A country ravaged by 30 years of brutal war and savage terrorism, one of whose highlights was the export of the first female human bomber who took out Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, is today fast becoming the tourist hub of South Asia. The transition from terrorism to tourism has been both scintillating and commonsensical. For, Sri Lanka is endowed with almost every natural resource on planet earth, except oil. Instead, it has a galaxy of majestic beaches. I remember how, in the late 1980s, all of the north-east of Sri Lanka was off limits for tourists while the IPKF battled the Tamil Tigers. Except for some intrepid Germans who ran beach resorts from Arugam Bay to Vakarai till the LTTE killed their business.
I had set up the only rest and recuperation camp for soldiers, near Batticaloa, which proved a big hit. Last month, I undertook a nostalgic pilgrimage, doing a half-circle of Sri Lanka, from Colombo-Galle-Pottuvil to Batticaloa-Trincomalee-Colombo by road, some 1,600 km in five days. With the war terminated in May 2009 and not a single incident of terrorism ever since, the country has become a haven of peace—salubrious environs, friendly people and great food, all at very little cost.
Galle, near Dondra Head, is the southernmost tip of the country, like Point Pedro is in the north. The clock tower and the light house stick out of the rundown Portuguese-built fort in 1505, now refurbished as a must-see cocktail of Portuguese, Dutch and British art and craft consisting of a maritime museum, governor house-turned-hotel, the Dutch Reform church, Galle Library and so on. The ramparts once mounted 19 cannons to keep intruders at bay.
Some 1,00,000 ships sail east-west and vice versa close by, making it the busiest commercial route in the Indian Ocean. Almost the entire stretch of the coast is dotted with inns and hotels, all crowded with foreigners passionate about sea-surfing and diving. Marissa fishing harbour is the tuna collection point during the north-east monsoon as well as for whale-watching some 20 nautical miles off Galle. During the south-west monsoon, whales shift towards Trincomalee. One of the two surviving wartime ships, the A 543, rechristened Princess of Lanka, demonstrates its whale-spotting skills as perfectly as it once ferried Lankan warriors from Trincomalee to Jaffna. (A 542 was sunk by the LTTE in Trincomalee Harbour in 2001).
The drive from Galle to the Eastern Province is across vastly improved two-way roads. We bypass the sparsely used China-built Hambantota Port and Rajapaksa International Airport, the objects of recent ire, and zip across Matara and Monaragala, the heartland of home-made curd. If Rajapaksa had had his way, Hambantota might have become one of the historically southward shifting capitals of Sri Lanka.
The entry to the Hindu and Muslim-Tamil east is made at Amparai-Sammanthurai, thence up north to Batticaloa, the land of the Singing Fish and the erstwhile headquarters of the IPKF South at Manresa, previously the location of the Jesuit School. The dirt track to Manresa is worse than in IPKF time, the school is restored and a delightful butterfly park has been added. The last of the three remaining Jesuit priests is traced to St Michael’s College—a 91-year-old American, Father Benjamin Henry Miller. The priests were sympathetic to the LTTE cause and Fr Miller, though he did not remember, often pleaded on their behalf.
Unfortunately, the tourism boom is less visible here despite the grand beaches in Kalkudah and Paskudah. The fish will need to sing louder for that to happen.
Trincomalee boasts of the world’s second best natural harbour after Sydney. Capital of the Eastern Province, its former LTTE chief minister Pillayan is in jail for the murder of a political opponent. A harbour cruise is a must, as are visits to the Navy House and Elephant Point, the repository of LTTE’s innovative under and over-water contraptions, which were responsible for so much devastation. A battery of three 12-inch British guns at Elephant Point kept the enemy out for more than a century. North of Trinco is Nilaveli Beach, rated the best in the world with every inch of it valued as gold.
Colombo, sadly, will soon lose the grandeur of Galle Face Green (which is actually brown) and its view of the sea due to the high-rise apartments, hotels and a new Port City, mostly to be built by the Chinese. Once the phrase used to be ‘the Yanks are Coming’. In Sri Lanka now, the Chinese can say Veni Vidi Vici.
The author is former GOC, IPKF South, and a frequent traveller to Sri Lanka