Monday, 11 April 2016 11:38

Shrine of the Lenten Season

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Sri Lanka has its own Mount Calvary to which thousands of pilgrims flock every Lenten season.


The Calvary shrine is at Hiniduma, a village deep in the south of the country, some 35km north of Galle and 35km west of Balapitiya as the crow flies. However, the journey for pilgrims, by bus, takes several hours as there is no direct route. In the Lenten season, special buses go from Negombo, Colombo, Galle and Kalutara carrying pilgrims to the shrine. This year's pilgrimage season began on Sunday, February 7 and ends at Easter on Sunday, March 27. During that time, many of Sri Lanka's 1.5 million Christians will climb the Calvary hill to pray and reflect at the Stations of the Cross.

This year’s pilgrimage season began on Sunday, February 7 and ends at Easter on Sunday March 27, 2016

Christianity arrived in Sri Lanka in the 16th century with the Portuguese invaders, who were enthusiastic about converting the Sinhalese Buddhists to Roman Catholicism. As rivers were the roads of the country then, Portuguese missionaries used them to spread their faith across the Island. It was the Gin Ganga river that enabled them to reach as far inland as Hiniduma, now part of the Diocese of Galle. Although Catholics were persecuted during the subsequent Dutch occupation, the Catholic Church was granted full liberty and freedom of action under the British in 1806.

Catholicism spread and, in 1893, the Diocese of Galle came into existence. In the same year, a church was built on the river bank at Hiniduma to administer to Catholics of the area. In 1947, Fr Cyril Edirisinghe, born in 1903 in the nearby village of Baddegama, was appointed as Parish Priest of the church, St Anne's, Hiniduma.

Hiniduma means village with a "light mist". It is surrounded by a chain of mountains and overlooked by the highest mountain (at 661m above sea level) in the Southern Province, Mount Haycock. The Gin Ganga, which flows between the hills to Gintota on the island's west coast, feeds the lush vegetation of the area, helping it become rich in cinnamon, tea and rubber cultivations.

However, when Fr Cyril arrived, Hiniduma was the most backward region in the Galle District. Though blessed with scenic beauty and abundant water and land, it lacked modern infrastructure such as electricity and useable roads. Taking over the parish from foreign priests, and being from the area, Fr Cyril was able to put his talents as an architect, engineer and contractor into developing the parish.

It was an exhausting but very spiritual experience and, as Easter was approaching and the crucifixion of Christ was on the priest’s mind, he was inspired to turn the hillside into a replica of Calvary.

To his dismay, just before Good Friday in 1948, there was a fire in the forest on the hillside across the river opposite the Hiniduma church. The hill was part of the 18 acres that belonged to the church. There was nothing the priest could do about the fire, which raged throughout the night. In the morning, he gazed in sorrow at the destruction of the forest and then, raising his head to the summit of the hill, saw that a single tree remained, half-burnt and with two branches sticking out from its trunk. It looked like a cross.

Fr Cyril climbed the hill with some parishioners to reach the burnt tree at the summit. It was an exhausting but very spiritual experience and, as Easter was approaching and the crucifixion of Christ was on the priest's mind, he was inspired to turn the hillside into a replica of Calvary.

He began by clearing and tracing a practical path to the summit. Instead of a steep climb he laid a path that meandered through the trees. He chose appropriate places along the route to commemorate the Stations of the Cross. Twelve stations were originally positioned with wooden crosses, with replicas painted on plaques mounted on concrete. A notice by the gate to the Calvary Hill states that Fr Cyril "erected the stations of the cross with life-size statues (around 50 in number) with the help of a certain Somodasa, a veteran Buddhist sculptor".

For the construction of a church at the summit the barren, rocky peak had to be flattened manually and all the materials were carried up the path, with Fr Cyril supervising the building himself. The consecration of the church at the top of Hiniduma's Calvary took place in 1954 and four years later it was officially declared a Diocesan Shrine.

In 1994 a concrete bridge was built, replacing the temporary ones of logs that the parishioners erected every year to cross the river from the church to the hill. That bridge was washed away when the river flooded in 2003 and has since been replaced by a massive cantilevered structure over which pilgrims walk to start the climb along a path that winds for 2.5km to the summit.

The present incumbent and administrator of the Shrine, Rev Fr Indika Anthony, noticed that pilgrims who were unable to make the long walk waited at the foot of the hill until their companions returned. So in 2014, Fr Indika created a level "Way of the Cross" marked with 14 figurines leading to an open-air place of worship in a leafy glade on the bank of the Gin Ganga. In addition, there is accommodation for 2,500 pilgrims beside the church and, during the Lenten season, hundreds of temporary stalls are erected in
the area to cater for visitors.

There are several places around the world named Calvary after the original mount near Jerusalem, but none of them seem so enchanting as that in the peaceful wooded wilderness by the Gin Ganga at Hiniduma.

Words Royston Ellis Photography Vishwa Tharmagulasingham and Isuru Upeksha


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