Archives for posts with tag: kalpitiya

I live not far from St Anne’s Catholic Church, Thalawila – the oldest Catholic Shrine in Sri Lanka. It is right on the beach, halfway along the Kalpitiya peninsula, on the west coast of Sri Lanka, 3 1/2 hours from Colombo. I have been there several times, but not seen anything like I did last weekend!

thalawila-5The history of the church goes back to the 17th century. St Anne is the mother of the Virgin Mary. One story claims a poor Portuguese man was travelling from Mannar to Colombo looking for work. He was not successful, and whilst walking back along the coast, stopped to rest under a tree which is now the location of the church. Whilst sleeping he had a vision of St Anne. Upon waking he could still see the image, and built a small chapel dedicated to her. The other story claims that a European trading boat was shipwrecked off the coast. The area was very arid and inhospitable but the crew took shelter under a large banyan tree. They placed an image of St Anne in the tree. The captain kept his promise to build a church there upon the success of his business.

thalawila-4Last Sunday was the one of the most important feast days of the year for St Anne’s church. It is known for many miracles and blessings. Families from all over Sri Lanka had been gathering in the 10 days leading up to the feast day. Many come hoping for their own miracles and blessings.

thalawila-3I visited last Sunday evening and spent some time wandering around chatting to people, as well as visiting the church itself. Some estimate that up to 400000 people had gathered for the event. People come by private and public bus, by car, by tuktuk, and packed into the back of flatbed trucks – with everything needed for their stay tied on! A makeshift town had quickly been established – with all that was needed to support this many people in a normally very sleepy part of Sri Lanka!! Food stalls, mobile phone charging stations, public showers, large tanks with water for drinking… Some families camped on the beach, others on mats in front of the church, many were in tents on the bare land in front of the church.thalawila-8

thalawila-1Everyone wanted to say hello. And even if we couldn’t say much more than that to each other, they wanted me to sit and meet their families. Fernando introduced me to his wife, children and grandchildren, as he very proudly told me, ‘I am Christian.’ A large extended family from Negombo had driven up 10 days earlier to be here for the entire festival period. Another man waved at me through the bus window with a big smile on his face, ‘I am going back to Colombo.’

 

praying hands-1As I got closer to the church, candles, tapers and other religious items were being sold; and people with various disabilities, others suffering illnesses, lined the paths hoping for alms. After entering the gateway, I came upon a large stone cross, on the way to the church. This was the scene of much activity. Some people were lighting candles and stopping for a prayer. Others were seeking to touch the cross which had had blessed oil poured over it. As I was watching, a man came with a new bottle of oil and began to pour it over the cross. The crowd surged forward to reach for the oil – and many were trying to capture some of the oil in their own bottles to take with them, to use for future prayers and supplications.thalawila-6

Despite the huge numbers that had descended upon this tiny, remote community, there was a sense of calm and a sense of purpose. I saw no other foreigners during the time I was there, although I did bump into several locals I know. I nearly didn’t recognise Sarath, a local fisherman – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with long pants, a button down shirt, and his hair all slicked back! Looking very smart with his family and he stopped to chat with me. I was welcomed by everyone. I asked questions, and I had questions asked of me. And after we ran out of the few English, Sinhala and/or Tamil words that we had in common we just smiled at each other!

boy-1Just another one of those days where I felt blessed to be welcomed to an event that was so special for so many people. I’ve had some wonderful opportunities lately and continue to thank the people I meet along the way for their friendliness and openness.

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Well, actually, maybe that should read ‘The president came to town on my birthday’… The difference a preposition makes in the English language! 🙂

The Road Development Authority here in Sri Lanka, with a generous loan from the Chinese government, has been redoing the road along the Kalpitiya Peninsula – from Palavi to Kalpitiya, about a 40 km stretch. And it has finally been finished! The official opening was the 23rd February – my birthday. And the president was in town to officiate the opening and we somehow managed to get VIP tickets to the event! What an event to add to my special day! Ha!

After showing our VIP invitations, and a thorough frisk and search by the security officers, we were seated on the special white chairs at the front of the giant marquee that had been set up in the market area in the local town Norochchalai. I had put on my ‘conservative’ dress for the event – covering my shoulders and my knees. But was still getting a few stares – partly because I was the only obviously ‘white’ person there!  1000s from nearby villages were there to have a chance to see the president – but only a few had received VIP invitations for the white seats!

As he arrived with his entourage, and a huge media contingent (this was a big PR opportunity!),  the noise and excitement from the crowd mounted, and we were asked to move closer to the front. And then came the speeches. Whilst I did not understand most of them, I certainly felt the fervour that was being created by the various speakers as they extolled the great work the president is doing in Sri Lanka.

A representative from the Chinese consulate spoke on behalf of the Chinese government. His speech went between Mandarin and English. And every time he spoke English all the cameras zoomed around to focus on me! It was quite hilarious although I had to keep my poised and interested face on for those shots! Apparently we even made it to the 6 o’clock news!

Then it was the president’s turn to speak and the crowd became very passionate and began to surge forward through the makeshift barrier into the VIP area. He even finished his speech with some Tamil – the language spoken widely in this area of Sri Lanka. As he finished, and we stood up to leave as well, the crowd finally broke through and there was a rush to get closer to the president. I was caught for a moment in the crush until his security staff held back the crowd and we were given safe passage out of the throng!

The road was closed to traffic as the entourage continued further north. So we walked back into town. What a little adventure to add to my birthday! 🙂