Trincomalee – Heritage Highlights (ත්‍රිකුණාමලය)

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Trincomalee is one of the most beautiful natural harbours in the world. There are only four or five others comparable to Trincomalee, among them Sydney harbour and Buenos Aires harbour in Argentina. Trinco today is the fifth largest natural harbour.

The name comes from Trikona/likoona (triangle) and malai (hill or rock in Tamil). The rock on the promontory is like a triangle or the hill surrounding the place form a triangle.

The earlier name was Gokanna also known as Gonaka. The Greek cartographer Psolemy marked the harbour as Bokana on his map. The harbour was known to mariners from very ancient times. Badda Kachchana, the Sakyan princess who was sent to Lanka to be the bride of king Panduvasdeva landed at Gokanna according to recorded history. As a point of interest there is a legend going further back.

Two merchant brothers Tapassu and Bhalluka, were the first to serve some food to the Buddha soon after his Enlightenment. The Buddha gave them some strands of hair, perhaps as a memento. the two brothers carefully carried this memento, with them.


They were sea-faring merchants. When they dropped anchor at Gokanna, they deposited some or all the strands of hair in a mound somewhere north of Gokanna. The Girihandu Seya in Tiriyaya is said to be this chetiya or shrine. The Shewedagon in Rangoon in Myanmar is said to contain the hair-relics of the Buddha. Perhaps the brothers Tapassu and Bhalluka deposited only some strands of hair in the chetiya at Tiriyaya and took the rest with them to Myanmar.

Temple of a Thousand Pillars

There was in times, long past a magnificent temple dedicated to Konath or Konasir on the cliff. 400 feet above the sea, at the Southern extremity of the peninsula that separates the inner from the outer harbour. British and other European writers of the 18th and 19th centuries refer to this shrine as the “Temple of a Thousand Pillars.”

What was its original name and who built it? According to a Tamil legend, a Hindu Prince, having learned from the Puranas that the rock now known as Swami Rock was a fragment of the holy Mount Meru hurled into the present site during a conflict of the gods, came over to Lanka and erected upon it a temple to Shiva.

Being one of the main harbours in which seafarers in the Bay of Bengal dropped anchor, Trincomalee or Gokanna as this place was known earlier, must have been, from very early times, a settlement of Indo Aryan migrants.

Trincomalee - Lovers Leap
Trincomalee – Lovers Leap

Later the Pallavas and the Pandyan and Chola dynasties that ruled the Deccan (dhakkina desha) must have been closely associated with the up-keep of the Temple, lavishing wealth to maintain it in all its glory.

It is said that pilgrims from all over India came to the temple. One writer has said that it was more frequented by pilgrims than Rameswaram or the Jaganath Temple in Orissa.

The temple was razed to the ground by the Portuguese general Constantine de Saa in 1622 and he built a fort there using the stones of the demolished temple.

A temple has been built on Swami Rock (God’s Rock) which is inside Fort Fredrick. It is held in high veneration by the Hindus, and frequented by Buddhist pilgrims too.

Lover’s Leap

The touching story behind Lover’s Leap is not a legend. It is a true story attested by an inscription on a pillar on Swami Rock.

Francina van Reed was the daughter of a gentleman of rank in the civil service of Holland. She was engaged to a young Dutch officer. He broke off the engagement, and his period of foreign service over, he embarked for Holland.


The forsaken girl watched the vessel from the promontory of Swami Rock, and when the ship taking away the faithless man passed the precipice she flung herself from the rock into the sea – a sheer drop of 400 feet.

A pillar set up on the promontory records the date of the tragedy – 1687 April 24. When Sir Emerson Tennent, Secretary of the Colony saw it in the late 1840s or early 1850s, the inscription which recalled the fate of Francina Van Reed was “nearly obliterated.”

Fort Frederick

In the early period of their rule, the Portuguese were not in the least interested in taking possession of Trincomalee; but after the appearance of the Dutch on the east coast and their making an alliance with the King of Kandy , Constantine de Saa became alarmed and took control of the two ports on the east coast, Trincomalee and Batticaloa.

In 1622, he ruthlessly destroyed the Temple of a Thousand Pillars and used its stones to build a fort on the site it stood. Some fragments of carved stone work and slabs bearing inscriptions were to be seen in the walls of the Fort in the mid 19th century. (Facsimiles of three inscriptions were published in the Journal of Asiatic Society Bengl Vol 5)


In 1960, 440 years after Constantine de Saa razed the temple to the ground, workers of the Trincomalee UC digging a well for public use, found three statues all turned upside down.

Constantine de Saa built the Fort in 1624 and it was successively held by the Dutch French until it was taken over by the British in 1795. The British named the Fort, FORT FREDRICK after the then Commander in Chief the Duke of York.

Spotted Deer

The spotted deer that roam within the Fort is one of the charming sights in Trincomalee. The herd had grown from a pair brought as pets in the early years of British rule.

A few years back it was reported that the deer were dying. Feeding on the food thrown away by pilgrims the deer had consumed polythene sheets as well. The vets of the Wild Life Department had to perform operations to relieve the deer of their indisposition.

Hot springs

Trincomalee - Aknnia Hotwater wells
Trincomalee – Aknnia Hotwater wells

The hot springs of Kannya are about five miles north-west of Trincomalee and about half a mile off the Anuradhapura Road.

As with most places of interest in and around Trincomalee these hot springs also have their legend, which goes back to pre-Vijayan times, when Ravana was Lord of Lanka. The legend as told to Bella Sydney Woolf, Sister of Leonard Woolf and recorded in her 1914 publication “How to see Ceylon,” is as follows:

“Vishnu wished to prevent Ravana from setting forth on some undertaking, and he appeared to Ravana as an old man bearing the false news that Kannya (his mother) was dead.

Thereupon Ravana determined to put off his project and, perform the rites for the dead, asked where he could find water for the ablutions. Vishnu disappeared and the hot springs burst forth where he had stood. Since then they have been called after Kannya.”

by Sumana Saparamadu
Sunday Observer, 4 March 2007

* note

A reader (Anne Williams) has informed the following

The story of Francina Van Rheede is completely UNTRUE. She went up there to see her father sail from Trinco to Jaffna which he had to do leaving her behind. After his death she attended his funeral In present Indonesia, after the date on the inscription. She afterwards was married twice and I believe went to S.Africa.Please alter your above ‘fairytale and error and correct as she left descendants I believe..What you have written is in absolutely erroneous. The details about her are in the Dutch Burgher annals which can be checked.Please do so and alter.”

To correct the above story, some information on Francina Van Rheede from the publication “Hendrik van Reede tot Drakenstein (1636-1691) and Hortus Malabaricus: A Contribution to the History of Dutch Colonial Botany. ” By J. Heniger is given below ;

Francina Van Reede was the daughter of Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede, a officer of the Dutch Government. The true identity of this lady is rather obscure. The opinion of biographers are divided. She is said to have been a bastard daughter or an adopted daughter or even a legitimate daughter of Van Reede. In his last will Van Reede states that the was a bachelor implying that Francina could not be his legitimate daughter. But in his last will Van Reede nominates Francina as his sole heiress.

Francina took part in Van Reedes last voyage from Cochin to Surat in India and witnessed his death in 1691 in Bombay(now known as Mumbai). She came back to Sri Lanka in 1692 and married in the same year in Colombo to Captain Ceasr De La Baye who was a cousin of her.  But the marriage lasted only a short period until Ceasr’s death in 1693.

Francina married again 1694 in Utrecht in Holland to a another cousin Antoni Carel Van Panhuizen. After the 2nd marriage Francina lived in Utrecht until her death in 1731.

The mystery of the monument to commemorate Francina Van Reede continues unsolved.

Also See

Map of  the Trincomalee

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Traveling Directions to Trincomalee

Route from Colombo to Trincomalee

Route from Kandy to Trincomalee

Though : Ambepussa – Kurunegala – Dambulla
distance : 266 km
Travel time : 6-7 hours
Driving directions : see on google map
Though : Katugasthota – Matale – Dambulla
distance : 185 km
Travel time : 3.5-4 hours
Driving directions : see on google map


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