More hidden gems from Jaffna

Story and pix By Kishanie S. Fernando Ceylon Today Features
The Jaffna Museum managed by the Archeological Department is located in Nallur along a crowded street. Here, on a rear portion of a land almost hidden from the road and surrounded by large shade trees, is this unpretentious building with a tiled roof, comprising about four to five halls and a central courtyard. The front portion of the land is occupied by the Navalar Cultural Hall.
On either side of the entrance doorway are the remains of two Buddhist dagobas, the spiraled conical part of it known as the kotha. Still outside in a shed or two are some cannons and tombstones from Jaffna’s Dutch Fort.
Inside the museum is a rare collection of antiquities from Tamil and Sinhalese culture and history. These include wooden carvings, panelling and pillars from kovils and kovil chariots, wood and stone images of gods and goddesses, stone holy water troughs, and so on. There is also a collection from Kadurugoda and other Buddhist ruins found in and around Jaffna. These include Buddha statues, parts of dagobas and other sacred edifices and coins. Some colonial period artifacts are also exhibited. An interesting piece among this collection is an antique British umbrella stand and a crumbling life size painting of a British monarch.
Other exhibits include pottery, utensils, jewellery boxes, traditional game boards, armoury, palanquins, sun dials, chunam boxes, sea shells, musical instruments, wood carvings of mythical creatures, a wooden stock (a wooden structure with holes in which a criminal’s hands and feet are locked as punishment) stone inscriptions, and so on.
However, it is easy to miss out on the importance of these valuables due to the state of its preservation and presentation. The caretaker of the museum informed us that there are plans to transfer the museum to a better location soon.
A bottomless well

On the west side of the road that leads from Jaffna to Point Pedro lies the Puttur Tidal Well, better known today as the Nilavarai Bottomless Well, believed from time immemorial to be a mystery.
Popular folklore attributes the creation of the well to Rama, the hero of the Ramayana Epic, who on his journey to Lanka seeking his abducted queen Sita, struck his arrow here, creating a source of water to refresh his followers.
Another source refers to the existence in Puttur of a Hindu shrine in front of which was an underground cave into which hermits retired for their yogic exercises. One day, a water spout suddenly burst in to existence, completely submerging the cave. The story goes on to say that the well remained thereafter as a hallowed spot for Hindus and is known to this day as Nila-arai.
For centuries, the well has been the subject of keen observation and at least three experiments have been carried out with regard to its depths and waters. I was fortunate to come across an old news report containing details of these experiments and some intriguing facts adduced there from.
The experiment in 1824 was carried out with the intention of harnessing this inexhaustible source for irrigation throughout the year for fields in the surrounding districts.
According to the said news report: In 1824, Sir Edward Barnes the then Governor of Sri Lanka caused a steam engine with three pumps to work the well continuously for no less than 48 hours but all that they succeeded in doing was draw off a prodigious amount of water. They had in no spectacular way reduced the contents of the well, which rose each day precisely an inch-and-a-half between 7.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. and again between 8.00 p.m. and 12.00 midnight, falling an equivalent extent of three inches in the interval. It was also noted that the well was never known to overflow or recede below a certain fixed point.
More seriously, in 1895, the first attempt was made to ascertain the capacity of the well. H.F. Tomalin, the Provincial Engineer in Jaffna at that time, was entrusted with carrying out the pumping trials, which were to last continuously for 10 hours a day for 10 days. But these trials were unsuccessful due to failure of the machinery. However, the following data was collected. Daily 388,000 gallons of water was pumped and it was observed that on the first five days the level of water had gone down by three inches below the original level. However, within the next four days, the pumped water was replaced during the night. From this experiment, Tomalin came to the deduction that the well was not bottomless. He figured the depth around 145 feet on the northern side and 120 feet on the southern side. Up to a depth of about 80 feet he found the water to be fresh but thereafter gradually became brackish until at the depth of 130 feet he found it to be brine, impregnated with hydrogen sulphide.
 The oscillations in the level of water remained a mystery. However, it was explained by the locals who believed that the well communicated with the sea at Keerimalai, some seven miles to the north-west and from which a subterranean stream flows inwards by means of some irregular fissure. This seems a plausible explanation for the presence of salt water in the lower reaches of the well. The presence of fresh water at the top is attributed to percolation through coral rack and perhaps to an irregular supply at intervals from the surface.
Again, in 1946, another pumping trial was carried out with the intention of harnessing this well for agricultural purposes. Two very powerful engines pumped 4,000 gallons per minute daily. It was found that the level of the salt water below was raising and the top water level remained unchanged. There was a certain amount of recuperation overnight when the pumping was suspended. From data collected at these trials, it was found that the well can easily undertake the irrigation of about 200 acres.
 St. Anthony of Passaiyoor
St. Anthony’s Church Passaiyoor is the only church dedicated to St. Anthony in the Jaffna town and draws large crowds of non-Catholics, giving St. Anthony the title, Patron Saint of Non-Catholics.
About two kilometres from the Jaffna Fort, driving southeast along the Beach Road, we reached the fishing village of Passaiyoor. The beach front opens on to the lagoon. It was mid-morning the fishing boats had come in. Bright blue nylon nets were spread all over the beach to dry.
It was not difficult to find St. Anthony’s Church. The church stood tall and majestic, painted in bright sandstone yellow and teamed in brown. A short flight of steps invite you to enter through its wide portico flanked by its square towers. Its pillared and arched façade climaxed in a final triangle that held up its cross. On the side of the church, quite separate from the main building, stood its ornate square belfry.
 Inside the church, a beautiful wooden altar piece adorned the sanctuary. In its main niche was a statue of St. Anthony. Several other statues adorned the church. A series of large paintings comprising the Way of the Cross hung framed in wood, along the two sides of the nave. Some of these paintings had been replaced with new paintings, possibly those damaged by the war

It is recorded that the original church constructed here goes back to the Portuguese times. In 1906, the existing building was brought down to enlarge and build a new church, under the architects Fr. Gautier and after him Fr. Deslands, who is considered the champion of this community for more than one reason. A vast nave with an upper row of Roman windows and arched verandahs on either side was completed in 1911. It was this same Fr. Deslands who is also credited with the introduction of a system of small net fishing to harvest the lagoon waters.
From the beginning, the church was built and sustained by the community that lives around it. Most of them still indulge in their forefathers’ industry of fishing. The word ‘Passaiyoor’ originates from this community’s reputation for making up traditional cultural songs. Music is still very much a part of their lives.
 The feast
 A senior resident of Passaiyoor, Attorney-at-Law, Mr. Anthony Pillai (73), is also one of the organists in the church. He described the church feast, which is celebrated annually on 13 June, as the grandest event in the village calendar. It is an occasion for friends and relations to meet and for those who had left the shores of Passaiyoor to return for the village feast. People come from Colombo and all over the world. The entire village is decorated with lights from the day when the flag post is hoisted on the 1 June. The flag post is hoisted to announce the upcoming church feast.
On the 3 June, it is a tradition for the fishing families to boat to the statue of St. Anthony, erected at the entrance to the harbour for a prayer service followed by a picnic. The statue stands on a stone platform that can accommodate about 100 people and is surrounded by the sea. This statue is called Kadal Anthoniyar and it is here that the fishermen pray every day before they go out to sea and give thanks for a safe return home.
Preparatory Novenas for the feast begin on 4 June. There are nine Novenas. Loudspeakers are fixed around the village so that everyone can take part in the Novenas and Holy Masses that precede the feast.
The feast is not restricted to Catholics. There are many Hindus who pray to the Saint and come to join in the festive celebrations. On the eve of the last Novena, a Eucharistic procession takes place. The festive Mass is celebrated on the morning of the feast day while the chariot procession carrying the images of St. Anthony together with St. Sebastian takes place that evening. The roads along which the chariot is pulled is colourfully decorated with lights and other decorations. The houses en route are also decorated. The chariot procession takes around two hours to go around the Passaiyoor village and its adjoining village. Throughout this time, the devotees sing hymns and recite prayers. Finally the festivities come to a close with a benediction/blessing.
The thirty-year civil war took its toll on the village of Passaiyoor. For 10 years, the residents of Passaiyoor could not come back home. Public buildings and homes have since then been renovated and rebuilt. The church too has been renovated. Today, the residents of Passaiyoor seem to be happy once again. The large playground in front of the church is once again full of youngsters who play football.