Eastern Sri Lanka’s major town, TRINCOMALEE (or “Trinco”) has been celebrated since antiquity for its superlative deep-water harbour, one of the finest in Asia – the legendary Panduvasudeva is said to have sailed into Trincomalee (or Gokana, as it was originally known) with his followers, while the town served as the major conduit for the island’s seaborne trade during the Anuradhapuran and Polonnaruwan periods. The harbour was later fought over repeatedly during the colonial period and even attracted the hostile attentions of the Japanese air force during World War II.
Trincomalee suffered massively following the onset of the civil war in 1983. Although Trinco avoided the massive bomb damage inflicted on Jaffna, the town’s position close to the front line made it the island’s major collecting point for war-displaced refugees, while tensions between the town’s Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese communities regularly erupted into communal rioting. Things have been a lot quieter following the expulsion of the LTTE from the east in 2007, and Trinco is now once again looking to the future with renewed, if cautious, optimism.
Although most visitors are drawn to this part of the island by the beaches at nearby Nilaveli and Uppuveli, a day in Trincomalee offers an interesting change of scenery. The setting is beautiful, straddling a narrow peninsula between the Indian Ocean and the Inner Harbour, rising up to the imposing Swami Rock, the dominant feature on the coast hereabouts. The town itself possesses an understated but distinct charm all of its own, with an interesting old fort and sleepy backstreets lined with pretty colonial villas dotted with mosques, churches and dozens of colourful little Hindu temples. Catering to the town’s predominantly Tamil population, the temples give parts of the city a decidedly Indian flavour, especially at around 4pm when Trinco fills with the ringing of bells and the sound of music from myriad temples for the late-afternoon puja.