“Mannar Unbound is an invitation for you to delight in the images and history of the region. Importantly, it is also a call for you to empathize with the beauty of the natural world and to contribute towards ensuring that Mannar’s aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems remain free from damage and exploitation as far as possible. It is perhaps an ironic conclusion for a book of photography that its authors hope that future generations may continue to appreciate the natural world without having to resort to photographs as their only witness.”
Preface: Scenes and Sagas
If you were to examine old maps of the world – made of parchment, with the help of woodblocks or copper plates – you will notice a continent sized island, celebrated for its natural beauty and referred to by various exotic names. Taprobane, Serendib, “Resplendent Land” as it was described in the Indian epic, the Ramayana and “Isle of Gems” to the Chinese storytellers. Some Asian poets, noting the geographical location of the island, called it “pearl upon the brow of India”. These were just a few of the names used to describe this mystical island we call Sri Lanka today. This pearl has many stories to tell, and many regions that are not specifically highlighted in these descriptions of resplendence.
In the far left field (or far right in some cartographic traditions) are smatterings of islets arching gracefully out north – west, towards the Indian mainland. Resembling a sine curve, or tentacle, they follow from one large island, Mannar, in a trail of minor atolls, reaching out like a lover’s hand towards India. On some maps, these islands may be omitted altogether; on others, they are indicated by hurried engraver’s lines, darkening the space, to barely hint the presence of land. Only in rare instances are the islands grouped together and labelled, “Adam’s Bridge”. Your eye may overlook this trivial upper – left – corner detail. Interestingly though, this intriguing, almost non-visible diminutive facet is where our story begins….
The documentary oversight of these islands is partly logistical, as some of the islets are, literally, ephemeral: the waves from the Gulf of Mannar swallow and regurgitate the smaller islands of Adam’s Bridge daily. The genesis of these barely-noticeable islands refers to a timescale that is difficult to comprehend: 22 million years, the time that has elapsed since the landmasses now known as Sri Lanka and India separated. A process of continental rift and intermittent glacial activity over millions of years left behind a trail of connections and severances. The last connection occurred in the most recent Ice Age, roughly 10,000 years ago, and is visible as a shadow in the 30 km stretch of sandy islands that lie across the Palk Strait.
Yet while the islands feature minimally in cartography, they loom large in legend. Mannar and Adam’s Bridge reserves a popular place as the site of Ravana’s crossing into Lanka as recorded in the Ramayana. In addition to this famous mythological reference, Mannar featured regularly over the course of history.
In the classical and medieval periods, Mahatittha, the great port of Mannar Island, was a thriving, cosmopolitan trade settlement. In subsequent centuries, the region was an essential part of Lanka’s history, under all three European colonizers of Ceylon- the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British.
Mannar Unbound aims to imprint Adam’s Bridge and Mannar, her history and wildlife within our “mental map” of Sri Lanka. Until the last few years there was no concerted effort at photographic documentation and presentation of the biodiversity and natural landscape of Adam’s Bridge and Mannar. Joining other recent efforts, this book offers a collection of photographs of landscapes, historical buildings, plants and animals. Capturing the images has required infinite patience: trails scoured, nesting sites, waterholes, and seasonal ponds visited, and the bumpy sea sailed. The same sites were visited over the last five years repeatedly in order to photograph during different seasons. Some images are worthy of special mention. These include photographs of species of pelagic birds in the Sand Islands, the critically endangered Dugong and some choice underwater treasures.
Alongside this visual story, we also present a cultural-historical story. Mannar thus becomes a platform for both natural and human dramas. Readers should bear in mind that our aim with this section is not to present a critical historical account, but to offer interesting and intriguing vignettes about the region. Since this is not original research, and instead drawn wholly from primary sources and other scholars’ work, a full list of works consulted is given in the bibliography. The historical section is roughly chronological, but thematic coherence has sometimes been favoured over linear order.
Mannar Unbound is an invitation for you to delight in the images and history of the region. Importantly, it is also a call for you to empathize with the beauty of the natural world and to contribute towards ensuring that Mannar’s aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems remain free from damage and exploitation as far as possible. It is perhaps an ironic conclusion for a book of photography that its authors hope that future generations may continue to appreciate the natural world without having to resort to photographs as their only witness.
Sri Lanka is a lush, tropical island with a high density of biodiversity in flora and fauna. It is situated at the south – east tip of the Indian Peninsula in the Indian Ocean between 6 and 9 degrees north of the equator. It has a landmass of 65,625 square kilometers, including several small islands that stand in its continental shelf. The largest of these is known as Mannar Island.
Despite being one of the smallest of countries in the world, Sri Lanka is a global biodiversity hotspot. Extensive faulting and erosion over time have produced a wide range of topographic features on the island, making it an immensely geographically varied and scenic country. Medieval writers recognized this richness and lauded Sri Lanka’s proximity to heaven and praised Gods for “enriching it with the earth’s choicest treasures.’’ These “treasures” are found amongst the mountain ridges, radial waterways and rolling verdant plains of the country. However, these rich, luscious landscapes in the centre of the island are harder to come by as you go north – west towards our target region.
Instead, the 30 kilometres of length and 6 kilometres of width of Mannar Island, and the surrounding areas, are mostly barren. This perhaps explains why Mannar, has been a latecomer to the gamut of existing excellent photography books, on specific regions and national parks of Lanka. Whereas the mainland is enriched by 2000mm of rain annually thanks to the seasonal monsoons, Mannar Island’s claim to fame lies with weathering the strongest winds in the country.
The land is low, barely a few meters above sea level, and the region is exceedingly dry and sparsely populated (this is not to say that these low-lying areas do not possess a charm and allure of their own, which our photography aims to convey). And yet, although the land today is barren and lacking fresh water, Mannar was a prosperous and populous region in previous eras. The following sections aim to recreate some of this vitality and animate what the region looked like.
L.F. Liesdhing (1861) , British colonial officer of Ceylon Civil Service wrote in his Brief Account of Ceylon. …”At a time when England was unknown to the greater part of Europe, when the savages who inhabited it, painted on their bodies the figure of sun, moon and the stars, Ceylon was the seat of civilization, the nursery of art, and center of commerce in the East. The ships of Rome, Arabia, Persia, India and China floated in her marts. Her stupendous monuments, her agricultural works, the splendour of her courts, the wealth of her princes, the mildness of their sway, were the themes with which foreign ambassadors delighted the ears of their masters on their return”…
We left a rather quiet and forgotten Mannar in the mid-nineteenth century, as the site of importation of indentured labour into Lanka, and the place where ferries embarked for India, before and during the early advent of planes. What came next? The history of Mannar in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (post-British), has been covered in books on the history of militarization, politics and war in Sri Lanka. For this reason, it was not rehearsed here.
Our story of Mannar does not present every moment in time like a continuous loop of video footage. Instead, we chose to tell our story like photographic ‘stills.’ Like a photographer, a storyteller needs to be in the right spot at the right hour of day for the perfect shot, and not all shots are possible to capture. Thus readers should bear in mind that our history of Mannar was narrated in episodic form, which selected and highlighted particular moments. Some of these were factual, others more mythological. These ‘snapshots’ ranged from the bustling port of Mahattita in the first century BCE through to the varied Arabic influences in the region in the eighth and ninth centuries to the concerted and violent Portuguese missionary presence in the sixteenth century. It was diverse across religion and culture, and included Tamil, Islam, Arabic culture, Greco-Roman culture, Christianity, Buddhism and Indian influences.
There are many heartening historical examples of cooperation and tolerance between diverse groups, as well as some more distasteful examples of what should be avoided. Many centuries, stories and persons were present in our story, but many more were also absent, and readers should mind these gaps.
The story of Mannar is, of course, incomplete. Its history is dynamic, shifting and changing every day as new development, tourism and industry move into the town. Fifty years from now, a book like ours may narrate and illustrate a very different story for this coastal island town. The past and the future put aside, what of Mannar today? The natural world documented in these photographs may be a thing of the past, if concerted efforts are not made now to conserve its ecosystem. The impact of our actions may not be clear until it is too late. Our place in the ecosystem means that we are connected to the natural world in a multifold of ways, and we cannot ignore the risks of exploiting, neglecting and abusing the creatures and plant life around us. It is our hope, that the contents of Mannar Unbound will colour and animate your sense of Mannar today, and invite you to explore as well as protect it.
Mannar Unbound: A Journey through History and Nature by Jayaratne Thilak, Gallangoda Janaka, Hapuarachchi Nadika, Fernando Tamara. (Chaya Publishers, 2018) …. 384 pages, hard cover, size 2” X 8″ (landscape oriented)