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In Sindbad’s footsteps

A family trip to Sri Lanka, where a tsunami survivor provides rare glimpses into a country that is rightly dubbed the wonder of Asia

In Sindbad’s footsteps
Bentuta beach.

Nothing was unusual that day. It was a quiet morning. The launches were anchored at the fish market quay and fishes were being auctioned in low din. Ibrahim descended the stairs at the southern end of the mosque, and leaned on the wall of lower terrace. He could see some of his friends moving in the quay. Their lazy gait indicated they were in no hurry. This mosque was built on a protruding rock in the sea by the Arab seafarer in the 16th century. Later a jetty came up behind it in the semicircular lagoon, partially sheltered from the waves by the mosque.

Ibrahim turned around and glanced back at the beach. In the midst of swinging palm trees, the lighthouse stood firm as usual. It dominated the southern horizon. The cool morning breeze blew across the beach that slightly disturbed the coconuts dangling from palm trees.

Ibrahim could see his friend Muhammad moving among the crowd. Earlier he had asked him to buy a fresh cuttlefish, now he had other ideas. He wanted boiled rice with shrimps for lunch. He wanted to inform him about his changed plans but the distance prevented his voice from reaching him. His only choice was to climb the mosque stairs and run around the lagoon to the market before his friend could buy the fish.

Modern day Sri Lanka was known as Serendib, an island situated on the famed maritime Spice Route. Sindbad, one of the famous characters of the Arabian Nights was a swashbuckling merchant-seafarer who travelled to distant lands to trade, but was always confronted with adventure and treasure.

Suddenly the air turned eerie. The sound of breaking waves was muted and the occasional shrill cry of seagulls had disappeared. Once again Ibrahim glanced back at the beach. The ocean had receded and the shoreline was more than 400 metres from the mosque. It was half moon; thus normal tides.

Ibrahim felt something was missing since his last fleeting look. He noticed a 10-feet high wall was rising from the ocean and marching towards him. Was he imagining things? He rushed upstairs and jumped the last three steps before the wave crashed over the lower terrace of the mosque with a deafening roar. He got his left leg injured but managed to crawl up the four feet high retaining wall and peeped at the bay. There was mayhem on the quay. Boats had either overturned or were floating lifelessly in what was the marketplace just a few minutes ago. The roar of the gushing waves drowned the desperate cries of help.

In 10 minutes it was all over for the people of Beruwala, a small town in Sri Lanka about 70kms south of Colombo. That was 8.30am on Sunday, December 26, 2004.


The tsunami was caused by a massive earthquake in the Indian Ocean which destroyed life along the coastlines of Indonesian, Malaysia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. It has devastated those who survived. Amongst them is Ibrahim.

Ibrahim lost Muhammad, his friend, who was out at the quay to buy fish for him. Though Ibrahim’s family survived, he lost all his belongings.

We met Ibrahim by chance a few months ago while travelling from Colombo to Bentuta, a resort town along the southern coastline of Sri Lanka.

As he drove us in a tourist van along the Galle Road, my family enjoyed the landscape rolling past, lush green vegetation, schoolchildren dressed in perfect white uniforms provided by the state, coconut trees and the breeze which cut across the road. Meanwhile, my son, Daniyal, picked up a friendly conversation with him. It started with the usual eastern etiquette — inquiring about the driver’s family status, then moving on to the more probing queries about the passing landmarks — till he spotted a distant white-domed building protruding from the coconut trees. We were told it was the ancient mosque of Beruwala.

Curiosity compelled us to wander off to Beruwala, which in Sinhalese means a place where the sails are lowered. The Arab merchants came here to trade as early as the 7th century. Traders in those days were in fact a combination of manufacturers, navigators, warriors, geographers and scholars. By 1024, the Arab merchants, attracted by native wives, started settling down at this harbour, which accounts for the fact that Muslims make the majority of the population in Beruwala town. Most of them were involved in the gem business for generations.

To medieval Arabs, the modern day Sri Lanka was known as Serendib, an island situated on the famed maritime Spice Route. One of the famous characters of 1001 Arabian Nights Sindbad was a swashbuckling merchant-seafarer who travelled to distant lands to trade but was always confronted with adventure and treasure. Sinbad made his sixth and seventh voyages to Serendib (Sri Lanka) and obtained diamonds, precious stones, sandalwood, camphor, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, coconut, ambergris and ivory.

Kechimali mosque. Front elevationlooks like an elegant mansion.

After each journey he returned to Baghdad and presented Caliph Harun-al-Rashid (786-809 AD) with gifts from the King of Serendib which included a fabulous grail, carved out of a huge ruby and filled with pearls; an enormous snakeskin, with scales as large as gold coins, of ‘the serpent that swalloweth the elephant’ and a beautiful slave girl, who ‘shone like the moon’.

Ibrahim became our local tourist guide for this oldest mosque in Sri Lanka. According to him, this mosque is known as Kechimali Mosque or ‘Jabal Masjid’ in Arabic (although the latter fact needs further probing). The mosque’s architecture is unique. Painted in white, it has a front porch, a verandah and two rooms with a central area for prayers. The side rooms can be accessed through wooden doors set in decorative arches. One of the two rooms is reserved as a prayer room for ladies.

A flight of steps from the beach leads one to the mosque, as it is strategically located on the promontory of the rock face. From down below, with the central dome not visible, the mosque looks like an elegant mansion. The mosque has certainly been rebuilt in the last few centuries at the same location. Daniyal and I were also introduced to the khateeb of the mosque.

The Beruwala lighthouse is clearly visible from the mosque, and is still functional. This white tower, as it stands majestically, is sharply in contrast with the lush green coconut trees and the deep blue surrounding ocean. It is a piece of architecture worthy of much closer inspection but hard pressed for time we left it for our next trip.

Instead of visiting the Beruwala town, where I was afraid my wife would be tempted to buy precious gems from China Fort, the market famous for gems, we drove on to Bentuta.

The visit to the nearby turtle hatchery was exciting where we could touch tiny yet playful one-day old turtles. The hatchery was a part of the Induruwa Sea Turtle Conservation Project which also housed wounded turtles of various varieties. The injuries usually caused by netting of unprincipled fishermen.

The final destination of the day was the River Port jetty. We were greeted by a person who had a smiling face and a pointing half beard. He looked like a sailor in white shirt, shorts and shoes. He was called Captain Robinson. A hark back to Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe.

Boatride throuugh the mangrove forset.

The captain briefed us about the two-hour boat safari through the mangroves and various islands in the estuary of River Bentuta. Excited Manal, my nine-year-old daughter, asked, “in case of a shipwreck who would rescue us? Robinson Crusoe or Man Friday?”

Still smiling, he remarked that maybe we’d have to give company to the wild monkeys commonly found in the surrounding forests.

“No treasures are buried in these islands and hence don’t expect one-legged Long John Silver terrifying children,” the captain warned. And so, wearing orange life jackets, the journey began.

At times we had to duck underneath low bridges and thick branches of mangrove forest. As the boat sailed through choppy water, we saw various waterfowls at close range, hanging bats, cormorants used as fishing tools, purple faced monkeys plucking wild berries and a huge monitor lizard curling around branches. We disembarked at the Spice Island — a small, forested island in the estuary.

As we sat on wooden benches in a wooden hut, the local artisans displayed their crafts, ranging from woodcraft to preserved spices. The most famous of the local product was cinnamon. Almost the entire island is covered with cinnamon trees.

The last stop was a fish spa, where orange coloured fishes nimbled at and tickled our feet.

The boat trip was worth it — and so is Sri Lanka, the wonder of Asia when it comes to tourism and hospitality.

Dr Raheal Ahmad Siddiqui

raheal siddiqui
The writer is a conservationist and animal right activist and can be reached at dr.raheal@gmail.com

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