Posted by: lrrp | September 10, 2004

Trincomalee: Where the sea, land and the jungle merge By Kishanie S. Fernando

“There are some five or six magnificent harbours in the world and Trincomalee is one of them”. So declared historian H.W. Cave who goes on to describe its perfect location in the north-east of the island, facing the Bay of Bengal and facing the whole eastern coast of India. The entrance, which faces south east, is guarded by two projecting headlands, approaching to within about seven hundred yards of each other and when it is borne in mind that the monsoons blow from the north-east and south-west, the importance of this feature is obvious. Its unmatchable charms have not been forgotten in his description and he says; that its rocky headlands have a beautiful effect upon the landscape, which is made up of placid expanses of water dotted with wooded islets that seem to float on its surface, rich tropical forest covering the acclivities that border its coasts, and a distant background of lofty mountains..

He further describes the form of the harbour as irregular, with the numerous indents of its coastline supplying many a charming feature. Some of the islands are romantic in appearance as well as in associations and notable amongst them is Sober Island, once the favourite resort of the officers of the East Indies squadron.

In size it is also the worlds fifth largest natural harbour. The natural port, its strategic importance and magnificent features have been described by many writers, travelers and historians. Another writer says, in the Handbook for the Ceylon Traveler, that the waters contained at Trincomalee are many miles across and the harbor is sequestered into bays nudging deeply into the land. There is Cod Bay, Yard Cove Bay, China Bay and Sober Islands and, far on the other side of the larger Sober Island, is the French pass, a strait through which the French Fleet sailed to escape as the English naval force entered..

Today, due to security reasons, Trincomalee hides most of its many attractions. We only hear of the bewitching Tambalagamam Bay, where once you could have dived for window pane oysters — described as being as wide and shallow as a dessert plate. Others include captivating, cloistered coves named Dead man’s Cove, Sweet Bay, Coral Cove and Back Bay all of which have been declared to be delightful experiences.

It is also here that Lanka’s longest and largest river, the Mahaveli, which springs from the central hills enters the sea at Mutur south of Circular Bay.

Trincomalee’s ancient history is more mystery and legend and sometimes highly debated.

On the eastern promontory is the famous Swami rock on which stands the celebrated Koneswaram temple.

It is believed that on this same holy spot had stood a very ancient Hindu shrine, a Great Pagoda or the temple of 1,000 pillars, which was destroyed in the 17th century by the Portuguese.

It is documented that Constantine de Sa demolished the glorious Koneswaram temple with its “thousand columns” in 1624. De Queyroz, the Portuguese historian not only describes the exact location of the temple but goes further by describing it as the ” Rome of the Orient more frequented by pilgrims than Rameshwaram or Jeganath in Orissa”. The Pallavas, the Pandyans and Cholas were closely associated with the building, repairs, extensions and endowments to the Koneswaram temple.

An ancient phallus retrieved by an under water explorer is believed to have belonged to that ancient shrine.

Some believe that King Panduvasdeva (5th Century BC) had founded the imposing rock of Trincomalee (also known as Swami rock). In ancient times Trincomalee was known as Gokanna. Amongst its many references in history King Dutugemunu is said to have built many viharas and monasteries at Gokuranna. King Mahasena ( 3rd Century AD), noted for his feats of tank building is said to have constructed many tanks in this region.

The first stupa built on the Gokarangiri rock which has been identified as the present Fort Fredrick or Swami rock was named as Gokaranna Vihara. And a village nearby was called Gokannagama.

One interesting legend regarding this area celebrates King Ravana who, when his mother was ailing, wanted to remove the temple of Koneswaram. As he was heaving the rock God Siva made him drop his sword.

As a result of this a cleft was created on the rock, which is today called Ravana Vettu-meaning Ravana’s Cleft.

How it came to be called Trincomalee has also been debated. Some believe that due to its being surrounded by hills (malai) having the shape of a triangle (thri-kona) it was called Trikonamalai meaning three cornered hill and thus Trincomalee.

However most have lovingly referred to it as Trinco.

Trincomalee, due to its strategic port, also boasts of a most enthusiastic foreign interest dominion and control. The first recorded with Europeans was the landfall made in 1617 by a Dutch sponsored Danish vessel.


In 1775 a teenaged midshipman named Horatio Nelson arrived in Trincomalee harbour aboard the HMS Sea Horse. Later as admiral of the British Navy, he remembered it as “the finest harbour in the world”.

The port switched hands back and forth among the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French until 1795.

The Portuguese built the original fort in 1624. When the British finally secured a grip on Trincomalee under Colonel Steuart it was England’s first territorial grip on Ceylon.

During the Second World War, Trincomalee harbour was the home base for the combined East Asian fleets of all the Allied powers. It remained a British royal base for many years after. The Japanese staged an all out air assault on the harbour on April 8 1942

Today the historic Fort Fredrick, built in 1803 and named after Fredrick Duke of York, stands as a monument to the glory and tragedy of Trincomalee.

Near the main gate of the Fort, a stone slab has been engraved and fixed on the wall. A pair of fish, symbol of the South Indian Pandyan Kingdom, appears on it. An inscription is said to predict the conquering of Trincomalee by the Franks.

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