Katchatheevu | An island for all, or none 

Katchatheevu, an island in the Palk Strait, has for long been a bone of contention between India and Sri Lanka. A church festival on this tiny piece of land however, draws pilgrims, mainly fisherfolk, from both countries, praying for happiness, health and good livelihoods

March 11, 2023 04:54 pm | Updated April 01, 2024 06:22 pm IST - RAMESWARAM

A view of Katchatheevu island in Sri Lanka.

A view of Katchatheevu island in Sri Lanka. | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

The last-minute check for essential travel items, the mad rush to nearby shops to buy water bottles and water cans, elders urging children to keep their identity cards in hand, security personnel asking people to maintain order: this cacophony grows, as do the serpentine queues as people pour in, awaiting the short boat ride across a choppy sea. 

After a thorough security check, about 2,400 Indian visitors are ready to embark on a pilgrimage. In batches, about 70 mechanised and country boats set sail for the two-day St. Antony’s Church festival, which is held every year in February or March, at Katchatheevu, an island, which is now part of Sri Lanka.

Watch | How is the St. Antony’s church festival at Katchatheevu celebrated?
| Video Credit: L. Balachandar

The politics

Katchatheevu, in the Palk Strait, is a tiny island, measuring 285.20 acres, and is located about 14 nautical miles from Rameswaram in India. The proximity of the isle to both countries, India and Sri Lanka, has been the cause of its being a bone of contention between the two nations for decades now.

Indian pilgrims at Rameswaram fishing jetty, before leaving for Katchatheevu on March 3, 2023

Indian pilgrims at Rameswaram fishing jetty, before leaving for Katchatheevu on March 3, 2023 | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

While there are records stating that the island was part of the then Ramnad Kingdom, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) also laid claim to it. It was administered jointly under British rule.

It was in the 1970s that the nondescript island gained prominence, and in 1974 and 1976 two agreements between the two nations followed. Then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike signed agreements making Katchatheevu a part of Sri Lanka. Even since, with Katchatheevu determining the maritime border, fishing rights have been a topic of debate on both sides.

While Indian politicians want the island retrieved, Sri Lankan politicians have not taken much interest in talks of handing the piece of land back to India.

In 1974, then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M. Karunanidhi wrote to the Prime Minister, citing records that showed Katchatheevu belonged to the Ramnad Kingdom and claimed the land for the State.

A view of St. Antony’s Church in Katchatheevu during the two-day festival held in the first week of March.

A view of St. Antony’s Church in Katchatheevu during the two-day festival held in the first week of March. | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

Subsequently in 1991, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa urged the Centre to retrieve Katchatheevu and restore the fishing rights of Indian fishermen. The Tamil Nadu Assembly adopted resolutions that said the State would retrieve Katchatheevu.

In 2001, Ms. Jayalalithaa met then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and urged him to obtain the island on a lease in-perpetuity for the fishermen of Tamil Nadu. Ms. Jayalalithaa continued these efforts in the following years: in 2008, she moved the Supreme Court to declare the earlier agreements signed between the two countries. null and void.

In 2013, Mr. Karunanidhi also filed a separate petition to declare those agreements null and void. In 2014 however, the Centre told the Supreme Court that Katchatheevu was a sovereign part of Sri Lanka.

Car festival at St. Anthony church at Katchatheevu island in Sri Lanka on March 3, 2023

Car festival at St. Anthony church at Katchatheevu island in Sri Lanka on March 3, 2023 | Photo Credit: BALACHANDAR L

Last year, at an event attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Chennai, Chief Minister M. K. Stalin appealed to the PM with regard to this, and said that this was the right time to retrieve Katchatheevu as it would uphold the rights of Indian fishermen.

At a meeting in Ramanathapuram, BJP’s Tamil Nadu president K. Annamalai said PM Modi could retrieve Katchatheevu, while other Tamil political parties such as the MDMK, VCK, PMK, Naam Tamilar Katchi and others have also sought the retrieval of the island. Earlier, BJP leader Sushma Swaraj had also promised to look into the issue.

Sri Lanka firm in its position

On the other hand, Sri Lanka has been firm in their position there was no question of handing the island over, and it has established a naval camp at Katchatheevu.

P. Jesuraja, a fishermen leader from Rameswaram, recollects that in earlier days, the fishermen would freely use the waters for fishing and exchange pleasantries with their Sri Lankan counterparts, and relax on the island. They engaged in a barter system, he said. It was after the civil war in Sri Lanka that the whole scenario changed, he said.

India and Sri Lankan pilgrims offering prayer at Katchatheevu in view of  St. Antony church two days festival at Katchatheevu in Sri Lanka.

India and Sri Lankan pilgrims offering prayer at Katchatheevu in view of St. Antony church two days festival at Katchatheevu in Sri Lanka. | Photo Credit: BALACHANDAR L

In those days, Indian fishermen would go to Katchatheevu and even beyond. No authorities would stop them. “Once upon a time, we used to pray at the church, cook and eat with our Sri Lankan counterparts on the island,” he said.

Another fishermen leader S.P. Rayappan agrees. He says that earlier, the fishermen used country boats, and fishermen from both countries would use the island to dry their fishing nets, eat food together and relax.

They would pray at the church and there were no restrictions even after the agreement between the two nations were signed. But after the civil war in Sri Lanka, things changed.

St. Antony’s Church Festival

It is in this backdrop that the once-in-a- year festival gains importance, this year, with pilgrims riding the choppy waters. As the crew carefully steer the boat towards its destination, they have to stop four times for verification by the Indian and Sri Lankan Navies. After a two-and-half-hour journey, the boats dock at the floating jetty and Indian pilgrims set foot on Sri Lanka’s Katchatheevu island.

Indian and Sri Lankan pilgrims worshipping at the St. Antony’s church in Katchatheevu

Indian and Sri Lankan pilgrims worshipping at the St. Antony’s church in Katchatheevu | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

Following another set of verifications, both Indian and Sri Lankan pilgrims, are guided through a pathway that meanders around scraggy scrubs, some as tall as trees. After walking for about 15 minutes, the pilgirms reach St. Antony Church.

The event started at around 4 p.m on March 3, with the flag hoisting, followed by the ‘Way of the Cross’ procession and a car procession where the statue of St. Antony was carried around the church. The prayers are said in Tamil and this continued through the night with people reading verses from the Bible.

The foundation stone for the construction of a new church, beside the old church was laid in May 2016 and the construction was completed in December that year. The construction of the new church was funded by the Sri Lankan Navy. It is believed that the old church was built by Indian fishermen.

Prayers are usually held for the wellbeing of people on both sides and especially for fisherfolk. However, this time special prayers were held for the Island nation as it recovers from an economic crisis. It is believed, among the fisherfolk, that St. Antony gives hope, and this draws people of all faiths to the island. 

A question of faith

A. Dominic Dias from Mannar district in Sri Lanka is visiting the shrine for the fifth time. He says that initially, even 15 years after his wedding, he and his wife had had no children. He adds that he visited the shrine in 2018 and the following year, the couple was blessed with a baby girl. “My daughter is in nursery now,” he says with a smile.

Pilgrims put up tents to stay overnight on the Katchatheevu island for the church festival

Pilgrims put up tents to stay overnight on the Katchatheevu island for the church festival | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

It was a similar situation for the Rameswaram-based couple Spino and Shobana. Following prayers at the shrine, they had a boy in 2011, says Shobana. S. Kamaladevi, who had come with her sons, said that on an earlier occasion, she had visited the shrine and prayed for her elder son to recover from ill health. With his operation being successful, and her son recovering, she had come to the shrine to give thanks.

A. Lily Pushpam of Chennai, who came with her family, said she believes that anyone who has lost someone or something will get it back, if they pray to St. Antony. 

At the shrine, petitions by the pilgrims are read out by the church authorities and prayers are said. Most of the petitions are from people wishing to go abroad, those hoping to get married, some for better health, for a stable economy and livelihood.

Outside the old church, people can be seen buying little metal figurines in the shape of couples, eyes, legs, hands, etc. “The belief is that if you are not married, you place a couple figurine in front of St. Antony and pray, and your wish will be granted,” says Arokiaraj from Villupuram.

A view of Katchatheevu in Sri Lanka.

A view of Katchatheevu in Sri Lanka. | Photo Credit: BALACHANDAR L

A little further away from the church is a statue of St. Antony where people light candles.

While mostly fisherfolk attend the festival, this year a number of people from outside Tamil Nadu also attended the event. Bengaluru-based human rights activist John Bosco Philips said that he had come along with about 150 people from Karnataka. He had earlier visited the shrine in 2014.

Trade thrives

When night descends, the church is illuminated, and at a distance one can hear ‘Indiayargaluku chumma Indiayargaluku chumma’ (free for Indians). MAM Fazil from Kandy, who had set up a snacks stall, calls out loudly to the visitors, offering generous samples of halwa. He says Sri Lanka is facing a severe economic crisis and thanks the Indians for buying at his shop.

Stalls near the church do brisk business with pilgrims lining up to buy their wares

Stalls near the church do brisk business with pilgrims lining up to buy their wares | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

The market comes alive as the night lengthens, following the conclusion of the prayers. People from both sides make a dash to the shops that have been set up along the pathway to the church. 

Shops selling rosaries, items made of seashells, bedsheets, snacks, toys, tea and soft drinks get busy. However, the highlight is shops selling the famed ‘Rani’ soaps. Indians are seen making enquiries about the varieties of this and purchasing the items in bulk.

There are exchanges of pleasantries. While some of the Indians offer kadalai mittai (peanut candy) to their counterparts, the Sri Lankan’s offer soaps and oils in exchange.

Recollecting his earlier visits to the island, S. Ramesh, a trader from Colombo, says earlier, there was a barter system, and Indians and Sri Lankans would exchange products. But now, this has reduced. Indians pay for their products in Indian Rupees.

Stalls near St. Antony church at Katchatheevu in Sri Lanka do brisk business with pilgrims lining up to buy their wares during the two-day church festival in March 2023.

Stalls near St. Antony church at Katchatheevu in Sri Lanka do brisk business with pilgrims lining up to buy their wares during the two-day church festival in March 2023. | Photo Credit: BALACHANDAR L

S. Saranya from Jaffna, who was selling rosaries, sea shells, and toys, says it is difficult to make ends meet back home in Sri Lanka. Selling these items helps her make some money.

There were arrangement made for drinking water on the island. However, the toilet facilities were not adequate for the 5,000-odd people who had arrived. A medical camp with beds had been set up by the Sri Lankan authorities.

While food packets were made available by the authorities on the island, most of the pilgirms had packed their own food and shared it around with family and friends.

Amidst all the bustle, there are families sitting under the shade of the shrubs, cooking dinner. Some lie under tents and some under the star-lit sky. Some share the food with those who came by. Some are seen relaxing on the beach and having a swim.

Meeting of friends

For I. Pinaygash, an advocate from Madurai, this was his fourth visit. He said that he saw the visit to the shrine as a unifying factor, and of brotherhood.

Pilgrims of both countries seen on the Katchatheevu island, waiting to board boats back to the mainland

Pilgrims of both countries seen on the Katchatheevu island, waiting to board boats back to the mainland | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

Years ago, he had met Jeslin of Talaimannar at the shrine. The two became friends and promised to meet again. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the friends could not meet.

Much to the surprise of Pinaygash, following prayers at the church this year, Jeslin made an announcement on the mike at the church saying that she was looking for Irudhya Mary’s son Pinaygash.

Pinaygash met his friend and her family with his family, and the two families exchanged pleasantries.

Talks with fisherfolk

On March 3, Sri Lankan Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda held talks with fishermen on both sides. Navy officials were present at the meeting.

At the meeting, the Minister assured the fishers that he would hold talks with his Indian counterpart to resolve the long-pending issues pertaining to the fisherfolk of both sides.

Indian Coast Guard verifying the details of the boat and the visitors who are on their return from Katchatheevu

Indian Coast Guard verifying the details of the boat and the visitors who are on their return from Katchatheevu | Photo Credit: BALACHANDAR L

While some fishermen from Nagapattinam took part in the talks, the ones from Rameswaram did not. The fisherfolk on both sides reiterated their stand on the issue of fishing in the waters between the two countries. The Sri Lankan fishermen said their livelihood was affected as the Indian fishermen crossed the maritime border to fish.

The Rameswaram fishermen hoped that there would be a solution soon. They said that no result was achieved the last time these talks were held.

Time to bid adieu

On day two, March 4, following the morning prayers which were said in both Tamil and Sinhalese, it was time to bid adieu. Tired pilgrims waved to the Sri Lankan authorities thanking them for their hospitality and assuring them they would come back.

The sea was calm, and by noon, the Indian pilgrims had reached Rameswaram. Following a routine check by customs officials, they made their way back home, with memories of the festival, gifts, hospitality and cross-border friendships.

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