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Sri Lanka: St. Antony feast Katchatheevu



 There is a myth among public in both India and Sri Lanka that Indian fishermen can come to this island and dry their nets. That was in 1974 agreement, where even Sri Lanka fishermen had right to fish in “Wedge bank” , in Indian waters closer to Kanyakumari. 


by Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne 

The Jaffna Divisional Secretary informed the public well in advance that St Antony Feast in Katchatheevuisland is cancelled this year due to Covit- 19 pandemic. The decision was well understood by devotees of both Sri Lanka and India.

This annual feast on tiny island closer to India-Sri Lanka International boundary line ( IMBL) was annual meeting place for specially the fishermen of both the countries. Last year (2020) feast was attended by more than ten thousand devotees. For the first time, Sri Lankan devotees out numbered Indians. Anticipating these facts, Bishop of Jaffna, Rt. Rev. Justin Bernard Ganapragasam had invited Bishop of Diocese of Galle, Rt. Rev Raymond Wickramasinghe also. The mass last year was conducted in all three languages, Sinhala, Tamil and English.

Old Church built in 1905 in Kachchtivu

As devotee of St Antony, the Saint look after seafarers like me, even though I am a Buddhist, I was sad that I am going to miss this year feast.

Good news came from Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenna.few days back. He said Jaffna Bishop has requested to have a mass at Katchatheevuisland without public presence with few Rev fathers and Sisters on 27th February 2021, and if I am keen, I can join them. I was delighted.

Whenever I visit Katchatheevufeast, I travel to this tiny island previous day afternoon. Katchatheevu is 163 acre large and located half nautical mile from Indo-Sri Lanka IMBL which we ratified with UN Law of the Sea conference in 1976, in which maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives were demarcated and agreed by all three countries and ratified at United Nations.

There is a myth among public in both India and Sri Lanka that Indian fishermen can come to this island and dry their nets. That was in 1974 agreement, where even Sri Lanka fishermen had right to fish in “Wedge bank” , in Indian waters closer to Kanyakumari. 

When 1976 agreement ratified, those privileges were diminished and now Katchatheevuis Sri Lanka territory well within our waters. Please read famous book on Katchatheevu by late Mr WT Jayasinghe, who was our Defence and External Affairs Secretary in 1970s (father of late Mr Romesh Jayasinghe, our Foreign Secretary in 2000s)to learn more about how our beloved Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s diplomatic skills and close personal relationship with then Indian PM Mrs Indira Gandhi won us KKatchatheevuisland.

Those who championed in Tamilnadu and in Indian Central government on taking back Katchatheevufrom Sri Lanka should refer to what Indian Attorney General Mukul Rohargi told Supreme Court of India, bench led by Chief Justice of India R M Lodha on 26th August 2014, “KKatchatheevu was gone to Sri Lanka by an agreement in 1974. It was ceded and now act as boundary. How can it be taken back today? If you want Katchatheevuback, you will have to go to War to get it back”.  

Fort Hammenniel

My accommodation in Jaffna was arraigned at Fort Hammenniel , beautiful fort built by Dutch at entrence of Karinagar channel, entrance to old Jaffna port of Kytes, now part of our Naval Base, SLNS Karinagar. This tiny Dutch fort has its own history in our country, the place where JVP leader late Mr Rohana Wijewrrea was kept in captivity in 1971 with 100-odd JVP leaders. I could not imagine how it would be with 100 prisoners in this small fort.

Please do not get alarmed, I was not accommodated in this cells, but in one of the four super Luxury rooms in the top deck of the fort.

Fort Hammenniel

My dear friend, Rear Admiral Senarath Wijesooriya , the Commander Northern Naval Area joined me to travel to Katchatheevu26th evening . We travelled in an indigenously built Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC), which can move at 38 knots (approx 50 mph). 

During the final stages of our conflict with LTTE, under guidance of then Commander of the Navy, today our Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, Navy Engineers built more than 100 IPCs which brought LTTE Sea Tigers to their knees on asymmetric naval warfare as per “ Lanchester theory “ and destroy all their “ ultimate weapon at sea” - Suicide boats. Visionary leadership of Admiral of the Fleet Karannagoda, who always told us, “ You cannot Buy a Navy- you have to built one” ! How true ! We built it for you Sir. Bravo Zulu to our Engineers !

IPC moved at 38 knots at mirror-calm sea, took only one hour and forty minutes to reach Katchatheevufrom Karinagar. I was so impressed with Petty Officer in charge of the IPC, for his boat handling, beaching the boat at Katchatheevu and professional competent. With such junior leaders, our Navy’s future is bright.

With full noon, calm sea and light breeze from North East direction, it was a beautiful night. Few scores of sailors were preparing the church and surroundings for next morning.

One thing missing this year was crowd. Camping in small groups and singing hymns praising St Antony was not heard this year. The small “Street” in Katchatheevuwhich was full of makeshift Indian shops with sarees, cloths and sweet meats andSri Lankan shops with Lux soap, coconut oil and cinnamon were not there this time.

The new church built by the Navy five years ago on request of Bishop of Jaffna was looking beautiful. This was a hundred percent donation by officers and sailors of the Navy. It cost us rupees 7.7 millón, total contribution by the Navy personnel, majority of them were Buddhists like me. This church going to be symbol of reconciliation. 

Sunrise on 27th February 2021-empty beaches

Next day , 27th, by 0930 hrs mass stared , led by Very Rev Father Pathinathar Joshopthas Jebaratham, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Jaffna. 

Mass was attended by fifty officers and sailors following strict quarantine laws. Vicar General , Very Rev Father Jebarathnam blessed all present and those who comes every year to Katchatheevuwho missed this year due to pandemic. I personally missed our Sri Lankan and Indian Fishing community brothers and sisters. Their request to St Anthony was always very simple, that is for them to have good catch of fish next year, so that they can keep their homes fed and to chance come back to St Antony feast next year.

I also kept my request also simple. “Thank you St Antony, allowing me to come to Katchatheevuthis year and give me the strength to come back next year !”

(The writer is retired from Sri Lanka Navy and Former Chief of Defence Staff )


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