A Truly Authentic destination

By Frank Justice

In search of a truly authentic destination that fully demonstrates how life is lived in eastern Sri Lanka? If so, look no further than the “City of the Singing Fish.” Batticaloa has much to offer both the novice and worldly explorer interested in the vast cultural diversity of the island.

Invited to serve as a guest teacher at the Village Empowerment Academy , I had the pleasure of spending three weeks in Batticaloa. What I found was an enchanting municipality rich in community and tradition. Perhaps, the best way to describe the city is through the tripartite of nature, culture and people. The ecological beauty of Batti, as the locals call it, is absolutely stunning. Lagoons abound and give way to mostly uninhabited beaches and the pristine blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Palm and pine trees are scattered across the shoreline where the coconut tree is the most abundant. Although I am not much of a photographer, I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the sea scenery.

Plans to develop the area with a number of resorts and other buildings are in the works, but for now one can bask in the natural environment as it has been since the European colonists began developing the area centuries ago.

I enjoyed relaxing with friends at Kallady and other sandy beaches with no one else around save the fishermen who went about their work as if we weren’t even there. During beach trips at home in the U.S., I have spent numerous early mornings watching the sunrise and searching for that one or two unbroken “prize” seashell with my family. In Batti, the search isn’t any less fun, but it is much easier as the beaches contain a plentiful assortment of oceanic gems of all sizes. Bird watchers and butterfly enthusiasts will also find the water world conducive to their hobbies. I will never forget the family of bald eagles that I watched sailing and swooping across the sky from my perch atop the Batticaloa lighthouse.

Indeed, the city’s most stunning scenery may best be viewed from the apex of the man-made structure, which celebrated its centennial in year 2013. To reach the viewing platform, you must climb a series of ladders and traverse through an area reminiscent of a vertical submarine. If you are up for the task, the climb is as fun as the 360 degree view is scenic.

Most of the Sri Lankans that one comes into contact with in the western and southern regions of the country are Sinhalese. They speak Sinhala and are likely Buddhist. This is not the case in Batticaloa. Instead, you will find a smorgasbord of ethnicities and faiths where Tamil is the dominant language. From Tamils and Moors to Sinhalese and Burghers – and from Hindus and Muslims to Christians and Buddhists – Batticaloa has much to offer in the areas of cultural exploration and understanding. Locals are eager to speak with travelers about their background and beliefs as ethnic heritage and religion are the central components of their lives. Batticalonians are also more than willing to extend invitations to the array of cultural and spiritual activities conducted throughout the city on a daily basis.

In the short time that I spent in Batti, I had the chance to observe a special celebration of Burgher culture, attend the annual Roman Catholic craft fair and visit a number of temples, mosques and churches. Nothing, however, topped the lunch time puja. Donned in a sarong, I was provided with the opportunity to partake in the Hindu ceremony at a locally-renowned temple located only a few kilometers outside of Batticaloa.

My attendance surprised many of the worshipers unaccustomed to foreign guests given the lack of international travelers in the area. Still, I was welcomed by all and even presented with a special gift – a plate of food featuring a rice mixture and bananas among other items – by a temple staff member at the end of the service.

Beyond the spectacular scenery and the enthralling ethnic enclaves you will find the most extraordinary facet of Batticaloa, the people. Warm and benevolent, Batticalonians interact with international travelers through a pleasant blend of curiosity, kindness and respect.

Basic English is comprehended by a multitude allowing for any number of short congenial conversations (most signs are in English, too, making it a breeze to get around town). The practices of begging and haggling have yet to take hold in the city making the exchanges lighthearted and enjoyable. Moreover, as eager as they are to speak with foreigners, the people do not approach guests in an overabundant or rude manner. They sense the right moment to extend a cordial “Hello! Where are you going?” and also know when the conversation has run its course.

Regardless, the “street hospitality” makes wandering around town both comfortable and exciting. Take advantage of this by visiting the local market and through people watching. For the latter, I recommend a park bench alongside the lagoon on Customs Road. The early 17th century Dutch Fort is a must for history buffs and is also among the best locations to photograph Batticaloa’s signature Kallady Bridge.
A hot spot for male teens and young adults is the cinema. If you have never witnessed a Tamil film, Batti is a fine place to do so. Just be sure to check in advance if the weekly feature has English subtitles.

Still, the magic of Batticaloa is its authenticity. At a time when globalization is evolving at a rapid pace replacing local traditions and heritage with an interconnected web of common practices and amenities, this corner of the world remains pure like the source of a fresh spring. You would be wise to come now while the city retains its naturally beauty, cultural wonderment and social generosity. I’ll be back.

Classes held by Village Empowerment Academy are nowadays held by East N’ West on Board

Photos by East N' West on Board

A few places of interest in and around Batticaloa town...

One of the most remarkable gifts of Batticaloa district is of course its three lagoons. Batticaloa lagoon is the largest one, more than 50 km long. It opens to the sea in Palameenmadu (near Batticaloa’s Lighthouse) and in Kallar (further south). Life in and around the lagoon is full of discoveries. Wildlife, nature, breeze, boats, fishermen, birds… Spend time on or around the lagoons to understand and enjoy its special life. A bicycle ride along Sinna Uppodai Lagoon is definitely a must for nature lovers. Learn more about the lagoon’s ecosystem by visiting Batticaloa Lagoon Environmental Learning Centre and Ecopark. You can rent different types of boats in Batti Lagoon Park to move on the gorgeous Sinna Uppodai Lagoon and visit its islands for bird watching sessions. The top of Batticaloa’s Lighthouse offers an amazing observation spot on the surrounding lagoon and estuary. Stroll around Kallady Bridge on full moon nights to hear the singing fish… but don’t forget to be on the lagoon edge at sunset…

Puliyanthivu is the area in Batticaloa where you will find many governmental offices and services (public library, main post office, municipal council, etc.) as well as numerous historical places (Batticaloa gate, St Michael’s college, Vincent Girls High School, St Mary’s Cathedral, Weber Stadium, Jami-Us-Salam Jummah Masjid, etc.). Don’t miss the Old Dutch Fort which was built in the 17th century and is currently occupied by the offices of the District Secretary. Koddamunai is the area in Batticaloa where you can find most of the banks and ATM and the railway station. Both Puliyanthivu and Koddamunai are good places for shopping sessions. You might also like to visit Batticaloa’s market as well as the governmental handloom & handicraft sales centre to buy wonderful souvenirs of Batti.

Bird sanctuary, sandy beaches, water tanks, paddy fields, cultivation areas, fishing villages... there are plenty of other places to visit for nature lovers! We recommend you to have a look at the website www.welcometobatticaloa.com before your trip. Whether you want to get information about the places of interest, to find and book your accommodation, to identify a good restaurant to treat your loved ones, to book a local taxi, to find the address of the local handicraft shop, to plan a local guided tour, to register for a cooking class, or to hire a bicycle... Visit www.welcometobatticaloa.com and find “all you need to know to enjoy your stay in Batticaloa district”!
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