The dusk slowly settling upon the Arippu Fort in Mannar took me more than three centuries back in time to 1679 when Robert Knox, the English Sea Captain and his companion Stephen Ruthland, who were held in captivity by the King of the Kandyan Kingdom escaped to this very fort. The grueling journey the pair would have embarked upon on foot more than three centuries ago, to reach Arippu Fort via Anuradhapura is beyond imagination!
The solitary fanlight which still remains of this small two-bastion fort originally built by the Portuguese would have lit up the interior of the fort with the Mannar sunlight flooding through it. Although a shell-of-a-fort is found today, the remnants still speak of his regality. Thanks to the placard erected by the Sri Lanka Navy at the entry point to the fort, a visitor is enabled an insight into its history. The fort, it says, had been taken over by the Dutch in 1658 after the fall of Mannar. Knox together with his shipmates had landed in Trincomalee in 1659 due to stormy weather and was taken captive by the Kandyan King Rajasinghe. After 20 years of captivity, Knox found his liberation at Arippu. The placard claims that the Dutch had ‘treated Knox generously’ and transported him to Jakarta which was a Dutch colony at that time from where he had returned to England 1680.
Shelter for administrators
With the passage of time, nature had invaded the Arippu Fort, with its ramparts fast becoming a dense jungle with giant roots permeating them. The coral and mortar mixed base used for fort’s construction, testifies to the geography-conscious architects of it who had exploited the marine resources the region is renowned for. Later on, for the first British Governor of the then Ceylon, Frederick North who had a penchant for pearl fisheries of the island, Arippu Fort would have certainly been a ‘bonus’ in terms of administration and commuting from his mansion ‘The Doric’ which was only 1km away from the fort. North converted the Arippu Fort into a bungalow for his subordinate officers supervising the pearl fisheries. Interestingly, according to literature provided by the SL Navy, there lies a tombstone at the Southern end of the land, probably buried under the thicket now. The tombstone is of Charles Lays it says, an employee of the Oriental Banks Corporation, who died on April 14, 1878 of a sunstroke in Marichchikaddi while on a shooting expedition.
Lover of Grecian art
What would it have been for Governor North, the 32-year-old bachelor who landed in Ceylon with a partiality for all things Grecian, to watch the boats returning with a bountiful harvest of oysters from the terraced roof of ‘The Doric’ as twilight fell? Despite the absence of Venetian doors and grand colonnades the mansion was once adorned with, it still validates Cordiner’s description of it as found in ‘A Description of Ceylon, 1807’ as ‘undoubtedly the most beautiful building in the island.’
Cordiner further states that it is ‘the only one which is planned to any order of architecture. The design was purely Doric and was given by the Hon. Frederick North himself.’ I was not as fortunate as Cordiner was, to be privy to the ‘four small bedrooms on the ground floor, one at each corner’, yet the elements of nature and human vandalism had spared the ‘spacious flight of stone stairs’ occupying the centre of the mansion.
Paradise for pearls
Prof KD Paranavitana explains that during the Dutch and early British period, Arippu and Silavaturai in the Mannar region had the most lucrative pearl fisheries industry. “The area was viable for them both in pearl fisheries and agricultural pursuits. The importance they attached to Mannar region is further evident by the fact that ancient maps of Ceylon gave more prominence to Mannar than to Jaffna.” Historical sources confirm that fisheries during North’s seven-year term generated significant revenue.
The Doric is a ballad of its own one could say. The central stairway which leads to the terraced roof that offers one of the most exotic views of the Indian Ocean could make one’s imagination run riot. Although there is no trace of this upper floor today, the remaining walls of the mansion constructed of thin, square red bricks (which were signature to the constructions of the era) with cement plastering speak of the dexterity of the craftsmen. Remnants of arches still reflect regal splendor.
Having visited The Doric probably in the mid 1970s, CG Uragoda records his experience in the Journal of Sri Lanka Branch of the Royal Asiatic Societies of 1975 that, “unless appropriate steps are taken without delay, the continued existence of a building which is perhaps the sole monument to those fabled days of pearl fisheries is in jeopardy.” He goes on to note, “now one of the front pillars of the ruin in precariously perched on the very brink of the low cliff.”
Having visited this exquisite hideout 40 years later after CG Uragoda warned the relevant authorities of its eminent perish, I could only see its front pillars been washed away due to neglect and left at the mercy of the waves. Today none stand even on the ‘very brink of the low cliff’ but as the scholar observed four decades ago, “on looking at it one can recognize that haunting beauty which lingers on after the glory has departed…”
Story and Pix by Randima Attygalle
(In Arippu, Mannar)