Katchatheevu Island: The festival that draws thousands of pilgrims to the islet

The St Antony's Shrine in Katchatheevu (left) and pilgrims travelling to the island in 2023. Photo: Instagram/bandula_jay/indiancoastguard_official

The Katchatheevu Island, a 285-acre land belonging to Sri Lanka located in the Indian Ocean, is making headlines now. Prime Minister Narendra Modi alleged on Sunday that it was ‘callously given away’ then Congress government to Sri Lanka in 1974 via a maritime agreement.

Though it is currently an uninhabited island, did you know that every year, thousands of pilgrims from India and Sri Lanka sail to the island to take part in a popular religious festival? The annual three-day feast of the Anthoniyar Kovil, or St Antony’s Catholic shrine, held in February or March, is the event that draws numerous pilgrims, mainly fisherfolks. It is held in the season of Lent and this year, it was from February 22 to 24.

The festival 
A 2.5-hour journey from Rameswaram via boat, covering 12 nautical miles, takes pilgrims of all faiths to the island. Anyone between five and 70 years can take part in the festival. Due to its strategic location, pilgrims have to go through multiple rounds of inspections and document verifications before and after reaching the island. The prayers in the church, erected in 1905, are in Tamil. The island also has bustling markets on the way to the church, selling both religious and touristy items made of seashells, food items from both countries and more. They are set up by both Indian and Sri Lankan nationals, during the festival.

No Indians this year
Interestingly, no Indian devotees took part in the festival due to tensions between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen that erupted recently. On February 16, Kayts Magistrate Court in Sri Lanka sentenced two fishermen from India to six months imprisonment for allegedly entering the Sri Lankan sea with illegal GPS equipment. The fishermen of Rameswaram decided not to take part in the feast this year to protest this judgment.

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