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.
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.
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.
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.