Exploring Mannar’s Mystical Past
At first glance Mannar, a large sprawling town on the west coast in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, might seem to visitors like any other town in the region, but visitors soon discover there’s more to it than meets the eye.
For locals even the town’s name has a mysterious ring to it – conjuring up an ancient past – and in this regard, they are not wrong: Only a short drive from Mannar town is Ketheeswaram Hindu temple where inscriptions found at the site are estimated to date back to the kings of the Pallava, Pandyan Dynasty and Chola dynasties (300BC-1500AD).
But in Mannar itself, long before the Portuguese and the Dutch arrived in the town – in fact a good two thousand years before they arrived – the Greeks where trading and using Mannar’s port to export the same commodities that were later highly prized by Europeans: Spices like cinnamon and cardamom; ivory; gems and pearls – all desirable luxuries that even brought the Romans to Sri Lanka’s shores.
It was a surprise for us at Khiri Travel to learn that the country was trading with the Greeks and Romans so long ago. It gives you some idea of the antiquity of this part of the country. Also known for its former pearl industry, as well as Adam’s Bridge – a chain of limestone shoals and bars that indicate an ancient geographical land connection with India – Mannar was a natural trading port and ‘stepping stone’ to the Indian subcontinent. In fact, the town and even Adam’s Bridge are mentioned in the ancient Indian Sanskrit epic Ramayana of Valmiki. Records from temples in the region also suggest that the bridge was passable on foot up until the 15th century.
For the Portuguese, the town was of strategic location in the region until it fell to the Dutch in 1658. We visited the town’s fort that still guards the Mannar strait at sunset and it gave us an eerie feeling to walk among the ruins. This was a strategic position for controlling the spice trade and its thick walls, ramparts and church are silent witnesses to the battles, deaths and dreams of men who once walked and lived there. Today, after the 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka, the fort is deserted and you can walk around its abandoned buttresses without meeting a soul. There is a sadness to these ruins that is hard to pinpoint; the gravestones and the walls tell a story, and if you sit quietly you might hear it.
Despite its historic significance, Mannar is still a little-visited part of Sri Lanka that is only just beginning to open up to travelers making it a wonderful place for adventure seekers. We have developed several programs in this region featuring elements of local culture, including visits to Hindu temples, colonial-era architecture and, of course, plenty of opportunities to sample the amazing Tamil cuisine of the region.
For those of you who want to see a side of Sri Lanka far away from the crowds, this is the place to be. It’s also an excellent location from which to explore Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, as well as the provincial capital, Jaffna.
Blogged by Gonzalo Gil Lavedra, General Manger at Khiri Travel Sri Lanka
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