Sri Lanka’s east coast is a mirror image of its west. When it’s monsoon season in the west, the sun is shining in the east; where the west coast is predominantly Sinhalese, the east is largely Tamil and Muslim; and where parts of the west coast are crowded with tourists and almost buried under a surfeit of hotels, the east remains largely untouched and tourist-free – for the time being, at any rate.
Much of the east’s beautifully pristine coastal scenery derives, ironically, from its often tragic wartime past, during which the region splintered into a fluid patchwork of territories controlled variously by government and LTTE forces. Two decades of fighting took a devastating toll on the region’s already struggling economy: villages were abandoned, commerce collapsed and the coast’s few hotels were simply blown up and allowed to fall into the sea. Meaningful reconstruction and economic development became possible only after the LTTE were finally driven out of the area in 2007, and although the lingering effects of war can still be seen in places, the east’s fortunes appear finally to be turning, with ambitious plans to tap into the coast’s massive tourist potential, exemplified by the extraordinary glut of new resorts under construction around the formerly war-torn and deserted Passekudah Bay.
Much of the region’s population is concentrated in the long string of mainly Tamil and Muslim towns and villages that line the coast, backed by fine sandy beaches and labyrinthine lagoons; the vast swathes of predominantly Sinhalese country inland – whose arid climate has always discouraged settled agriculture – remain sparsely populated and largely undeveloped. Capital of the east is the vibrant town of Trincomalee, with its appealing blend of faded colonial charm, colourful Hindu temples and beautiful coastal scenery. Few tourists venture this way, however, except to press onto the extremely low-key beachside villages of Uppuveli and Nilaveli, just up the coast. South from here, the formerly unspoilt beaches at Passekudah and Kalkudah are currently in the throes of major tourist development, while continuing south brings you to the personable town of Batticaloa, strung out around its enormous lagoon. Further south, the laid-back surfing hotspot of Arugam Bay is currently the only place in the east to see significant numbers of foreign visitors and also makes a convenient starting point for trips to the national parks of Lahugala and Yala East, and the remote forest hermitage at Kudimbigala.
Although now something of a backwater, the east was for many centuries the most outward-looking and cosmopolitan part of the island, a fact borne out by its (for Sri Lanka) unusually heterogeneous ethnic make-up – with roughly equal numbers of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, the region is the most culturally diverse in Sri Lanka. Much of the area’s early history revolved around Gokana (modern Trincomalee), the island’s principal trading port during the Anuradhapuran and Polonnaruwan eras, and the harbours of the east continued to serve as an important conduit for foreign influences in subsequent centuries. Islam spread widely along the coast thanks to visiting Arab, Malay and Indian traders, while the European powers also took a healthy interest in the region. The Dutch first established a secure presence on the island at the town of Batticaloa, while it was the lure of Trincomalee’s superb deep-water harbour more than anything else that drew the British to the island.
With the rise of the new ports at Galle and later Colombo, the east gradually fell into decline, while its fortunes nosedived during the civil war, which turned Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese against one another in a frenzy of communal violence. LTTE attacks against unprotected Sinhalese and Muslim villagers were a recurring feature of the war years, including one particularly gruesome massacre of around 150 men and boys at Kattankudi mosque in 1990. The LTTE also seized pockets of territory throughout the area (including, for a time, Batticaloa itself), and was only finally driven from its last eastern strongholds in 2007. Today, former LTTE leader Colonel Karuna remains a major figure in the region’s politics.