I’ve always been a skeptic on visiting the north of Sri Lanka; probably because I was a kid during the 30 year war and the pictures of that place drawn in my head aren’t really that pretty- so for my 18th birthday I wanted to do something that would challenge my perceptions, and so decided to visit “Yalpanam” – Jaffna.
The capital of the Northern province of Sri Lanka is another world altogether! I really enjoyed my visit and feel it only selfish not to share my experience. So here’s a brief look into what it’s like from a ‘local foreigner’s’ perspective.
The train from Wellawatte was where the real Jaffna experience started, it was rather unexpected. The little kids amazed me, they easily fitted the physical description of a typical Sri Lankan Jaffna Tamil, but their accents directed otherwise. In Jaffna culture (and the rest of Sri Lanka) people eat with their fingers and only on occasion do they eat with fork and spoon. In the buffet cart which was offering an option between ‘maalu paan’ and seeni sambol bun, this little girl turns around and in her thick Canadian accent innocently asks, “Mom, where’s the fork and spoon?” shockingly enough, this wasn’t an isolated incident. Throughout my entire trip I encountered it several times and realized that they were all visiting their homes once again which they had to leave due to terror threats when the city was under the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The train ride was 7 hours long. Getting down at the Jaffna station itself sent me crazy in the sense that it wasn’t my preconceived notion. The station is built beautifully with bold pillars painted in majestic white. The other observation was that everything was very organized and the station was functioning in a very systematic manner which isn’t too usual for the Lankan system.
The next fascination which I immediately hooked on to was the cuisine. Straight from the station we walked into ‘Neelampary Unavakam’, a local ‘Raheemas’ where we were served with rice and curry that was out of this world! Along with a massive bucket of white basmati poured in front of us, there was an insignificant vegetable curry coupled with a delicious bowl of spicy cuttlefish and devilled shrimp. The place was crowded with locals, seemed more like a place to hang out after tution class. Dessert was a super-sweet ‘kiri kope’ which was just what we needed to revitalize after the journey.
The Fairway Galle Literary Festival for the first time made a debut in Jaffna at the public library. We visited the library, but unfortunately it was closed as it was a poya day. But festival goers were allowed into the building. It is definitely a notable landmark in Jaffna, the library was built in 1933 and burnt in 1981. During the early 1980s, it was one of the biggest libraries in Asia, containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts. In 2001, rehabilitation of the librarywas completed, with new structure being built is now run by the Jaffna municipal council and new books received, although its old books and manuscripts were not replaced.
Next stop: the Great Nallur Kandaswamy Temple. Spiritual wise it is rich, but that can be googled right? But here’s the catch- no photographs inside. As an individual is it very difficult to put into words what the experience is like. From the time you step into the
courtyard, you are met with an innocent, calm breeze which simply draws you into the gates of the temple. Once inside, you encountered the ringing of the evening chimes and the gorgeous gold architecture really elevates the place. What is interesting about this temple is that each angle provides us with different images. In the southern part of this temple is the holy pond which gives the entire place a feeling of aura and serene atmosphere and Thandayudhapaani shrine dedicated to an aspect of Lord Muruga can be seen. In the northern sidcourtyard, you are met with an innocent, calm breeze which simply draws you into the gates of the temple. Once inside, you encountered the ringing of the evening chimes and the gorgeous gold architecture really elevates the place. What is interesting about this temple is that each angle provides us with different images. In the southern part of this temple is the holy pond which gives the entire place a feeling of aura and serene atmosphere and Thandayudhapaani shrine dedicated to an aspect of Lord Murugae there is a big holy garden which adds the green element to it, while the East and West are two entrances to the Hindu temple.
From Nallur, driving through the gorgeous Jaffna lagoon and into an ‘unnamed’ area was personally, the greatest discovery of all- WHITE SANDS BEACH JAFFNA. Casuarina beach is the highly commercial one which almost all travel reviews had almost convinced me that my trip would be incomplete without. But locals in the area recommended we visited this and it was amazing, unspoiled, clear sand, corals, transparent water with just one guest house by the side- a definite place I want to revisit!
Many previous visitors spoke highly of the night markets, but locals seemed completely unaware of such a concept, but we did visit the market which was unusual for Sri Lanka. The ‘market’ as we know it was not confined to fruit and vegetable, but ranged from jewellery to the Jaffna ‘Odiyal’ which is a hard edible snack made from palmyra sprout.
The famous Rio ice-cream parlour really amazed me, it’s probably the only place I have seen people eat potato-stuffed Chinese rolls with ice-cream! The place was packed even on a working day as the ice cream is very affordable, delicious and just what you need to beat the Jaffna heat! Although the prices in general are rather expensive within the city, Rio has made it accessible to everyone by keeping their ‘Rio special’ at just Rs.100/= each and is not stingy on the extra jelly and fruit salad.
The Jaffna fort is probably one of the few signs of war still evident within the city. Once again, it hasn’t been commercialized and still retains its charm. What is unique about this place is that it is the only fort I have seen which has black, blue and green- the rocks, the lagoon and the greenery. It is obvious that restoration is still taking place here as the pictures show, nothing within the fort is complete yet, I can only imagine what a spectacle it would be after it is done.
Last, but definitely not the least a visit to the Keerimalai hotsprings. The myths surrounding it are what makes it what it is! It is said to have healing powers and make women beautiful. It is an ancient temple with two ponds said to cure impotency in both men and women. Although none of us were looking for cures for impotency, I was dying to visit it and take a ‘dip of beauty’ on the eve of turning 18, it was rather exciting. This well is mostly visited by Hindus who believe in its healing powers. It is an ancient construction, segregated for men and women. Although it is situated just near the sea, the sea water is salty and the well water is not salty and what slightly disappointed me was that it wasn’t hot.
All in all, Jaffna was great, so were our visits into other areas such as Mullaitivu (which can amount to a whole other article). But I must admit, the locals are still rather hostile to tourists and not too welcoming. Being able to speak tamil was a great advantage for me and made my trip more interesting as the locals were fascinated that we could communicate on the same level. It also had side perks like being able to bargain a pair of earings for 500 rupees less!
Jaffna, I promise to come back.