The principal east-coast settlement south of Trincomalee, BATTICALOA (often shortened to “Batti”) is one of Sri Lanka’s most appealing but least-known larger towns, mainly thanks to its long years of isolation and turbulence during the civil war. Throughout the conflict, the town and surrounding area was a major flashpoint between LTTE and Sri Lankan Army forces, with the army controlling the town and the LTTE running their own parallel administration – complete with courts, police force and tax collectors – from the village of Kokkadicholai, a short drive south. As Indian journalist Nirupama Subramanian put it in Sri Lanka: Voices from a War Zone: “Technically, Batticaloa town came under the government … That was by day. By night, the town took orders from the Tigers.”
The LTTE are now gone, although intriguing reminders of Batti’s long colonial history can still be seen, while the mercantile hustle and bustle of the main commercial areas suggests a town now increasingly on the mend. The town’s setting is also magical, perched on a narrow sliver of land backed by the serpentine Batticaloa Lagoon and surrounded by water on three sides, with the constantly shifting views of land, lagoon and ocean lending Batticaloa an interesting – if disorienting – character.
Historically, Batticaloa is best known as the site of the first landing (in 1602) by the Dutch in Sri Lanka, and as the place where they established their first lasting foothold on the island by seizing the local fort from the resident Portuguese in 1638 (colonial influence lives on in the town’s name, which appears to be a Portuguese corruption of the Sinhalese Mudda Kalapuwa, meaning “muddy lagoon”). Many Muslims also settled in the area under the protection of the kings of Kandy during the same period to escape Portuguese persecution elsewhere, mixing with the region’s largely Tamil population.
Batticaloa and the surrounding area was a major LTTE stronghold throughout the civil war, and perhaps one of the most dangerous places in the island, for civilians at least, over a thousand of whom were killed in or around Batti in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Two of the war’s most gruesome events occurred close to the city. The first, in August 1990, when almost 150 Muslims were massacred by the LTTE in a mosque at Kattankudi (just south of town); the second, just a month later, when more than 180 Tamil civilians (including 47 children under the age of 10) were slaughtered by the Sri Lankan Army in three nearby villages. Towards the end of the war, the region was also wracked by clashes between rival factions of the LTTE, as Colonel Karuna launched his breakaway movement. Widespread disappearances of civilians by the Sri Lankan security services continued to be reported even after the end of fighting in the east in 2007.
The singing fish of Batticaloa
The singing fish of Batticaloa
Batti is famous in Sri Lankan folklore for its singing fish. According to tradition, between April and September a strange noise – described variously as resembling a plucked guitar or violin string, or the sound produced by rubbing a wet finger around the rim of a glass – can be heard issuing from the depths of the lagoon. The “singing” is allegedly strongest on full moon nights, though no one knows exactly what causes it. The most popular explanation is that it’s produced by some form of marine life – anything from catfish to mussels – while another theory states that it’s made by water flowing between boulders on the lagoon floor. The best way to listen to the singing is apparently to dip one end of an oar in the water and hold the other end to your ear. Kallady Bridge is traditionally held to be a good place to tune in.