Pilgrims attend the festival mass on Katchatheevu (Photo by Leo Fernando)
On a lazy Saturday morning at the end of last month, more than 100 fishing trawlers from Rameswaram Island off the Southern tip of India were laden with people and goods, and readied for a special journey to Katchatheevu Island in Sri Lanka.
During the second Sunday of every Lent season, which began on February 18 this year, pilgrims from both Sri Lanka and India visit Katchatheevu. The small, uninhabited island in the Palk Strait in Sri Lankan waters is the main destination for the annual festival of Saint Anthony, considered the patron saint of fishermen.
Xavier Wellington’s family was among those ready to move, eager and excited to start the trip. Wellington, a veteran fisherman with 30 years experience, was the skipper of the trawler Backiayaseeli (blessed woman, in Tamil).
After waiting hours for the Indian authorities to process the more than 4,000 pilgrims, Wellington admitted to being less than enthused.
“Going to Katchatheevu is everyday work for fishermen like us so we are not excited,” he said. “But my family who have come as pilgrims are.”
Like most pilgrims, Vinod Fernando, from the coastal town of Tuticorin was thrilled to be setting off.
"This pilgrimage is very special [because] you get to travel to Sri Lanka without a passport or a visa, meet your distant relatives in the middle of the ocean and above all get blessed by Saint Anthony,” he said.
After a thorough check, some 109 trawlers set out for Katchatheevu. The circuitous route ordered by authorities and multiple checkpoints manned by the Indian navy meant the journey took more than three hours, twice the normal time.
As the pilgrims alighted on the temporary boat jetty, the Sri Lankan naval authorities greeted them cordially. The island was decked with Sri Lankan national flags and other colorful flags bearing welcome signs in three languages — English, Tamil and Sinhalese.
“The Sri Lankan naval officials received us warmly and treated us with respect which was a surprise,” said David Villavarayan who was making the pilgrimage for the first time.
A trawler packed with pilgrims heads to the island (Photo by Leo Fernando)
A tenuous boundary
There was good reason for Villavarayan to be surprised. Just two days before the pilgrims set off, the Sri Lankan navy arrested 86 Indian fishermen for violating their waters.
The group was later released, but such arrests — which are common — underscore the tension between Tamil fishermen and the Sri Lankan navy.
Yuvani Arulandam, a fishermen leader, told ucanews.com that since 1983 the Sri Lankan navy has repeatedly attacked Tamil fishermen on the pretext of violations of the international boundary.
In the last decade, more than 350 fishermen have died in such attacks and more than 1,500 people have been arrested, according to Arulandam, while boats and fishing nets worth millions of rupees have been seized.
The Sri Lankan navy maintains a naval base on Katchatheevu Island, which is itself another source of tension.
The 81-hectare island originally belonged to the local kings of Rameswaram but after independence in 1947 it became Indian territory. In 1974, the Indian government ceded it to Sri Lanka, a move that is now being challenged in the Indian Supreme Court.
Wellington’s brother Victor Stanislaus told ucanews.com that before the island became Sri Lankan territory, "during our fishing trips, we used stop [there] to cook, rest and dry our nets”.
“Now it is a no-go area,” he said.
The Sri Lankan navy began to put restrictions in place in 1983, after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam launched its armed struggle to seek a Tamil homeland. As fishermen were suspected of arms smuggling, the navy banned Sri Lankan fishermen from deep-sea fishing and began to check Indian fishermen moving into its waters.
Though the civil war ended in 2009, the restrictions remain. Yet they have done little to deter Indian fishermen who are forced to trawl in the deeper Sri Lankan seas because of depleted fish stocks in Indian waters.
"We have no other choice, we have to fish in Sri Lankan waters which have been our traditional fishing grounds for centuries,” said Stanislaus.
Tamil fisherman Kumarajah Dawson, from Thalai Mannar in Sri Lanka, and others agree that Indians and Sri Lankans were once part of the same fishing community.
He recalled that when the British ruled both countries, fishing occurred without any maritime territorial issues. Even after the 1974 re-drawing of maps, all were allowed to fish "wherever we liked without problems".
That single community is reunited each year during the pilgrimage, when fishermen from both sides of the water gather in Katchatheevu. This year priests from both India’s Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka worked together to conduct the festival, running it out of the island’s small church dedicated to Saint Anthony, which was built more than a century ago.
After each day’s church ceremonies, pilgrims settled down to meet one another and chat with friends and relatives. First-time pilgrims like Villavarayan roamed around to find out more about the island. Others settled down to rest in makeshift shelters, while most slept on the beach.
Sri Lankan authorities provided electricity, food and water to all the pilgrims. Locals flocked to the island to set up shops and the atmosphere was festive.
Thambiraja, an administrative officer from Nedutheevu, told ucanews.com: “we ferried everything from Neduntheevu for the festival”.
It was tough, he added, but they wanted the pilgrims to be comfortable.
“Devotion to the saint and the fraternal bond has brought the communities together, which is significant,” said Father Joemics, Vicar-General of Palayamkottai diocese in Tamil Nadu, who co-celebrated the festival Mass.
“This relationship should be fostered for the sake of both nations,” added the noted Bible scholar, who was visiting the island for the first time.
Joe D’Cruz, a noted Catholic writer could not have agreed more.
“This festival is very important to Tamil fishermen of both countries,” he said.
They are from the same fishing community, which fragmented many centuries ago due to persecution by various kings, the writer pointed out.
“This festival serves as the umbilical cord to this dispersed community and governments should encourage such interaction for peace and harmony,” said D’Cruz, whose work on Tamil fishermen won him the Sahitya Academy award for literature, India’s highest literature prize.
Dawson and Stanislaus, the fishermen from Sri Lanka and India respectively, echoed that sentiment.
“Politicians cannot resolve this tussle about fishing issues, only fishermen can solve it through discussion and understanding,” Dawson said.
“Fishermen must talk to each other like brothers and settle the issue once and for all,” Stanislaus echoed.
On Sunday morning, March 1, the pilgrims bathed in the sea and headed to the festival Mass, which was attended by top Sri Lankan naval officials and administrative authorities.
As the final blessing was given, pilgrims jostled to touch the statue of the saint one last time, before they return next year. Pilgrims posed for selfies, while relatives and friends took group photos using mobile phones.
Vasanthi from Kilinochichi in Sri Lanka was excited to see her family friend Anthony Criminaly from Rameswaram, India.
“During this festival we get to see our friends and we are happy about it, she said.
As the event came to an end, Indian pilgrims paused at the pier to bargain at shops set up by Sri Lankans. Sandalwood oil soaps, tea, coconut oil, and palm products were in demand. Some Indian pilgrims bartered face powder and sweets made from peanuts.
“It is the way it used to be 30, 40 years back,” Thadeaus, an elderly Indian fisherman recalled. We gave them clothing and they gave us soaps as gifts or bartering items, he said.
On the return journey, Indian coast guards boarded the boats to check the pilgrims again one by one. By the end of the day, all the 109 boats arrived safely back in Rameswaram fishing harbor.
A tired and hungry Villavarayan called it “a tiring, tough journey, but one that is worth doing every year”.
“Maybe I will bring my family next year.”