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Trouble over an island with a shrine dedicated to St Anthony, patron saint of reconciliation and seafarers

“The island might be located about 18 miles east of Pamban. But I do not know where Pamban is located,” India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the Upper House of the Parliament in 1960, when some members raised concerns over attempts by Sri Lanka to annex the little barren island in the Palk Straits traditionally used by Indian fishermen to rest, dry their nets in.

Katchatheevu island, Sri Lanka (Image: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sri Lanka)

Within 14 years, the little island between Tamil Nadu and Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka became the subject of a maritime boundary agreement, which the two neighbours signed. According to the agreement, the uninhabited island named Katchatheevu, all 1.6 km long and a little over 300 metres wide, belonged to Sri Lanka, but Indian fishermen would continue to have their traditional rights over it.

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Located north-east of Tamil Nadu’s temple town of Rameswaram, and south-west of Sri Lanka’s Delft Island, Katchatheevu is uninhabited. A shrine dedicated to St Anthony of Padua (a 12th-century Portuguese Catholic priest and a friar of the Franciscan order) is the only structure here and attracts followers from both countries during an annual church festival.

Legends abound among the faithful in Latin countries, particularly Portugal, Spain, and Brazil over St Anthony’s ability to reconcile couples. He is thus designated as the saint of matrimony. This ability is sorely being tested as the boundary agreement of the two neighbouring countries has turned into a political slugfest. However, the church, which has endured decades of ethnic conflicts between Tamils and Sinahlese of Sri Lankan descent, is also approaching a critical period in its history.

Despite the downfall of the LTTE and cessation of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the church remains at the centre of ongoing tensions involving the Sri Lankan Navy and fish labourers from India’s south-eastern border.

A Sri Lankan court sentenced two fishermen from Ramanathapuram, Tamil Nadu, to six months in prison on February 17 for operating two vessels in a manner that violated the International Maritime Boundary Line. Despite having been previously released, another fisherman was deemed a “repeat offender” and received a one-year prison sentence for contravening the conditions of his parole. The court, meanwhile, released 20 others To protest these arrests, boat owners of Tamil Nadu decided to boycott the annual festival that was held at the church in February. The three prison sentences are just the tip of the iceberg, said Xavier Sahayam, president of the Mechanised Boat Fishermen’s Association of Ramanathapuram, alleging “constant harassment” of fishermen from the Indian coast who venture too close to the island by the Sri Lankan navy.

Prior to the boycott, over 3,000 devotees from various regions of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had already reached Rameswaram, from where they would have embarked on trawlers to the island barely 20 nautical miles away. Anthony Bakyaraj, a Bengaluru resident, said that he was dismayed when the organisers cancelled the trip after acquiring all the necessary documentation for the pilgrimage.

Things weren’t always like this.

Last year, 2,195 devotees departed for Katchtheevu on 59 mechanised vessels and 11 country boats in order to partake in the ceremony. The festival flag was raised subsequent to the arrival of 2800 Sri Lankan devotees. Throughout the night, devotees from the two countries mingled, talking about fishing and relished renewing their ties, Bakyaraj said.

With the exception of the years of the coronavirus pandemic, the Catholic churches of Jaffna and Tamil Nadu have jointly hosted the annual festival at the shrine in Katchatheevu since 2012.

The shrine reopened to devotees from both nations a little over a decade ago following a lengthy interval of 27 years that was marked by violent ethnic conflicts between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. At that time, priests hailing from both India and Sri Lanka officiated the ceremonial car processions and conducted the holy mass for the festival.

A short history of the island…

According to Sri Lankan historians, Kachchativu Island has been under the control of Sri Lanka since the time of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. In colonial times, the British also used the island as a practice range for naval gunnery.

During the mediaeval era, the island, along with Pamban Island, where Rameswaram is located today, was controlled by the Jaffna kingdom. From the 17th century onwards, the island was a constituent of the Ramnads, a zamindari estate that was established in the Ramnad subdivision of Madurai district in present-day Tamil Nadu. It was ruled by the local Rajas who were given the title Sethupathi.

Subsequently, under British rule, the island was incorporated into the Madras Presidency. The conflict regarding the island between the Sri Lankan and Indian colonial administrations emerged in the year 1920.

The Ramnads’ claim of historical ownership was contested by B. Horsburgh, a Scottish hydrographer working for the British East India Company, who stated that the Jaffna diocese was in charge of Katchatheevu Island and the St. Anthony’s Church there.

Both parties came to a border agreement in 1921, which resulted in the inclusion of the island within Sri Lanka’s territorial limits.

The Maritime Boundary Agreement signed in 1974 between India and Sri Lanka part of a lengthy and substantial dialogue and helped establish smooth diplomatic relations, said Madurai-based historian D Devaraj Athisayaraj. It incorporated a special provision permitting Indian fishermen to partake in the feast of the church. Indian fishermen were allowed to dry their nets on the island, and Indian pilgrims could visit the church of St. Anthony, the patron saint of seafarers, without needing a passport.

However, in 1982, the feast ceased after the island became off-limits. Colombo imposed security restrictions in its northern seas on account of the civil war and ethnic conflict between the Sinhala majority and the Tamils of Sri Lanka origin.

When Tamil militants started using the island as a transit point between Tamil Nadu and the island nation following the ethnic conflicts in Jaffna Peninsula-, the Sri Lankan navy took complete control of the region and Indian fishermen were denied entry there.

Even the island’s church remained closed for decades — the fish workers in northern Sri Lanka too were unable to venture beyond a kilometre from their shore due to restrictions imposed by their navy. As a result, Katchatheevu remained an unattainable island even for them.

…And of the shrine and the pilgrimage

The church of St Anthony was built by an Indian Catholic Tamil leader who worked among the fish workers Srinivasa Padaiyachi in 1905. The Bishop Justin Gnanapragasam of Jaffna is currently entrusted with the administrative duties of this church.

According to the Ramanathapuram district administration, the annual festival at St. Joseph’s Church is organised by the Catholic Diocese of Jaffna. Indian pilgrims are invited to partake in the festival through the main Catholic church in Ramanathapuram town.

“The local parish priest serves as the pilgrimage’s coordinator and organiser,” an official said, and added that the district administration and other agencies merely facilitate the sea voyage and ensure the pilgrims’ safety.

The annual festival typically spans three days and occurs during the season of Lent; this year, it took place from February 22 to 24.

People aged five to 70 are welcome to attend the festival. Prior to and subsequent to their arrival on the island, devotees are subjected to numerous rounds of inspections and document verifications.

The prayers in the 1905-built church are rendered in Tamil. En route to the church, stalls sell mementos made of seashell, as well as food of cuisines from both countries.

The Sri Lanka Navy oversees electricity, security, food, infrastructure, and internal transportation for the devotees throughout the duration of the festival. Additionally, medical teams and lifeguards are being deployed for the devotees’ convenience.

Each year, the occasion commences with the ‘Way of the Cross’ procession and a ceremonial car procession, during which the statue of St. Antony is carried around the church. Both Indian and Sri Lankan clerics presided over the mass and in a ceremonial car procession.

Typically, prayers are offered for the welfare of individuals residing on both sides, with a particular focus on fishermen in the belief that St. Antony bestows hope. The church authorities also recite petitions made by the pilgrims. Most petitions are from individuals desiring to travel abroad, to find a partner and find a stable means of subsistence.

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