Dutch Fort of Elephant Pass

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 View of the Elephant Pass Fort from the lagoon before it was destroyed post 1984. (Source: The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka – The Military Monuments of Ceylon by W.A. Nelson)
View of the Elephant Pass Fort from the lagoon before it was destroyed post 1984.
(Source: The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka – The Military Monuments of Ceylon by W.A. Nelson)

Currently Elephant Pass is synonymous with death and destruction. Many a battle has been fought in this narrow stretch of land that connects the Jaffna peninsula to the mainland. Thousands have died on either side of the ethnic divide fighting for this strategic piece of real-estate. The significance of Elephant Pass was identified centuries before it became a death ground for Sri Lankan youth in the recent past.

The Dutch were the first to erect a fort here. It was more like a stockade or a watch post. Though well fortified and built with strong defenses the extent of the fortifications were much smaller to that of Galle or Jaffna forts. For a better known comparison the fortification at Elephant Pass can be compared to the Star Fort at Matara. Elephant Pass fort was part of an elaborate defensive structure that was meant to protect the Jaffna peninsula. On the southern edge of the peninsula it stood along with two other such forts that were linearly situated across the “neck” of the narrow peninsula. Elephant Pass was the southern most fortification out of these forts. Three miles north east from Elephant Pass in the general area of Iyakachchi was situated the second fortification called Pas Beschutter. Further to the north east from this point was the third Dutch fortification named Pas Pyl.

The purpose of the three forts was to protect Dutch interests in the Peninsula from attacks originating in the Vanni mainland. Though the Jaffna Peninsula was an important trading and administrative hub for the Dutch, the mainland of the Wanni was barely in their grasp. At times it was under the jurisdiction of the Kandyan Kings. But mostly the Wanni region was ruled by semi autonomous chieftains who paid tribute to either the Governor of Jaffna or the Kandyans. These Wanni chieftains were unpredictable and needed to be kept in place to ensure business in Jaffna was uninterrupted. In the time of the Dutch, as it had been for centuries before, the main commodities of the north were elephants and pearls.

In fact Elephant Pass is assumed to have got its name due to the pachyderms being herded towards Jaffna from the mainland for export. Dutch records indicate that elephants that were abundant in the Wanni area were captured through Kraals and then herded to Jaffna. The point at which these herds crossed the Jaffna lagoon later became known as Elephant Pass.

In addition to elephants, pearls were the other valued commodity coming out of the Northern Province. Since the time of the Anuradhapura Kings, pearls have been harvested from the coast of mainland Mannar. Though most of the produce of the pearl banks were exposited by the Dutch through Mannar, a certain portion of the goods were transported to Jaffna. Along with the elephants, pearls and other commodities that were destined for India were mainly shipped through Jaffna. Therefore protecting the Jaffna peninsula was of vital importance for the Dutch not only for their military survival in the region but for trade.

Until the outbreak of terrorist violence in 1983 the fort of Elephant Pass relatively well preserved even though the forts named as Pas Beschutter and Pas Pyl by the Dutch had long disappeared. The Elephant Pass fort in contrast was still standing and partially utilised as a guest house.

The original fort was built around 1760 on the banks of the Jaffna lagoon. It consisted of two well fortified bastions. Each bastion was armed with four cannons making the fort a formidable eight gun fortress. Though small in size the Fort at Elephant Pass would have been an efficient deterrent to any foe making their way towards Jaffna from the mainland. In the later years, the portion of the rampart had been dismantled to accommodate the guest house. However the bastions that had stood at over 15 feet had still been well preserved. This was before the outbreak of the ethnic violence in the country. Since then Elephant Pass has witnessed some of the most intense battles of the conflict. As a result of this violence the fort that was built by the Dutch and preserved for over two centuries was destroyed.

A map of Elephant Pass Fort
A map of Elephant Pass Fort
All what remains of the fort and the rest house
All what remains of the fort and the rest house

Also See

Map of  Elephant Pass (only the location)

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The map above also shows other places of interest within a approximately 20 km radius of the current site. Click on any of the markers and the info box to take you to information of these sites

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Driving Directions to Elephant Pass

Route from Colombo to Elephant Pass

Though : Putlam – Anuradhapura
distance : 360 km
Travel time : 8 hours
Driving directions : see on google map

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