The Mansion of the sea

It was 1930. A large crowd had gathered, reverent and joyful on the beach at Dodanduwa. Only a few miles north of Galle, Dodanduwa was, then, yet another modest port of call, mostly for Maldivian bungallows. Long past, now, are the days of the Divehi-speaking sailors. Only the name "Customs Road" remains, and only the older people recall Dodanduwa as the last home of the yathra dhony, or maha-oruwa. These craft, unique to the country, were the last product of our traditional log-boat technology. Seventy-five to hundred foot freighters, they were, by this time, rigged with jib, main and mizzen sails, rudder and a sturdy outrigger – their signature feature. In earlier times, they had also been versions with a single mast and sail and without rudder. Built of wood, and fastened with coir rope, by traditional craftsmen.

The crowd that day had gathered to see a new one being launched. Though a substantial investment, two friends – Kariyavasam Patuvata Vithanage Don Siyadoris de Silva, land owner and entrepreneur and Punchi Sinno Marakkalaehe, mariner – had joined forces to build and this vessel, the Amugoda oruva, fated to be the last of her breed. They hoped she would sail fair and do brisk business with south India and the Maldives. These ships were the community’s pride, and in the crowd were the impromptu versifiers composing instant ballads, of which some verses have survived:

Gaman yanna naekatin oruva baa geney

Saman deyiyanta puda panduru baenda geney

Viman sagarey kanu mul soya geney

Apit yamuva haema deviyanta vaenda geney

Auspiciously have we launched of vessel

And made our offerings to god Saman of Sri Pada.

Let us now worship all the gods, as we go –

In search of the Mansions of the Sea

No god, alas! heard their pious prayers.

She must have hoisted sail on her maiden voyage using the favouring winds of the North-East monsoon. Her destination: the southern atolls of the Maldivian chain. Racing, night and day under full-bellied sails before a following wind, she made good time to her first port of call, Male. There she discharged and sold her cargo.

Whatever happened to her thereafter? Perhaps she joined the local ships in the busy inter-island trade, till a return cargo was found to fill her holds. To the Maldivians the seas are not barriers but highways between islands even though, in the south, the sea is always in turmoil. It takes seamen born to the sea to navigate them. Did the yathra, cope with these waters? Or was on the reefs of Male that she foundered? For that was her ultimate fate, prayers to gods notwithstanding. But when, where and why did it happen? All that Dodanduwa knew was that she was overdue. Each day, the horizon was scanned for her, but never was she sighted. Gradually, cruel news filtered through that she had foundered on a reef, with the loss of all her crew. Sad were the dirges sung in Dodanduwa:

Metaenin oruva baa laa gati varaayata

Diyamba poru sata divve tharangataya

Kopamana ruval aedalaa divvat sondata

Amugoda oruva tava naeta aavey gamata

"From here was the vessel taken to port

And many a league did she race along under sail,

But however many sails she hoisted, however fair she sailed

Amugoda oruva came not home again."

No yathra was built again. Along with the Amugoda Oruwa, Sinhala nautical technology died..

Ironically, some, of the crew had been rescued: seaman all, they had lived and worked in Male for several years, finally making it home, bringing with them bits and pieces of the last yathra.

The story now shifts from Dodanduwa of 1930 to me in 1986. I had heard of a ship called the Yathra Dhoni. But nothing more substantial was forthcoming. Finally I heard of a 100-year old model of one in Kumarakanda Pirivena, Dodanduwa

How could I get to see this treasure? I was at a loss for ideas, but Serendipity now intervened. At a conference at the University of Ruhuna, the Venerable Dodanduve Dharmasena was pointed out to me. He seemed not the least intimidating, so I worshipped him and introduced myself.

"Oh, I know who you are – you are D.T. Devendra’s son, aren’t you? He was a great man – we can’t find people like that now".

My late father’s shadow was still sheltering me! The Venerable monk and I discovered that we had been up at the University during the same time, and we took an instant liking to each other. I told him that I had heard of the model and asked him:

"Can I see it sometime?"

"Of course" he said, "Mahattayata pennanney naettam, katada pennaney?" (If it is not to you, to whom am I to show it?)

I wasted no time and visited the Pirivena early, and I saw the impressive, 3-4 foot long model made by his father, enclosed in a large glass box. I chanced my luck again – could I photograph it? Again, he was positive. So I made second trip, armed with cameras. It was an overcast day and the light indoors was poor and, anyway the glass reflected the flash. He was unbelievably generous, letting me take it out of the case and out into the garden, where I got some excellent shots under natural light.

Long were the talks we had about things historical, things philosophical and things about the yathra. The model, he said, had been made in the early 1890s, as a boy, by his father. Yathras, then, crowded the beach front for their annual refit, and the boy would go ship-hopping to see exactly how some feature was made and fitted, and then scamper home to work on his model, which was taking shape in the inner courtyard, the maeda-midula. The model was so accurate that it earned a Gold Medal. When the monk was ordained, he had brought it along with him to the Temple, along with the few timbers of the Amugoda Oruwa.

One thing more he did, because I urged him to. He lent the model to the National Museum to be exhibited when the UNESCO retraced the "Silk Route of the Sea", calling at Colombo. Years later, when his health was giving up on him, he gifted the model – and the timbers from the last yathra – to the Colombo Museum.

I was again in Galle, before that. Maritime archaeologists from Australia had come introduce the subject to University students. Among them was Tom Vosmer, a boat ethnographer, with whom I discussed the Amugoda oruwa and the Kumarakanda model.

Tom was enthusiastic, for this was the last of a type of large single outrigger sailing ships which could be traced back many centuries. He spent days examining the model, measuring, photographing and making drawings. He said its accuracy, both in scale and detail, made it an ideal candidate for documentation. The drawings and measurements were tested against a computer programme, "MacSurf", and they were found to fit in well within the requirements of a vessel of her size. A complete set of computer generated structural drawings resulted, and an understanding of her sailing characteristics. And so, Man and Machine combined to retrieve from the wastepaper basket of History, the blue-prints for, perhaps, another maha oruva.

When the Museum received the venerable monk’s gift the first impulse was to make a media event of it. But the Director agreed with me how important it was to educate people in their maritime heritage. We would mount an exhibition round tracing the birth and growth of watercraft and of ship and boat-building in Sri Lanka from ancient times to the present and the yathra would be the centre piece. The Museum had a collection of models and detailed drawings of many craft made by a German maritime archaeologist and ethnographer, Herr Gerhard Kapitän. I had photographs, charts and diagrams. The Navy and modern shipbuilders lent us their models. All I had to do was to put all together. We targeted school children, and it turned out well, making good copy for feature writers: it was even featured on "TamilNet" – the ultimate accolade?!

The yathra now had me in her grip. I found 19th. century models of her in Museums in many countries, some of older, more basic types. But my prize was the detailed drawing of one, made about 1840, by Admiral Edmund Pâris, which speaks of it being used in Ceylon and the Coromandel coast. The occurrence of the same craft in south-west Sri Lanka and south-east India is a fascinating link to our nautical heritage in days gone by.

So we now have the technical drawings and a wonderful sociological record in Prof. Vini Vithanana’s The Oru and the Yathra; and the traditional skills can still be found for us to build another. And we must: the yathra is the oldest, purely indigenous ship that lasted more than a millennium. It should be a national icon. Let’s not wait for governments to take the lead. Enthusiasts, patriots, shipbuilders, bankers, yachtsmen must take the lead.

Whose hand do I see raised, there, at the back of the class?


(This story is an abbreviated – and amended – version of another by the same name from my book "Yesterday is another country" published last year.)

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