Chilaw, a fishing town 50 miles north of Colombo, is located at the mouth of the picturesque Chilaw Lake. The name is a corruption of the Tamil salabham, meaning the diving, which refers to the ancient pearl-fishery on the shallow banks in the Gulf of Mannar. Indeed, the name was commonly applied by the Portuguese to the whole aggregation of banks (Baixos de Chilao) in the Gulf.
An interesting excursion from Chilaw can be made to the Hindu Munnesvaram temple, the southernmost of Sri Lanka’s five Shaivite isvarams, or residences of the supreme god. It is claimed that god Vishnu worshipped here eons ago, and that the shrine was established by the epic hero Rama, himself an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu. The temple was destroyed by the Portuguese and restored during British times. Every September a colourful temple festival and fair is held, which attracts devotees and ordinary people from afar. This is followed by a festival in the nearby fishing village of Udappuwa. The village’s Hindu kovil (temple) is dedicated to the goddess Draupadi, and at the festival the entire population partakes in fire-walking ceremonies, euphemistically known as the Treading of the Flowers. This entails walking over a bed of raked and glowing coals some 7 metres in length. The fire-walkers evince no injury, which they attribute to the protection afforded by the flowing hair of the goddess, but which is now believed to be due to a quirk of physics. Whatever the reason for their lack of burns, this is an extraordinary spectacle for visitors to watch. For 18 days the devotees maintain a strict vegetarian diet. Then on the 18th night, after ritual washing at sea, men, women and children alike walk the bed of coals.