Kayts [Cais/Tanadiva], North Province, Sri Lanka

Military Architecture

Kayts is the name of an island bordering the city of Jaffnapatnam (Jaffna) at the northern tip of Sri Lanka. The name seems to date to the Portuguese place name Ilha do Cais or Cais dos Elefantes, recalling the traditional commerce of elephants from Jaffna to India. During the Dutch period (1658-1796) the island was also called Leiden; it acquired its current name under British rule (1796-1947). A port called Uratarai existed there and played an important role in the Polonnaruwa civilisation (10th to 13th centuries). The relatively well- preserved ruins of a small fort that seems to be from the Portuguese period is found in the less populated part of the island, near its western end. Three sections remain from the wall of what was once a quadrangular structure. The wall vestiges are about three metres high and were built of small to medium-sized irregular elements. The two sections perpendicular to the waterline, generally well pre- served, are occasionally broken by an unpaved road which crosses the old structure parallel to the sea. The section linking these two sections inside the island is overgrown with vegetation. The wall curtain by the water is in turn entirely dismantled, with no visible signs of that process. Stone structures that may correspond to its foundations are visible on the ground. While corresponding to the fortalesa do Cais from the Portuguese period, depicted in a 1638 drawing by Constantino de Sá de Miranda, the ruins do not present visible remains of the west bastion which probably stood in a position by the sea. Note, however, the possible remains of what may have been the east bastion, also by the waterline. The fort’s position is also specified in a small map from the same album, as well as in another 1624 document (Códice de Madrid) at a site corresponding to the location of the current vestiges. Portuguese sources indicate that a small fort was indeed built at this spot on the Ilha do Cais [Quay Island] in 1629, paid for by Miguel Pereira de Sampaio to offset the royal donation of neighbouring Karaitivu Island. The initiative was part of a larger effort to fortify Ceylon’s coast whereby the Portuguese attempted in the 1620s to isolate the interior Kingdom of Kandy and consolidate their presence in the face of new European challenges. The initial idea was to transfer the Portuguese headquarters of the Kingdom of Jaffna from the city of that name to Kayts Island for strategic reasons. But the plan became obsolete when fortifications were built in Jaffna (1629-1632). The Kayts fortress was from then on theoretically used to defend the sea access to Jaffna. But its usefulness was always considered arguable; it was abandoned in 1651. The sources consequently refer to the demolition of structures, apparently partial, to judge from the vestiges now visible. Only the structure’s sea-facing side was knocked down, without which it was useless. Next to the fort a small hamlet and church once stood, of which nothing remains today.

Zoltán Biedermann