Jaffna, Sri Lanka: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Hindu temple in Jaffna

Perched on the northern tip of Sri Lanka, Jaffna is different from the rest of the country. While other parts of the island nation are easy for travellers to define—beach spots, hill country, cultural hubs—Jaffna’s identity is more complex, more elusive. Most of its guidebook-identified “highlights” are good but not wow. There are better beaches, landscapes, cultural attractions elsewhere. Why is it then, that this flat, sun-baked region left such an impression on me?

I’ve had nine months to ponder this question and I keep coming back to Aristotle’s words: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Jaffna’s “parts” range from eye-catching Hindu temples to the subtle charms of its mellow islands. The predominantly Tamil culture gives Jaffna a different feel from other places we visited in Sri Lanka—more like South India some say, though we’ve never been. The region’s recent history as the epicentre of a bloody civil war is still palpable and adds yet another dimension to our Jaffna experience.

In an attempt to describe the essence of Jaffna as a travel destination, I give you an assortment of parts that came together to create a distinct and memorable visit. Many of these moments were enhanced by the knowledge and local insight of our guide Mohan from Sri Lanka Click. We hired him for a short tour of the city on our first day in Jaffna and liked him so much we used him again for a day trip to the northern peninsula.

Cacophonous puja at Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil

An exception to my comment in the introduction, the gold-encrusted Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is truly wow, and taking part in the puja (worship) at this Hindu temple is an awe-inspiring experience. We follow the procession of worshippers, clockwise around the temple, stopping at curtained-off  shrines that are unveiled for blessings from multiple deities. Like all males, Mike performs this ritual bare chested. It is utterly mesmerizing—the hypnotic drumming, the clashing cymbals, the ringing bells, the incense burning and the flower tossing. Alas, no photos allowed.

Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil in Jaffna

Flamboyant Hindu temples

Many religions have beautiful places of worship, but Hindu temples take the prize for their flamboyant colours and carvings. I’m drawn to their boldness, and dare I say, playfulness. Mohan tells us there are over 2000 Hindu temples in Jaffna District, not including the small roadside shrines. Every time I see one of the tall, candy-coloured towers I ask him to pull over. I can’t get enough of them.

Well-dressed pilgrims on crappy boats

As we are being shoved into the bowels of the decrepit boat my brain yells DON’T DO IT. Turns out, that 20-minute, sardine-jammed boat ride to Nainativu Island—one of many low lying islands just off Jaffna’s coast is one of my most vivid, and not altogether unpleasant memories. I admire the composure and grace of the passengers—most of them, beautifully dressed pilgrims on their way to Naga Pooshani Amman Kovil, a lovely Hindu temple whose main deity is a goddess of fertility.

Causeway delights

With wind blowing through my hair and schmaltzy Indian music cranked high, our tuk tuk ride across the narrow causeway connecting Jaffna city to its islands is blissful. Single photo images convey less than exceptional scenery, but the combination of shimmering water, traditional fishermen, flamingo-filled mud flats, and ladies in glittery saris on the back of motorbikes create an exotic, unconventionally beautiful atmosphere. I’ve included a video, but I think you have to be there to appreciate the subtleties.

Video of our tuk tuk ride along the Jaffna causeway

Sunset at Jaffna Fort

Jaffna Fort, built by the Dutch in 1680 over an earlier Portuguese structure, is not as impressive as Galle Fort, but it has been through a lot in the past 30 years. Mohan’s description of the military occupation, battles and looting that took place at Jaffna Fort during the civil war is such a chilling contrast to our peaceful stroll. We share the ramparts with less than a dozen visitors and marvel at the gorgeous sunset over the Jaffna lagoon.

Haunting memories of the civil war

The war ended in 2009, but there’s still a lot of damage, especially in Jaffna’s northern peninsula. We drive by many houses reduced to just frames and rubble, and overgrown with vegetation. Mohan tells us that over 50,000 homes were destroyed or damaged in Jaffna’s northern peninsula. During the war, his family was without power for ten years—a better fate, he emphasizes, than for those living in Kilinochchi who suffered without power for 20 years. It’s not all bleak though as we see evidence of rebuilding and resettlement.

Rustic beauty of the north coast

The reminders of war have left me melancholy, so it’s a welcome change of scenery as we drive along the coastal road between Valvettiturai and Point Pedro. The water is extraordinarily blue, the light is blindingly intense, and the colourful fishing boats that dot the unkempt beaches are bright and cheerful.

Cure for horse face at Keerimalai Springs

Keerimalai Springs, also along Jaffna’s north coast get rave reviews in guide books. Personally, I find them (there’s male and female pools) a little underwhelming. What I do find fascinating is the legend Mohan relays: A woman who suffered from horse face and a man with mongoose face were both cured after 45 baths in the springs. Hmm, maybe it will get rid of wrinkles too?

Tastes of Jaffna

Food in Sri Lanka is excellent, but the South India influence and local specialties make Jaffna’s cuisine a distinctive highlight. Standouts for us are the rich Jaffna crab curry and butter chicken served in the back courtyard of Cosy Restaurant, the vegetarian dishes at lively Mangos Restaurant, and the deliciously heart-stopping, fried breakfasts at the totally local Akshathai Restaurant.

Textiles, textiles everywhere

Between various excursions, Mike and I both find our happy places. He, at the side of the hotel pool, and me in search of textiles in downtown Jaffna. Even the stifling heat doesn’t deter me from exploring the narrow, market passageways filled with tiny shops selling jewel-coloured sari fabric. The vendors and local shoppers are friendly and curious about this perspiring tourist: Where are you from? Where is your husband? Do you know my cousin in Toronto? After several hours, I leave with 9 meters of fabulous fabric.

Now, made into tablecloths, pillows and bed spreads, they remind me daily of our time in beguiling Jaffna.

Getting there and getting around:

Jaffna is off the beaten path, but it’s easy to get to. There are several daily trains from Colombo that take 6-8 hours. If you’re visiting the Cultural Triangle, there are daily trains from Anuradhapura that take 3-4 hours.

If you stay in a central Jaffna, the city is very walkable, and there are plenty of tuk tuks for hire within the city and for excursions further afield. Some visitors rent cars or motorbikes. If you’re going to do this anywhere in Sri Lanka, Jaffna’s a good bet as traffic, especially on the islands and northern coast is light.

Happy New Year dear readers!

Categories: Sri Lanka | Tags: , , | 51 Comments

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51 thoughts on “Jaffna, Sri Lanka: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

  1. Thank you Madam for a great travelogue on Jaffna. Jaffna is quite close to India and as far as I know, it is majorly inhabited by Tamil Hindus unlike the Sinhalese majority population of the rest of Sri Lanka. The temples are also influenced by the culture or architecture prevalent in South India.
    Sri Lanka is slowly rebuilding itself and emerging as a great tourist destination in addition to being an economic powerhouse. Things will fall in place pretty soon.. 🙂
    Thank you Madam for sharing..!! 🙂 Greetings from India.. 🇮🇳

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your lovely comments. I haven’t travelled to South India but I have heard that Jaffna shares many of its characteristics. We really enjoyed our time there. Sri Lanka certainly has had its unfair share of tragedy. I hope that when travel restrictions due to COVID-19 are lifted, people will return to this beautiful county. Greetings from Canada (I hope I get to visit India sometime soon).


      • You are welcome Madam and thank you for your reply.. ☺️
        Glad that you enjoyed your time in Jaffna..
        If you want to read about South India, you can have a look into my blog.. I have a post or two on a few spots there.. Hope those interest you.. ☺️
        And you are most welcome to India.. ☺️ See you soon..!!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Happy to see you enjoyed visiting my country!:)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Happy days in Sri Lanka: Highlights of a 3 1/2 week trip | Writes of Passage

  4. Jaffna left a deep impression on me as well for many of the same reasons and it is delightful to revisit it here again today. Colorful temples, charming shoreline, well-preserved culture, welcoming locals, etc. And I roared at your ‘well-dressed pilgrims on crappy boats’. When we took that same boat ride, a fellow sailor and I said to each other ‘today is a good day to die’ as we boarded. Luckily we lived to talk about it.

    Your film of the Tuk Tuk ride along the causeway made me feel like a passenger and transported me back to a place I visited just under two years ago.

    Sadly we missed Keerimalai Springs because I have a bit of a horse face that needs treating ;-). We did manage to eat at the Cosy Restaurant however which was marvelous!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! I don’t know whether I should take comfort or not about your boat comment. After all you’ve been through I would have expected that crossing to be a piece of cake for you. But perhaps you guys, more than most, would have seen the truly crappy condition of that boat. As I mentioned to Lexie, I’m not sure I would have climbed into the bowels of that decrepit vessel had it not been for perfect, calm weather.
      Jaffna definitely left a big impression on Mike and me. I’m so glad that Peta and Ben gave us the push we needed to include it in our itinerary.
      You…horse face…what are you talking about? Looks like happy face to me.


  5. I really enjoyed reading your post, it is so informative! I haven’t been to Sri Lanka yet but I’d love to go! Your pictures are causing sincere wanderlust :D!
    Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A belated Happy New Year, Caroline! Hope it’s not too cold and rainy in Vancouver right now.

    I really enjoyed this post – all the bright tropical colors, the postwar optimism, and your enthusiasm for a less-visited place. As Bama alluded to in his comment, had we budgeted more time in Sri Lanka a couple years ago (instead of staying just two weeks), I’m quite certain we would have gone to Jaffna as well. It looks like such a great place to relax for a couple of days and see a different side of the country. Your photos and the fun description of the rickety boat ride reminded me of our own experiences taking similar vessels in eastern Indonesia from island to island back in 2015. On one occasion, motorbikes were stashed on the top deck while we all sat down underneath!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy New Year to you too James! It’s always rainy in Vancouver at this time of the year, and we even had a week of snow, which I quite like. I just need to remember that all the rain keeps our forests looking beautiful.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’m sure you and Bama would appreciate Jaffna with its quirky, off-the-beaten-path feel and interesting mix of cultural, historical and natural attractions (and great food).
      It’s funny you should mention your experiences with boats in eastern Indonesia. One of my worst boating experiences was on a unseaworthy craft from Komodo to Bali.The rough conditions didn’t help. We jumped ship early. I guess you get what you pay for!
      I see a new post of yours in my inbox. I’m just back from a week of sun in Death Valley, California and am catching up. I look forward to reading it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Lovely post, thnx to share v different jaffna ( childhood memories jaffna a horrible feeling any way first time a different jaffna 🙂🙂🙏

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Yes, I’m sure Jaffna was a very different place during the war. I can’t even begin to imagine the horrors. May peace prevail, and scars—both human and infrastructure—heal.


  8. Flamingos!!! Great post

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Incredible photos, looking at them, I kind of was there. Thanks for this opportunity! I’m impressed!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Fantastic photos and narrative, Caroline. The ornate temples- I would’ve stopped at every one, too. Your photo of the passengers on the boat is a standout. I don’t think I could have climbed under there but know why it’s an ingrained memory for you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Jane. I wish I had your photography skills. Jaffna really is a photographer’s paradise. Despite the lighting issue, I really like the photo of the passengers on the boat too. It tells a good story and I love the little girl’s expression (maybe she was scared like me).

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve learned so much about beautiful Sri Lanka and all the places worth visiting just by reading your excellent posts – Jaffna certainly is a must-see on any Sri Lankan itinerary. Would love to visit one day to see for myself what it looks like after a bloody 26-year civil war that only ended in 2009. Thanks for sharing and have a good day. Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad I was able to provide you with information about Sri Lanka and get you interested in a potential visit. The country has had a rather tragic recent history—both the war and natural disasters—so we found the warmth and kindness of the locals especially inspirational. Enjoy your day too Aiva!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Wonderful post on Jaffna ~ a part of Sri Lanka that deserves more recognition by visitors, as it is so different to the rest of the country and yes because of the history of the civil war which had the most tragic impact on this region and people. As you accurately wrote, Jaffna was at the “epicenter”and there is not a family that did not experience loss of family members , and sadly still today tens of thousands of people are still homeless and just as many are missing and unaccounted for. Another depressing fact is that the rest of Sri Lanka looks down on the Tamils as being inferior and there is unabashed racism towards them.

    Yes, being in Jaffna feels like one has been transported to Tamil Nadu, with the colors and temples and street life which replicate that of the homeland in India. In fact, in the past, India and Sri Lanka were connected by a narrow strip of land, which eventually got covered by the ocean, but that connecting land is how elephants came from India to Sri Lanka, back in the day.

    So fun that you bought so much of the fabric and made it into pillows and bedspreads ~ would love to see how they look. And as for that crab curry… did you not find it to be spicy as hell?! As in “mouth on fire”…? So delicious though, I’d have it again if I were there….

    Enjoyed seeing Jaffna again through your eyes and photos and descriptions.


    Liked by 2 people

    • First of all, thank you for so strongly recommending that we visit Jaffna! It was definitely a good decision and allowed us to see a very different side of Sri Lanka. I’m selfishly pleased that we didn’t share this place with many other visitors; but you’re right—it deserves more recognition.

      Having lived in Sri Lanka, you guys have such incredible insight into the effects of the war and ongoing tensions and racism. Thanks for sharing this additional information. It is good to get this perspective as it is easy to forget these undesirable aspects when focussing on Sri Lanka’s gorgeous beaches, hill country and cultural treasures. It is sad that the future is so uncertain there, especially in light of the Easter Sunday tragedy.

      We had crab curry twice in Jaffna and it was spicy but not overly so. Perhaps they toned it down for us.
      I will try and remember to send you a WhatsApp photo of my handiwork.

      Hope the dengue outbreak is contained and you can safely return to Hoi An soon.


  13. Fascinating post on a fascinating place and stunning photos. I loved the video!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much! I’m glad you liked the video. I debated about putting it in. It has tons of great/funny memories for me, especially the music, which was blasting much louder than the video might indicate.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. As with all the previous posts, I’ve learned so much about Sri Lanka! It’s made me really excited to visit one day and experience their country and culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad my posts have got you excited about visiting Sri Lanka. It’s an exotic place but has good infrastructure and it’s easy and inexpensive to get around. Some people call it “India Light”. I’ve not been to India but hope to travel there later in the year.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Absolutely stunning. The glorious colours alone would leave a lasting impression on me. Love the faces of the locals, such happy, smiley people.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. You not only got onto that boat to Nainativu Island, but you sat down underneath?!?! Being packed in and on the water for 20 minutes wouldn’t faze me, but being down under that concrete deck would freak me out! You are a brave soul. It does sound worth it, though, now that you’ve survived! 🙂

    The whole place looks intriguing. I sometimes have this feeling about places. One was Marfa, Texas, where each part seemed boring or even dumb, but the overall mystique stayed in my head.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I’m with you – though there is nothing that really stands out, there are so many appealing parts of Jaffna that make it interesting. I think I would very much enjoy exploring here. I love the candy-coloured temples (yes very like the ones in Tamil Nadu), and the food sounds fabulous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The more time I spent there, the more it grew on me. I also liked that there are far fewer visitors in this part of Sri Lanka. I was an anomaly in those little fabric shops. As I mentioned to Bama, now I’d like to visit Tamil Nadu to see more of those temples

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Hi. I used to keep up somewhat with the war in Sri Lanka. Like all wars, it was horrible. Hopefully this country will remain war-free from here on in.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I loved this post, Caroline. On my second visit to Sri Lanka (James’s first), our host in Kandy told us that we should go to Jaffna, especially since the railway line had been recently reopened at that time. The first time I saw a Tamil-style Hindu temple was in Kuala Lumpur. It’s a small one, but its colors and fine sculptures were very impressive. Then four years later I found myself exploring Tamil Nadu, a land where the Hindu temples are so tall there are probably hundreds of layers of sculptures on each tower. However, my personal favorite is the 11th-century Brihadeeswarar temple because in its current state it’s not painted. That’s why I’m so intrigued by Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil — its gold-encrusted facade looks so beautiful!

    I really want to go back to Sri Lanka now, to explore more of Colombo and of course, Jaffna. That sunset photos you took are amazing, and the drive through the causeway sounds so much fun.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much Bama. Although I have seen a few Hindu temples before our visit to Sri Lanka, I’d never seen so many concentrated in one area like in Jaffna. It was a very different experience for me. Certainly this region has got me excited about visiting Tamil Nadu sometime (it looks like my first ever trip to India will be to Rajasthan later this year). I googled the temple you mentioned and it is magnificent. I can’t believe the size of it. I’m sure you’d love Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil. It’s so stunning that I visited it multiple times while in Jaffna. The way the sun highlights the gold tower and statues is amazing. Hope you get to see it in real life!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Agree. Those temples are fascinating! Though I love the vibrant colours of the second temple, my hand kept scrolling back to the gold-encrusted one 🙂 It shines in the sun.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Great to read this post on such a wet Vancouver evening!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Happy New Year! Love the flamingos 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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