, which seem to acquire a deeper meaning in my mother tongue. I find myself deeply, uncontrollably moved, tears streaming down my cheeks as the words wash over me.

 

“Isn’t this so nice?” I say, turning to my friend after the mass finishes. It feels like she’s radiating a deep, calm, glow. Her hands are clasped in prayer.

 

“Yes,” she replies, hugging me. “Thank you for bringing me.”

 

Afterwards, there’s a procession of St. Anthony, with a statue carried through the crowd and around the island, flashing with green and red lights. The church is decked out in beautiful lights that lend it a Christmas feel, and there’s a festive feeling in the air as people go to light candles at a small cave-like shrine next to the church, cupping them carefully to avoid the wind extinguishing them. Throughout the day, there are also intermittent announcements of pilgrims’ prayers to St. Anthony—people asking for foreign visas to be approved, for marriages to be arranged, and for illnesses to be cured. The specifics of people’s names and locations are all divulged, and my friends and I wonder at people’s deepest wishes being revealed so publicly. 


We then use our meal tokens to claim food provided by the navy—a meal of rice and fish curry. Being a vegan, I’m obliged to go back to the stalls to buy myself a meal of rice and vegetables, unable to eat the food provided.

 

After dinner, I get to chatting with a fisherman from Rameshwaram, who also talks about the lack of fish on the Indian side of the ocean, forcing them to travel into Sri Lankan waters. We exchange numbers and decide to keep in touch.


 

We’ve been chatting on and off all day to the trio from Colombo who have camped next to us, and we end up talking to them until late in the night, exchanging life anecdotes and cackling with laughter while pilgrims snore around us. They tease me about my new friend, saying that I’m about to embark on a cross-border romance. When we finally decide to call it a night, the buzz of life still hasn’t stopped, with people walking around and talking in hushed tones, and the church lights still glowing furiously.

  

“Pilgrims, please wake up and get ready. The mass will begin at 6 am,” a voice over the loudspeaker announces at 4:30 am the next morning. But people are slow to take notice, the mass of sleeping bodies not rousing itself awake until shortly before sunrise. Just before 6 am, the mass begins, and it feels noticeably more formal than the festivities of the previous day, with Indian officials present. Hymn sheets are handed round, and the atmosphere is solemn as people periodically stand to sing from their campsites.


The morning mass at 6 am. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Just before 9 am, the mass comes to a sudden end, and we’re told to claim our breakfast parcels, this time rice with dhal and soya meat curry. I only eat a little, conscious of the boat journey later, and then the announcements begin, telling us which boats are ready to leave from the island and urging pilgrims to make their way to the shore. The fisherman from Rameshwaram comes to say goodbye to me, prompting more teasing from my friends.

 

People crowd the old and new churches for one last prayer, and I join them before we trudge back the way we came the previous day. At the harbor, the Sri Lankan side pushes and shoves to depart, and we manage to get onto the third boat after almost an hour of waiting.

 

The boat journey this time is relatively more eventful than the first. About ten minutes in, there’s a sudden jolt and a loud bang, with a force beneath our feet that feels like the boat has just hit something. Over the next few minutes, the bangs and jolts intensify, and people begin to scream and cry. The floorboards of the boat have come up on its left side, and the seats jump up and down. I find my hands reaching out for my friends around me, both old and new, and we sit huddled in a circle, praying quietly under our breath while an elderly lady cries and calls out to St. Anthony for help a few rows behind us.

 

I lose count of how many times I throw up on the way back—at one point we run out of bags, so I have to stand on tiptoe to vomit out of the window, sea water hitting my face as my stomach convulses. People call the boatmen to show them what’s wrong with the boat and beg them to go slower, but nothing seems to change. My friends try to contact the navy and we even get to the stage of waving my red kurti out of the window as a danger sign, but to no avail. It seems to be by  sheer miracle that we make it back to Kurikkaduwan.

 

On the bus back to Jaffna town, I chat to the fellow Katchatheevu pilgrim next to me, Baskar, his grandson perched on his lap holding a toy gun. He went to Katchatheevu the previous two years as well, when the COVID-19 pandemic meant only 50 pilgrims were allowed to attend. He tells me he made a promise to St. Anthony to visit Katchatheevu with his whole family if his daughter was cured of a serious illness that twelve doctors said she wouldn’t survive.

 

“That’s her,” he says, pointing to the girl sitting in front of us in a green salwar kameez, holding her phone to her ear and listening to Tamil film soundtracks. “I told St. Anthony I would bring her to Katchatheevu alive. I had that belief.”

 

Baskar, who works as a fisherman, said the economic crisis has made it difficult for him to attend the festival because of the higher boat costs, but he somehow had to make it work because of his promise to Anthony.

 

“We believe that whatever sea we go to, he’ll save us,” Baskar says. “Because of my belief in St. Anthony, I’ve been rescued two or three times. Once I even fell into the sea unconscious after hitting my head. But because of God’s grace, I was saved.” 

 

Two years ago, Baskar says he met an Indian pilgrim who was so upset that the COVID-19 restrictions meant nobody else could come. This year, he met the pilgrim again with his family, and was so happy that everybody could come.


“I told him, don’t worry, next time you can come with all your siblings and children,” Baskar says. “And this time I was so happy… Lots of people came and they were so happy… We speak happily with them. Last night, there were around 40 or 50 Indians and they were all talking and laughing with me so happily—they wouldn’t let me sleep,” he says, laughing.

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