Surrounded by the vast blue-hued Indian Ocean, ‘Gokarna’ – as it was originally known in Sanskrit –has played a pivotal role in placing Sri Lanka on the world map. With a recorded history spanning over two thousand five hundred years, Trincomalee is one of the oldest cities in Asia that has served as a major maritime seaport in international trading.
The beginnings of this fertile sea-facing land are closely knit with the civilian settlement associated with the Koneswaram Kovil, a sacred Hindu temple. It was the capital of the Eastern kingdoms of the Vanni country, which grew from strength to strength, drawing influences from the South Indian reign of the Pallava, Chola and Pandyan Dynasties and the Jaffna kingdom. Trincomalee is the anglicized word of ‘Thiru-kona-malai’ which has evolved through centuries with old Tamil terms such as Ko, Kone and Konatha which mean ‘Lord’ or ‘Chief’ relating to the deity that presides in the kovil that sits atop Swami Rock.
The Tamil settlement at the ancient port of Gokarna is considered as one of the oldest settlements in the island with evidence dating back to 400 BCE. It is a hub that has attracted seafarers, traders and pilgrims alike from all parts of the globe. With the arrival of people and trade from all across the world the peninsula grew prosperous and rich in culture, there are legends that indicate that even the renowned Yoga sun salutation draws its roots from Trincomalee.
The landscape of the tranquil seaport changed dramatically with the entrance of Portuguese in the island. Thiru Koneswaram Kovil, also known as ‘The Great Pagoda’ or ‘The Pagoda with a thousand Pillars’, is not only the most ancient Hindu veneration in the island but it is also one of the five Ishwaram Kovils in Sri Lanka. The temple’s grandeur was renowned throughout Asia to the extent that it was dubbed as the ‘Rome of the Pagans of the Orient’ by the Portuguese. Fueled by jealousy and intolerance, the structure was razed to the ground under the order of Constantine de Sa in 1624. They then went on to build a triangular fort with three bastions out of the ruins from the former pagoda and called it the ‘Fort of Triquinimale.’ Chunks of the temple that had fallen into the ocean were later recovered in the 1990s, including exquisite bronze statues.
When the fort fell into the hands of the Dutch, through their alliance with the Kandyans, it was handed over to the rulers of the last kingdom who took great pleasure in destroying the fort built by their nemesis. In 1660, the Dutch erected two Forts, one at the foot of the cliff, the present Fort Fredrick which they referred to as the ‘Pagoda Hill’ and Fort Ostenburg built at the mouth of the harbor.
With the destruction of the kovil and stringent rules laid out by the Portuguese, the people in the once prosperous land suffered greatly. A slow recovery to their previous lives only began when the Dutch came into power, introducing more lenient laws and breathing new life to the agricultural production around the area. The kovil was rebuilt, and has been maintained through careful restorations ever since.
Over the next few decades Trincomalee came under the rule of the French, British and Dutch intermittently before the British recaptured the city and fort in 1795. Securing their control over the island, their base in Trincomalee would come to play a vital role in their naval and air force strategies up until independence in 1948.