I would recommend spending at least a weekend in Mannar. I don't think you can really get to know the place unless you spend longer, and a weekend still isn't really long enough other than to scratch the surface. It's not one of those international touristy spots in Sri Lanka. It's a little more off-the-beaten track, but to me it means you'll find more local hidden treasures and get to rub shoulders with everyday people, rather than tourists and big city folk.
You can reach Mannar by bus, train or car from Colombo. I'm keen to try out the rail service on the Mannar Line which branches off from the Northern Line at Medawachchiya Junction and goes all the way north-west to Thalaimannar. This time round I went by four-wheel drive, which meant it was possible to take in the scenery on the coastal route as well as try some off-road routes through Wilpattu National Park for an impromptu wildlife safari. I saw a government bus as well as a private bus on the Wilpattu route, so I suspect you'll get to enjoy the same route I took if you pick the bus option to Mannar.
July seems to be the best time to travel anywhere in Sri Lanka, particularly to the north (around the coast and inland) as everything seems incredible lush and green. I swear it's literally impossible to take a bad picture with your camera or smartphone. And when everything looks so amazing, you can't help but feel good where you are. Well that's how it goes for me.
Although this post is largely about Mannar Island, the journey up to there cannot be missed. I prefer early morning travel as it means you get out of Colombo without much delay, you glimpse the quiet unfolding and the light is exceptionally good. I did post a few photos to my Instagram, which I have recently activated. Here are a few shots from along the way heading north towards Kalpitiya, Puttalam and then via a shortcut through Wilpattu National Park.
There are plenty of opportunities to stop along the way up to Mannar. One of the places is the ruins of Doric Bungalow in Arippu East. This was previously the residence of the first British Governor of Ceylon, Frederic North and built at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It sits right on a gentle cliff facing the ocean. You can climb up and around the ruins, which gives a gorgeous view of the coastline to the north and south. It is also worthwhile to take a turn off to check out the local fishing village at Arippu to see the colorful boats, nets and assorted beach paraphernalia.
After Arippu it's a little further along the South Coast Road towards Vankalai and then a bit more till you reach the causeway that links Mannar to the main island. It's not the right time of year at the moment, but Vankalai is where you'll find the bird sanctuary. The highlights include some rare migrants like the "spot-billed duck, the comb duck and the gadwall; the long-toed stint" and also peregrine falcons, the common-ringed plover, temminck’s stint, the red-necked phalarope and flamingos". The Ceylon Bird Club has recorded 149 species of birds at Vankalai.
As you enter Mannar from the causeway, don't miss out on the old fort to the right. You cna't miss it, and it's still in pretty good condition.
My first port of call was to head straight for Thalaimannar at the tip of Mannar Island. There is a naval base, recently upgraded railway station, dilapidated pier, lighthouse and fishing village that is well-worth visiting.
One of the things I have been fascinated with has been Rama Setu or Adam's Bridge, which is a chain of limestone shoals between Mannar Island and Pamban Island. In the past these sandy banks were said to have connected like a natural land bridge between Sri Lanka and India. There has been much debate about the geological origin and evolution of Adam's Bridge. There is also mention of this the bridge in the epic Ramayana which details how Rama's army of ape men built the bridge with the help of Hanuman in order to rescue Rama's wife Situ from the clutches of Ravana.
As you can imagine, I was well up for a visit and arranged for a fisherman to navigate across to Adam's Bridge so I could see it for myself.
It cost LKR5,000 for a return boat trip. It probably took about 30 minutes to reach one of the shoals. It's a pretty bumpy ride and the best seats in the house on one of these speed boat are on crates. Let's just say, I would have killed for a cushion!
I was elated to reach a portion of Adam's Bridge. The first thing you notice is the sense of other-worldliness about the place. The sand banks are all relatively flat, the sand is fine in texture with a light grey to white color, and the sea water is shallow.
As there is no-one around, nor any buildings or structures, it feels quite barren yet spacious. If you like your own company then this is probably a fantastic spot for you, but if you're looking for something more, then you might be disappointed. If you think you might be able to get a glimpse of India I can safely tell you, not a chance. However, you can glimpse the Sri Lankan naval base on one of the other shoals, but it is not possible to visit without prior approval.
If you're keen, it is possible to have a decent enough conversation with one of the fishermen about the goings-on around Thalaimannar. As you may have picked up, I'm always a bit nosy about things and have a few conspiracy theories that float my way. What I can tell you is that some of what I'd heard about the goings-on are true and this is possibly why Mannar hasn't been highlighted as a tourist hot-spot and some things remain dilapidated. Why fix everything if you're keen to keep things under-the-radar. Read between the lines folks...
The main town of Mannar is delightfully colorful, compact and neat.
There are few things that come to mind which I now associate with Mannar, and these are - donkeys, boabab trees and churches.
If you loiter around the main street, as I did, it is not uncommon to see donkeys chasing each other down the road. A funny sight, if you've never witnessed it before. Other than the odd impromptu donkey chase, you often see donkeys scattered around town.
The Mannar baobab trees, or as I call them "upside-down trees" are believed to have been brought to Sri Lanka by Arab traders from Northern Africa. The oldest and the largest baobab tree is at Pallimunei and is believed to be approximately 800 years old. It looks particular lush and leafy at this time of the year.
Mannar is a predominantly Catholic area so churches (and roadside shrines) are aplenty in this neck of the woods. It is said to be part of the 'Catholic Belt' that extends from Negombo to Jaffna. Catholicism was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese during its rule over the island in the early 1500s.
The Shrine of Our Lady Madhu is probably the most notable of catholic churches on the island with a special shrine dedicated to Mother Mary. It is not located on Mannar Island, but further inland near Palampiddi within the Mannar District. During the war, many refugees were housed in camps around the church, and it would appear this is still the case.
The small statue of Mother Mary is believed to have special healing powers, particularly in relation to snake bites. To this end, I found it interesting that the Shrine of Our Lady Madhu has been built over an ancient devale that was devoted to Pattini with a long history on the island. As you may or may not know Pattini is a guardian deity of Sri Lanka with special gifts for protection and treating illnesses.
You are not permitted to take photos or videos inside the church, but outside is permitted. I spent a little time inside the church and it was packed to almost full capacity, though people were milling in and out of the building. There was a lightness to the place that was peaceful. It's possible to sit and pray, or line up to pay respects at the shrine, or to observe proceedings quietly. There wasn't a mass at the time of visiting, but there were plenty of people visiting from near and far, praying, chanting quietly, or sitting in harmony with those around them.
Pope Francis visited in January 2015 to offer prayer and blessings to the congregation. There is a new building that has been named after His Holiness, and where blessings are offered.
There are a few other places to visit that are on the way back towards Mannar Island and these are near Kunchchukulam and Periyamuruppu. The Six Bay Concrete Arch Bridge over the Giant Tank Inlet Canal is a popular watering hole for weekend gatherings of locals. People gather to swim, listen to music, picnic and enjoy themselves.
A few kilometers further on from this bathing area is another place to bathe and the dilapidated Kunchchukulam Hanging Bridge that looks quite precarious. I had thought it was a very old bridge, but apparently it's not. Either way, proceed with caution and watch out for the missing planks as you walk out onto the bridge. If not, you'll fall straight down to the water
If you have time, it's quite nice to have a look around the Tiruketeeswaram Temple which is an ancient Hindu temple dedicated to the deity, Shiva. I especially enjoyed spending time at their famous Palavi Tank, which are considered holy waters. If you're having a drive around, you might also come across the buried ancient trading port of Mahathittha (or Manthotta). It was apparently the center of international trade in ancient times. There is said to be buried ruins from the ancient city, but it is covered by sand.
One spot I really loved was Yoda Wewa or the Giant's Tank, which is about 25kms south-east of Mannar. It's origins have not been confirmed, though it's believed King Dhathusena built it. Whatever it's origins it is considered one of the finest historical examples of tank irrigation, and likely the earliest. Water is diverted from Malwatu Oya which feeds the tank is fed by an ancient canal. Amazingly the water from Giant's Tank feeds over 160 smaller tanks downstream and irrigates about 11,000 hectares of rice paddy fields.
As you can see, it's a a beautiful place to watch the sunset in all its majesty. A perfect way to end the day...