Delft Island Fort – Jaffna (ඩෙල්ෆ් බලකොටුව)

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This island was called by the Portuguese ilha das Vacas, and had a fort built by them. The Dutch called it Delft Island. The Tamils call it the Neduntheevu or Neduntivu. This is the largest island in the Palk Strait, northern Sri Lanka.

Delft Island is a mostly bare island with little shade. The most common tree here is the Palmyra tree. The Palmyra Toddy is one of the chief articles of food in Delft. In 1904, the Maniyagar of Delft is said to have reported “Health of people very good. All the people are fattened with toddy, and are quite drunk from morning till night, men, women, and children without exception.” which was confirmed by a parish priest’s complaint and a request to restrict tapping toddy only to male trees which would cut down the supply to less than 50% or to impose a special toddy tax.

To quote him: ” Unlike other places, here all the castes are climbers, and during the toddy season everybody drinks toddy-men, women, and even boys and girls before they set out for school in the morning.”

It is, in fact, their food. The toddy drawing season lasts from January to September, and while it lasts the toddy-drinking makes the people most quarrelsome: husbands quarrel with wives, parents with children; in fact, everybody quarrels with everyone else, but when there is no toddy the people are well behaved and peaceful.

This blissful period of the absence of toddy is only for three or four months in the year. The toddy also is said to be stronger than the toddy elsewhere, owing to its being drawn in ola baskets instead of pots.

Various publications during the 19th and early 20th century report ruins of 2 forts on the island of Delft. Other than the main fort on the east coast, They report ruins of another small fort-like structure in the North West corner of the island which the locals call Vediyarasan fort believing this to be a fort built by the local king Vediyarasan. Detailed study has shown this was not a but a remains of 3  ancient Buddhist Stupas.

A description of these ruins is recorded by a writer who goes by the pen name “Penn” which he wrote in the Colombo Journal in 1832. This fort, he says, “is situated on a gentle elevation about 200 yards from the rocky beach on the south-west side of the island. It is 60 yards in circumference, and about 20 feet high, having such parts of the outer surface as still remain coated with chunam, with mouldings of different devices. Two flights of steps to the east and west are still visible leading into the building, which has been floored about 12 feet above the level of the ground, and is so far different in style from any erection of the kind I ever saw, which were all solid, as are, I believe, the dagoba in the Kandyan territory. The foundations of four small temples are to be seen close to the larger one, and there have formerly been six’, two at the sides of each flight of steps, one at the north, and one at the south fronts, all circular and bell-shaped, with chunam ornaments and mouldings.”

Acting Government Agent JP Lewis (1897-1901) who visited the site wrote that “The building, of which they are the remains, was apparently originally a square fort, and about 3 or 4, yards square, but is now merely a mound of coral stones grown over with prickly pear and erukkalai (Calotropis Gingantea). It is probably, like the first fort, Portuguese, but they are both attributed to the traditional native kings, Vedi Arasan the Mnkkuvar king and Mikamam, the Karaiyar king.”

The more important and the larger of the forts lies close to the jetty of the island. This fort too has been built by the Portuguese. The fort is of odd shape and only the larger walls remain today.

A description of this fort is recorded by “Penn” in the Colombo Journal in 1832. ” A building of ‘strange structure and device’ was raised for the protection and habitation of the island lords. To call this a fort would be giving it too dignified a name; to designate it a house would be still less near the mark! Neither is it a tower, peel-house, or droog, square, round, oval or oblong;  ‘it is like itself only,’ a fortified habitation, known to the natives of the ‘ old fort.’ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The only way I can describe the shape of this edifices by supposing a square of 40 feet placed to the north of an oblong square of 90 feet by 45. The southern or principal front faces the small esplanade, and is 30 feet high, having two stories of two rooms each. The northern square facing the sea contains five upper rooms and four lower ones, or rather vaults, for they must have been extremely dark, from the total want of windows or doors, being only entered from above. There have been two entrances to the building, by flights of stone steps at the angles where the squares meet; an enemy is thus exposed to a flanking fire from the upper rooms, and also from the roof, which has been flat. The stone step of a flagstaff still remains in the floor of the principal room (the west one in the southern face), through the roof of which it has evidently been erected. Through the heart of one of the walls, which are of enormous thickness throughout, a stair leads to the roof from tho upper storey, the only way by which it appears to have been gained. A further appearance of strength, indeed, is given to the building by a solid buttress of stone smoothly coated with chunam, erected entirely round the southern square, and reaching from the ground at an angle of 45° to the upper storey (or half the height of the wall). This, as well as a great part of the building, is still strong and repairable, though built of uncut coral, from the excellent cement which has been used.”

Joseph Pearson, an Englishman carried out a detailed study of this fort in 1912 had reconstructed a replica. According to him, the fort consists of a rectangle 73 feet long (omitting the buttresses) on the southern side and a square with a 40-foot side to the north. The southern rectangle is strengthened by a continuous buttress which reaches as high as the first floor and is 5 feet thick at·the ground level for the greater part of its length, and as much as 10 feet in thickness on the east side. Most of the walls are double as far as the level of the 1st floor, but single in the upper storey, This is quite clearly seen from a comparison of the two plans.

There are six rooms on the ground floor. The square at the southwest corner is filled with earth as far as the level of the first floor. The six rooms are arranged in couples, each pair having one entrance from the outside.

In the upper storey, there are another six rooms and two entrances–one by staircase A to room No. 12 (see plan of upper storey) and the other by staircase B which provides entrance to the other five rooms. A staircase (C) leads from room 12 to the roof, passing through the thickness of the walls in its upper portion.

Pearson identifies some mistakes in the account given by “Penn” in the  Colombo Journal in 1832. For instance, Pearson identified only 4 rooms instead of 5 in the upper story of the upper storey of the northern square.

Penn also referred to the lower rooms of the northern square as vaults “for they must have been extremely dark, from the total want of windows or doors, being only entered from above.” ut Pearson states it is true they had no windows, but they were all connected with the exterior directly or indirectly, by doors, as is clearly shown in the two plans. ‘There is no evidence to show that these rooms were entered from above.

“Romantic Ceylon: Its History, legend, and Story” By Ralph Henry Bassett published in 1929 has another detailed description of the fort and the island

” … Traces of the Portuguese administration of Delft remain in the ruins of a fort which was undoubtedly built by them, as Dutch military architecture was of a more modem type. It is a very strongly fortified two-storied dwelling, covering an area about fifty yards square, with a double centre wall of immense thickness. This wall completely cuts the fort in half at Ground-level, the only means of communication being on the first floor-a common precautionary measure in defensive structures of that period. As a result, it is a very complicated edifice, full of long narrow and little square rooms.

The stairs run in the double walls. and lead out on to what must have been a flat roof, judging from the marks of the rafter sockets in the masonry. In one corner is the dungeon, a small square room, with a floor below ground level. Without any door, and having only one small window about two feet square, leading into the interior of the fort. The unfortunate prisoners must have been pushed in through this little aperture, or let down through a trapdoor in the floor above, and could have got out only by means of a rope; a good many must have met their death in this little chamber. There is one large room which has the appearance of a mess-room, and a large number of small sleeping-rooms connected by corridors.

The Dutch built a barracks about a quarter of a mile from the fort, arid within their premises is a fine large Residency, now in use as the Government bungalow. The barracks were surrounded by a wall, a great part of which still stands, enclosing an area of about two hundred square yards. One of the barrack rooms is still in existence, although part of the wall has fallen almost to ground level. The most striking building is the Dutch dovecot, still in a state of perfect repair. It is made of coral stone, with a solid base about eight feet square….”

Today very little remains of this fort other than a few walls compared to the remains that the British saw in the early 1900’s.


Also See

Map of  Delft Island Fort

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Driving Directions to Jaffna (Delft Island Fort)

Jaffna can be reached through 2 directions. The first one is over the Elephant Pass which is the normal route to Jaffna. The other entrance is from Pooneryn over the newly built Sangupiddi Bridge. This road connects to Mannar.

Route 01 from Colombo to Jaffna (Through Kurunegala)Route 02 from Colombo to Jaffna (Through Puttalam)
Through : Kurunegala – Dambulla – Anuradhapura – Vavuniya
Distance : 400 km
Travel Time : 7-8 hours
Driving Directions : see on Google map
Through : Puttalam – Anuradhapura – Vavuniya
Distance : 400 km
Travel Time : 7-8 hours
Driving Directions : see on Google maps


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