Watch | How is the St. Antony’s church festival at Katchatheevu celebrated?
Katchatheevu is an island in the Palk Straits that connects India and Sri Lanka. The island, which belongs to Sri Lanka, measures 285.20 acres and is located about 14 nautical miles from Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu.
Every year, a church festival is held here during February or March and draws thousands of pilgrims. This mainly includes fisherfolk from both India and Sri Lanka, praying for happiness and good health. But this nondescript island has for long been a topic of debate on both sides.
Why does India want to retrieve Katchatheevu?
Katchatheevu gained prominence in the 1970s. In 1974 and 1976, two agreements between India and Sri Lanka followed. Then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike signed agreements making Katchatheevu a part of Sri Lanka. Ever since, with Katchatheevu determining the maritime border, discussions on fishing rights have been crucial for both India and Sri Lanka.
While Indian politicians want the island retrieved, Sri Lankan politicians have not taken much interest in talks of handing the piece of land to India. However, Chief Minister M. K. Stalin appealed to PM Narendra Modi regarding this during his visit to Chennai last year. Stalin said this was the right time to retrieve Katchatheevu as it would uphold the rights of Indian fishermen.
What is Sri Lanka’s stand on the issue?
Earlier, Indian fishermen would freely use the waters for fishing and exchange pleasantries with their Sri Lankan counterparts and relax on the island. They would even pray at the church and there were no restrictions even after the agreement between the two nations were signed. But after the civil war in Sri Lanka, the scenario changed.
Ever since, Sri Lanka has been firm on their position that there was no question of handing the island over. It has also established a naval camp at Katchatheevu.
How is the St. Antony’s Church Festival celebrated?
It is amidst this backdrop that the festival gains more importance. On their way to the church, pilgrims stop four times for verification by the Indian and Sri Lankan Navies. The journey to the island takes about two-and-half-hours. Following another round of verification and walking for about 15 minutes, the pilgrims reach St. Antony’s Church.
This year, the event started at around 4 p.m on March 3, with the flag hoisting. It was followed by the ‘Way of the Cross’ procession and a car procession where the statue of St. Antony was carried around the church. The prayers were said in Tamil and this continued through the night with people reading verses from the Bible.
Prayers are usually held for the wellbeing of people on both sides and especially for fisherfolk. However, this time special prayers were held for Sri Lanka as it recovers from an economic crisis. It is believed among the fisherfolk that St. Antony gives hope, and this draws people of all faiths to the island.
At the shrine, petitions by the pilgrims are read out by the church authorities. Most of the petitions are from people wishing to go abroad, those hoping to get married, some for better health, for a stable economy and livelihood. A little further away from the church is a statue of St. Antony where people light candles.
Reporting: B. Tilak Chandar
Photos & Video: L. Balachandar
Voiceover & Production: Abhinaya Sriram