On the far northeastern beaches of Sri Lanka there is a tiny village called Manalkadu. It doesn’t see many tourists—and with only one battered unnamed road to get there, that’s not surprising. What is surprising, once you do arrive, is finding the ruins of a once-majestic church, and a collection of modest graves nearby, watching as the walls are slowly eaten by sand.
The church is the old St. Anthony’s, but exactly how old is a little murky. Some accounts date it to the 17th century, during the period of Dutch rule. Others put the date around 1900, when Sri Lanka was the British colony known as Ceylon. Whatever the age, the effect of the stone, brick and coral walls slowly sinking into the dunes provides an eerie and striking backdrop to the modest cross markers that dot the sand, and the deep blue Indian Ocean just beyond.
The crosses are the graves of local residents, many of whom were among the thousands of Sri Lankans who lost their lives in the 2004 tsunami. As with the church walls, the dunes around the graves are always shifting, the sand revealing either too much or too little of what’s buried below.
The history of Sri Lanka goes back at least 3,000 years, to the days of the ancient Silk Road. Until 2014 it was difficult to get a visa to visit the area of the old St. Anthony’s, but tourism has since opened up as the political and economic conditions in Sri Lanka have improved. The sands, always shifting.