V. Nadarajah (84) a retired Grama Seva Niladhari, a resident in Canada, returned to the Delft Island where he was born and raised. He landed in a sparsely populated island totally different to the one he had left which was bustling with activity. Despite the many changes that amazed him, he was particularly
moved to see the Hindu temple still standing there, where he and his parents had prayed together at a time when the entire Northern Province had been nearly as peaceful as the temple premises.
Delft Island, located towards the North West coast of Jaffna, is the remotest from the mainland and is accessible by boat within one and a half hours. After the end of the war, local and foreign tourists have started visiting this island to see places of scenic beauty and historical significance. But, it is still a trickle, probably due to the lack of people’s awareness on the rich history- of the island and the unique life-style of its inhabitants. Another reason for this may be the lack of facilities available for visitors to encourage more arrivals to the island.
Nadarajah’s vivid memories
Nadarajah said he had worked in the Delft Island as a Grama Seva Niladhari between 1963 and 1988. Yet, in 1990, he, like some other northerners, migrated to Canada along with his children since the escalation of violence made the islandlife difficult. After 23 years of stay in an alien land, he still has emotional attachment to his native place.
“Canada may be a better place for young people. But, old people like me still prefer our motherland. I feel lonely in Canada. I am all alone at home when my children go to work. I would like to come and stay here. Yet, my children do not like it”, he said as he lit an oil lamp at the temple before saying prayers to God.
As an elderly citizen, he can well compare the transformation of the island life between the war time and peace time.
“Before the eruption of war, there were a lot of people here. We had mostly bullock carts and push bicycles. Due to the conflict, most people left the island and went to the mainland or migrated to the western countries, and that included me,” he said.
"Canada may be a better place for young people. But, old people like me still prefer our motherland. I feel lonely in Canada. I am all alone at home when my children go to work. I would like to come and stay here. Yet, my children do not like it"
With the end of fighting, electricity has been provided to the island through power generators. Mobile phone connectivity in the area is effective too. There are two small passenger boats operated by the Road Development Authority, that ferry people across the strip of sea between the mainland and this island.
Journey to the Delft
To get to the Delft Island, one has to first make a 40 kilometer journey from Jaffna to the Karaikattuvan jetty. And then take the ferry service to reach either Delft or nearby historic and sacred Nagadeepa islands.
Delft is the name given to the island by the Dutch rulers during the colonial era. The Portuguese called it Ilha das Vacas. After all, the locals name is Neduntivu. The area is 4,717 hectares in extent, 8 kilometres long and 6 kilometres wide.
As you get off the boat in the Delft, visitors are greeted by those hiring small lorries called ‘Dimo Battas’ for sight-seeing in the dry, arid land dotted with Palmyra and coconut palms.
After a bumpy and bone rattling ride, they take you first to see a limestone claimed to be growing in size with the passage of time. Visitors call it ‘Dalulana Gala (Growing Stone) because of this phenomenon, and they see it with both awe and wonderment. It is regarded with reverence by some people, probably due to its location adjacent to the precincts of the Hindu Temple.
Nadarajah’s vivid memory
Mr. Nadarajah had vivid memory of the growth of this stone made of lime or coral.
“When I was small, we used to sit on this stone. Today, you see how big it has grown. It is too high due to the growth with the passage of time,” he said.
Despite local beliefs surrounding the gradual growth of this stone, experts said that it was geologically possible for a stone to grow.
According to Physical Geographer and Professor Senevi Epitawatte, lime stones and coral stones are found in the island areas of Jaffna.
“I have not seen this particular stone. However, it may be growing in size due to an upward pressure caused by the growth and expansion of a layer of rock mass beneath it. It may be growing by two or three millimetres a year. Lime stones, in that area, date back to the Miocene era. It means they are as old as 25 million years,” Prof. Epitawatte said.
"All in all, there is great potential for the development of the Delft Island as a tourist hotspot, particularly for leisure time activities. If it is done, living standard of the Delft people can be improved giving a boost to the overall national economic growth at the same time"
Baobab tree with large hollow
Yet another attraction was the Baobab tree which had a hollow large enough for several people to get in. The tree is believed to have been planted by the Portuguese. Its leaves are used for medicinal purposes such as treating sick ponies which species is a legacy left by the colonial rulers.
The Fort built by the Portuguese
The ruins of a Fort, built by the Portuguese are found near the coast of the island. This Fort which had thick walls, appeared to have been well fortified.
The book “Romantic Ceylon: its history, legend, and story” by Ralph Henry Bassett thus describes this Fort, “ It is a very strongly fortified two-storied dwelling, covering an area about fifty square yards, with a double centre wall of immense thickness. This wall completely cuts the Fort in half at ground-level, the only means of communication being on the first floor-a common precautionary measure in defensive structures of that period. As a result, it is a very complicated edifice, full of long narrow and little square rooms.”
The Dutch rulers had built a barrack nearby, and it is surrounded by a wall. The book says, “The barracks were surrounded by a wall, a great part of which still stands, enclosing an area of about two hundred square yards.
The most striking building in the island is the pigeon cote. It is still intact attracting viewers. Messenger pigeons had been trained to leave their messages in it during the time they had been used as the mode of communication. It is made of coral stone, with a solid base about eight squar feet. Also, found in the vicinity are the ruins of the Dutch court.
There is a separate Pradeshiya Sabha for Delft Island, and it is controlled by the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), an ally of the government. It has been the political base of the EPDP right from the beginning.
These days, the party is active in campaigning for the election to the Northern Provincial Council. Loudspeakers blaring from the party office, appeal to voters. There are only 4,800 families living in the island.
Snake stings, Itchy rashes
The Delft hospital is run by one doctor and a few nurses, and most of its wards remain unoccupied. Patients with critical illnesses are always rushed out of the island with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Navy.
Dr. Y. Yogadeepan attached to the hospital, said people in the island lack health education.
“We get patients with general complaints. They have a lot of nutritional problems. Apart from that, patients come to us stung by snakes or having developed itchy rashes caused by sea flies found in the island,” he said.
The small bazaar, in the middle of the island, reminds one, of the appearances of a township that existed a few decades ago in the country. The shops are housed in an old building, reminiscent of an age old co-operative shop in a village. Textiles and fancy goods are available for sale, but there is no active business. At grocery shops, items are sold at prices a little higher than the fixed rates. Traders’ transport costs involved in ferrying the goods to the island lead to these higher tariffs.
Mohamed Saleem is a textile peddler who came to the island recently from Kattankudy.
“People haven’t got enough money. So, I do not have enough business. Sarees and sarongs are the most sought after items here. My daily business turnover is about Rs.2000,” Saleem said. He said the building which houses his shop had been constructed in 1920.
Employment for youths and means of livelihood are the major demands of the islanders.
Groundwater is salty in the island. People have to depend on Sri Lanka Navy to provide drinking water. Electricity is provided through a substation. But, there are frequent power disruptions. Permanently built modest households are found. Uniquely, people have fenced their gardens using stones neatly stacked one above the other without the use of any plaster. In addition to fishing and processing dry fish, people are engaged in agriculture to a small extent. They also keep livestock to supplement their family income.
Wild ponies (some call them wild horses) roam freely in one part of the island. These animals had been taken to the island by the Portuguese during their time in Sri Lanka. These skinny ponies point to the fact that they lack food in this dry and arid land.
During night time, islanders say, the illumination of Rameswaram Kovil in the southern most corner of India is visible. There is also the ruin of an ancient Buddhist Viharaya which the Sri Lanka Navy is now planning to rebuild for preservation.
All in all, there is great potential for the development of the Delft Island as a tourist hotspot, particularly for leisure time activities. If it is done, the quality of life of people can be improved, giving a boost to the national economic growth as well.