For fisherfolk in Sri Lanka's Northern Province and Tamil Nadu, the shrine of St. Anthony on Katchatheevu island stands as a huge symbol of hope.

Spine upright, and hands together, A. Rajan was offering a prayer to his guardian angel on Sunday.

The fishing trade in Talaimannar — where he has come from — has never looked so tough, he says. “The catch has gone down drastically, and the price we get for our fish has fallen,” says the young man who does fishing for a living.

For fisherfolk — both in Sri Lanka, particularly in its Northern Province, and Tamil Nadu — the shrine of St. Anthony on Katchatheevu island, which falls on the Sri Lankan side of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), stands as a huge symbol of hope.

Common prayer

This weekend saw over 5,000 people, largely fisherfolk, from either side of the island, congregating here. The annual St. Anthony’s festival is, in fact, the only time this tiny strip of land on the Palk Bay, otherwise uninhabited all through the year, brims with people differing from one another in Tamil dialect and nationality. The prayer seems more or less common — that their fishing trade goes on smoothly, though the recent years have drawn people from other occupations and faiths as well, organisers say.

“The strong belief among fisherfolk is that this Saint will convey their concerns and prayers to God. That is why they come in such large numbers,” says Father A. Amalaraj, a parish priest from Delft Island, which is closer to Jaffna Peninsula. “I spent a month here to prepare for this festival,” he says, at the close of the two-day event. The shrine was built by fisherfolk who stopped by at the island for a mid-sea break, say prevalent accounts of legend on the island, but its history is hazy, says Fr. Amalaraj. “It is said that for many, many years fishermen from both countries have been stopping here to offer prayers.”

It is an almost two-hour boat journey from Rameswaram — the only departure point from India from where 95 boats came this year — or any point off Jaffna peninsula or Mannar on the Sri Lankan side. Irrespective of which side you come from, you are greeted by a prominently placed board that reads “Welcome to Sri Lanka,” just as you land on the shore, with a variety of shells crunching under your shoes.

Sri Lankan national flags sway to the strong sea breeze, and several flags, sporting brown and yellow shades, catch your eye — the priests later tell me it is part of the custom. Apart from a few water tanks, tents, small stalls, the island has some bushes. Construction of 80 toilets is the only infrastructure addition this year.

Following the prayer mass on Saturday evening, most pilgrims have dinner — that they have packed from home — and get ready to retire under the sky, with an almost-full moon shining over the sea. Some encounter old friends, others make new ones.

They have an early start the following day. At about 5 a.m. on Sunday, a nun in a beige sari, with a muffler around her head, stands under the still-dark sky, swaying her arms, warming up. This is her first visit during the festival. Sister Rajam, the pilgrim from Madurai, says she was initially apprehensive about making this trip, but the facilities, though basic, were good enough for a couple of days. “Also, listening to all the politics around Katchatheevu, I was curious to see this island that everyone is fighting over.”

Enormous exercise

A lot of effort goes into the event, for 5,000-odd people of two nationalities have to be hosted on an island with virtually no facilities, explains Father L. Sahayaraj, the parish priest from the Indian side, one of the main coordinators in Ramanathapuram district. The Indian Consulate in Jaffna; the Ramanathapuram District Collectorate; fishermen’s associations; the Sri Lankan High Commission in Tamil Nadu; and the Navy and the Coast Guard of both countries work together for months, engaging in an enormous exercise of logistics — right from providing toilets to ensuring that all participants hold valid identity proof. “It is really the belief and this tradition that brings so many people back every year,” says Fr. Sahayaraj.

Soon after the Sunday mass, people begin packing up and move towards the shore. The shrine area morphs into an information centre for a crowded boat terminus, with announcements about boat numbers and departures blaring through the loud speakers.

Gradually, by 11 a.m. Katchatheevu is getting back to being its empty self — with a lot more plastic that organisers say will need at least two weeks’ cleaning. People crowd around its shores, boarding different boats, back to either side of the much-contested island.