Tour guide to Mannar Island Sri Lanka !
The beaches, the mangrove forests, the baobab trees and coral reefs make Mannar Island an interesting halt if you are travelling to the North.
Mannar Island is more a peninsula than your idea of an island. Linked to the mainland by a land route, Mannar is also linked to the Indian subcontinent by a string of coral reef and underwater limestone shoals.
According to the Ramayana, it was in Mannar that Hanuman landed on his way to seek Sita, who was held captive by Ravana. The Ramayana also mentions Rama’s Bridge (or Adam’s Bridge) that linked Sri Lanka to India. The island covers 130 sq. km. of sparsely populated lands but lush with varied vegetation and birdlife. As far as religion is concerned, the island is predominantly Christian.
Just south of Mannar Island lies the world-famous Pearl Banks that used to be one of the best places in the world to rear mother pearl oysters. Records of pearl rearing activity in Mannar date back to the 4th century BC. The pearl beds here were almost unrivalled in the world and fetched the best prices in Europe. During the Portuguese colonial period, about 50,000 people including divers, merchants and seamen were occupied in the pearl fishery industry in Mannar.
How to get to Mannar Island and how to move around
Mannar is reachable by land. If you opt to use public transportation, there are buses that ply frequently between Mannar and Talaimannar, the island's two important towns. Other towns in the mainland like Vavuniya and Anuradhapura are also connected by bus to Mannar Island.
Top tourist attractions on Mannar Island
Mannar Dutch Fort
Unlike the Dutch fort in Jaffna, the Dutch fort in Mannar is better preserved despite the civil war. Situated at the southern tip of the island, it offers a wonderful view of the landscape around especially at sunset. Built initially by the Portuguese in 1560 before it was surrendered to the Dutch in 1658, who gave it quite a large-scale uplift by the Dutch before handing it over to the British in 1795. The Archaeological department has now taken over the fort from the Sri Lankan Army with the ambition of restoring it to its original grandeur.
This natural formation linking Sri Lanka to India through a chain of islets is a great sight to see if you are touring the North. The Sri Lankan Navy operates tours that can take you to one or two islands from where you can walk around the sand banks. Due to the movement of the seas, the sand banks keep shifting like desert dunes, the reason why locals talk about “dancing islets”. The sight of colourful fishing boats on an endless backdrop of sand and sea is unique. The Indian coast is visible to the eye from any of these islets. So are a few dolphins, if you are lucky. At the moment, the Navy has temporarily halted boat rides due to an unfortunate accident.
Our Lady of Madhu Shrine
Considered to be one of the most revered Christian churches in Sri Lanka, the Our Lady of Madhu Church holds a historical statue of the Blessed Virgin and Child Jesus that is said to have been carried to Mannar in 1670 by Portuguese Catholics fleeing persecution by Dutch Protestants.
This statue is said to have worked miracles (especially in cases of snake bites) and the church has ever since been a pilgrimage spot. The feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, held every year on 15th August, brings in thousands of devotees to this place from all over the Sri Lanka.
The church is located between Mannar Island and Vavuniya on the Andakulam Madhu Road. To reach it, you need to take the Puliyadi Irakamam Madhu Road that branches off the highway at Paraiyanalankulam just next to the Madhu Road Railway station.
During his visit to Sri Lanka in January 2015, Pope Francis visited the church and urged Sri Lankans as a whole to forgive one another "for all the evil which this land has known."
Situated in the North of the island in the port town of Manthai, this Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva is worth a short stop to admire the architecture and the unending queue of devotees lining up outside in colourful attire.
A choice of places to visit around Mannar Island
If you are heading to Anuradhapura from Mannar, this ancient monastery just off the A14 highway surround with thick forest and huge boulders offers a very out-of-the blue experience to the adventurous voyager. It offers quite many sculptures of Buddha statues carved from the large rocks that are spread around the lotus-covered lake.
Doric House is today just a ruin along the Puttalam-Mannar road. As such, there is nothing to be seen except walls crumbling under the effect of erosion caused by the wind and the waves. Doric House however remains a testimony of the wealth of the pearl industry of yesteryears. Built by British Governor Fredric North in the early 19th century, the house derives its name from the Doric columns of the building that have altogether disappeared. From this majestic two-storied mansion, Frederic North supervised the pearl fishery in the area. Climb a few steps inside the building and try imagining yourself in colonial remote Sri Lanka. The sound of the waves and the surrounding tranquillity are sure to help you in this endeavour.
Mannar Island has great beaches to offer
All around the island, the sea is warm and the beaches, sandy. A staple feature are the shallow waters that allows bathers to wade in the water quite far from the shore.
Wilpattu Natural Park
Wilpattu National Park is one of the oldest and largest parks of Sri Lanka. It remained closed for many years during the civil war. Since its reopening in 2010, it has proved to be a hit with tourists. 'Wilpattu' means “land of lakes”, so you wouldn't be surprised to know that this park contains about sixty natural lakes of different sizes where water birds of every hue and size flock almost all year round. Wilpattu is an ideal park to visit especially if you are not planning to head to the south of the island to visit parks such as Yala. The water and meadow landscape is quite a sight but visitors are generally more impressed by leopards that are spotted regularly. Other animals such as deer, wild pigs, and of course, elephants and sloth bears prove to be a great hit among visitors.
The main access road is on the Puttalam-Anuradhapura highway. If you would like to stay inside the park premises, there are seven bungalows that are open during the dry season i.e. between August and September. Apart from this, you have a choice of different lodgings especially some comfortable safari lodges just outside the park or tent lodges inside that can give you an adventure experience.
For more information, check here.
Great things to do on Mannar Island
Bird watching in the marshlands
The area around Giant's Tank Sanctuary including Yoda Wewa and Vankalai Pond is filled with marshes where birds seeking wetlands flock to regularly. If you happen to be an avid birder and are on the island between December and February, you are sure to be treated to a grand spectacle of a variety of winged creatures like Northern Pintails, Grebes, Plovers, Curlews, etc. The majestic Greater Flamingos flocks here to halt over the salt plans and sanctuaries around the region.