Puttalam and Ibn Batuta


Puttalam, situated about 80 km north of Colombo, is often lashed by severe storms.  Today (3 Oct 2009) as I write. Over 1000 houses were destroyed completely another 500 damaged. I am not sure if it was a storm like this that drifted the sailing vessel of one of the greatest Arab traveler of the medieval times to land in the Puttalam lagoon in 1344. He was non other than Ibn Battuta, the native of Tangiers in Morocco. He had set out for the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca, got bitten by the travel bug and continued to roam for some thirty years a record 75,000 miles covering all Muslim countries except central Persia, Armenia and Georgia.


Battuta’s record of his travels the Rihla is one of the most famous travel journals.

“First, though the book is commonly referred to as “the Rihla,” that” is not its title, properly speaking, but its genre. (The title is Tuhfat al-Nuzzar fi Ghara’ib al-Amsar wa-’Aja’ib al-Asfar, or A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling.) The Prophet Muhammad’s traditional injunction to “seek knowledge, even as far as China” had the effect of legitimating travel, or even wanderlust, and, in the Islamic middle ages, gave rise to the concept of al-rihla fi talab al-’ilm, travel in search of knowledge. In Islamic North Africa in the 12th to 14th centuries, as paper became increasingly widely available, educated men began to pen and circulate first-hand descriptions of their pilgrimages the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah. (Editors of the Longest Hajj by Douglas Bullis)”.

Travellers in the desert. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

In medieval Sri Lanka travellers’ rest stops were called Ambalama’s and were made of stone and wood pillars. The peripatetics may have cooled off in a nearby stream, had their home wrapped parcel of food, chewed their packet of betel, snoozed on a stone slab in an Ambalama before proceeding on their journey.

Now, couple of centuries down the line from Battuta’s day, we are spoilt for choice. There are inns, cafes, the good old colonial relics the Rest Houses and an abundance of little kades or wayside boutiques that carry name boards grandly denoting it is a Hotels. These please note are quite different from the star class variety. “Hotel” is a term used quite generously on name boards, but basically they are pitstop cafes catering for travellers, truckers - lodging is not always available. This one we stopped at was on the Puttalam - Anuradhapura road.

Fresh young coconuts compete with Coca Cola to quench the thirst of travellers. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The first to catch my attention in the “Hotel” was Somaratne. He was a little shy. I put it down to to a reluctance to be photographed and he did gradually thaw out to tell me that he was 71 years old and that he was from Wariyapola and had migrated to Puttalam for work. I asked “why” and he looked at me as if to say you shouldn’t be asking that question and replied “you go where the work is.” I was too busy trying to focus on him, I didn’t notice his injured eye at first, and saw it only when I had a look at the photograph I had taken. “I fell on a sharp object, and although Dr. Seimon, the famous Kandy doctor tried to save it, he couldn’t do much,” he said with a wry smile.

The economic migrant Somaratne. Photograph© Chulie de Silva  

Uvais making the popular Gothambas (Roti Chanai in Malaysia), on the other hand is a native of Puttalam. and is a Muslim. He was rolling out the dough but not as with so much flourish as I have seen in Malaysia. Some of these flat dough “Gothas” were stuffed with a veg mixture made of local yams (cheaper than the potato) and shaped into triangular patties.

Then there was the young, hip and talkative Rajin who made us tea sans milk, hot and sweet. He wanted his photo taken at the fruit stall by the road side. Without missing a beat or his pose he said ”Why not buy some passion fruit or this Papaya, naturally ripend on te tree.” I ended up buying the papaya and promising to send a set of photos. Rajin was bilingual and spoke fluently in Tamil and Sinhala. Trading seems to be in his blood.


Rajni of Sudeera Hotel. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Uvais making the popular Gothambas (Roti Chanai in Malaysia), on the other hand is a native of Puttalam. and is a Muslim. He was rolling out the dough but not as with so much flourish as I have seen in Malaysia. Some of these flat dough “Gothas” were stuffed with a veg mixture made of local yams (cheaper than the potato) and shaped into triangular patties.There we have a trio of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim workers, garrulous Rajin, quiet Uvais, and the pensive Somaratne, all happily working together. When one stops to reflect here was multiculturalism at its classical best. Puttalam and Galle and maybe Matara and other ports were rich markets in the past  where traders of many nationalities roamed.


This mosque built near the spot where Ibn Battuta was supposed to have landed, is a proud land mark in Puttalam. Apparently Battuta’s writings describes pearl fishing in Puttalam, a visit to Adam’s Peak, Dondra (Dewinuwara), and Galle, the other town in the South where many of the Arab traders landed. Batutta after his travels in Ceylon is supposed to have sailed back to India from Puttalam.

Dilapidated shop house in Puttalam. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Was Puttalam and Galle then rich markets where traders of many nationalities roamed? Did the Sinhalese. Tamils and Muslims live together amicably?

A unique trilingual slab found in Galle in 1911, now in the Colombo Museum has inscriptions in Chinese, Persian and Tamil. The inscription is dated 1403 AD, the tenth regnal year of the Chinese Emperor, Ying Lo. the slab is said to have been installed in Galle by Chen Ho (1371-1435).

Did Battuta determinedly set out to have a good time, or did he just take off with only the adventure lust and stars to guide him? We as travelers cannot hold a candle to him. Sometimes, we spend a lot of money, select destinations carefully, and yet the magic eludes us. Sometimes, in life too we think we’ve got it all right to have a good time and someone or something moves the goals or puts a spoke in the plan. Often the nicest experiences in my life have come my way more subtly, when I am least expecting them. They don’t seem like much to write home about, but then I am here writing because this is precisely what I’d like to remember.

The mosque is the cool haven for this weary man. Photograph©Chulie de Silva


Please read: The Longest Hajj: The Journeys of Ibn Battuta by Douglas Bullis, Saudi Aramco World (July/August 2000). This article is worth about as much as all other material on the web, and something of a find as the search engine’s don’t think much of it yet.. This first link is the editor’s excellent introduction to the three articles, which mix recitation, translation and commentary. The parts are:

Part 1: From Pilgrim to Traveler - Tangier to Makkah. Bullis discusses Ibn Battuta’s unique, 58-page account of Mecca (Makkah), with a nice footnote on authorship problems pertaining to some of the sections.

Part 2: From Riches to Rags - Makkah to India. “All through the Rihla Ibn Battuta’s personal character comes out in hints and fragments. Today he might be regarded as a bit of a fussbudget or a meddler, evidenced by the rather too generous outrage he expresses at minor lapses in others’ behavior.”

Part 3: From Traveler to Memoirist - China, Mali and Home. “[I]n China, his reliability is so maddeningly variable that one can argue for or against his having been there at all.” Has good sections on Spain and sub-Saharan Africa.