Jar of hearts in Jaffna

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Asia » Sri Lanka » Northern Province » Jaffna
March 29th 2017
Published: January 18th 2018
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Today we were travelling north from Anuradhapura to Jaffna.

We woke at 6am, organised our packs and headed down to breakfast. I served myself super sweet sultana bran, toast, jam, pol roti (coconut roti), pol sambol (shredded coconut with onions, chilli and lime), tea and fruit juice. I wasn’t feeling 100% – a chest cold had swept through our previous group, and it seemed to be catching up with me after a few days incubation. We checked out of our comfortable hotel (The Lakeside at Nuwarawewa), drove a short distance (via minibus) to Anuradhapura’s quiet and uncrowded railway station, walked to our platform and boarded the train to Jaffna at 9:30am.

We snacked on incredibly tasty vegetable pan rolls (filled and rolled up crepes, that are crumbed and fried) that we’d picked from the station’s cafeteria, and we both caught up on our travel writing as the train lurched and jolted along the tracks. As we made our way north, wind turbines dotted Sri Lanka’s arid coastal plains.

After a very comfortable journey, we pulled into Jaffna Railway Station around midday. We jumped off the train, stored our packs and walked a short distance to the Green Grass Hotel and Restaurant for lunch. On entering the main dining room, we realised time had stopped here many, many, many years ago. The place was so old fashioned! I couldn’t help but wonder what we were we doing here? After a quick glance at the menu, we decided on the Lunch Jaffna Style, which comprised a choice of protein served with a selection of Jaffna-esque dishes. We shared a chicken curry and a prawn curry, which arrived on the table with individual bowls of dahl (lentil curry), beetroot curry, potato & cabbage curry, potato & chilli capsicum curry, watercress salad, pappadums and whole chillies (which had been soaked in curd and salt before being fried). Rice was served onto our plates, and we grazed on this monumental meal in utter amazement. The prawn curry was a standout, as the curry sauce was so thick and so hot – by far the hottest we’d had since arriving in Sri Lanka, and easily the best. I sampled a few of the curries ordered by our travel companions, including crab, cuttlefish and mutton, and all were superb. Our introduction to Jaffna food was incredibly exciting, and we were very much looking forward to our two days here.

After lunch we jumped into the minibus and headed off on a sightseeing tour of the Jaffna Peninsula. We first visited the Kantarodai Ruins, a fenced off archaeological reservation site in a small suburban field near Chunnakam. The mysterious site contained a number of different sized dagobas, with little rhyme or reason behind their placement (or so it seemed to me).

We continued through small towns with large farmers’ markets until we pulled into the ancient Naguleswaram Shiva Kovil in Keerimalai. Bombed by the army during the civil war, this Hindu temple has been under construction since 2011. As I wandered the ramshackle construction site taking photos of the frescoes, I noticed a monk lying on a bed watching daytime television…

We then travelled a short distance to the sacred Keerimalai Spring, which supplies two bathing pools on the beachfront (segregated into male and female sections). The fresh spring water is rumoured to have therapeutic benefits, and judging by the laughter from a group of local boys playing in the male section, the location’s restorative powers were very evident.

We also visited the Nilavarai Well, a (supposedly) bottomless spring where Hindu god Rama is said to have shot an arrow to get water. The ‘bottomless’ adjective is slightly misleading, as the depth of the well has been verified at 52.5 metres. However, I accept ‘bottomless’ sounds far more appealing. We soon discovered that water is a highly valued commodity in this arid environment, so access to water has become something to celebrate and venerate. We stopped at a dilapidated and decrepit old well later in the day, and a group of local men sitting nearby found our visit highly amusing, especially our guide’s demonstration of how water was once pumped from the well. It was difficult to comprehend how the Jaffna Peninsula, surrounded as it is by ocean, could be so arid.

As we wound our way through the peninsula’s rambling narrow roads, I stared at a landscape dotted with palmyra trees, tobacco plantations and chilli plantations. We soon stopped on the roadside and witnessed (from a distance) Sri Lanka’s northern most lighthouse – Point Pedro Lighthouse. The area was fenced off, and photos were not allowed for security reasons (apparently), but it didn’t curb my enjoyment of this sea swept, beachfront location. A few local kids were playing cricket on the street, and they were using a single cricket stump as a bat. They rarely hit the ball, but it didn’t worry them. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and I would have loved to join in.

We then drove a short distance to the northern most point of the country – Point Pedro. The military presence in this area was subtle but omnipresent, and the scars of war were everywhere. I’d struggle to describe this ramshackle little town as appealing or inviting. This is completely understandable, as the place was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami, and it was also the scene of a number of battles during the 25 year civil war (1983-2009). It was difficult to dislike Point Pedro, but it was also difficult to feel welcome, as there was a distinct lack of interest in our presence. I loved the ocean breeze, and for reasons I can’t explain, I loved standing at this northern most point and scanning the distant blue horizon, beyond which lay India’s vast eastern coastline.

We left Point Pedro in the late afternoon and stopped briefly at a small roadside shop called Semparuthy Tea Rooms (opposite the decrepit water well we’d visited earlier) for hot tea and snacks. The place was stinking hot inside, to a point where you could barely breathe. We had a number of sweet and savoury snacks served with tea, but as refreshing as the tea was, we desperately needed to escape the shop’s infernal heat…

As the sun slowly slipped below the horizon, we made our way back to Jaffna, driving past the crumbling remains of the Dutch King’s house on the way. After nine hours of rail and road travel, we finally arrived at our hotel (JetWing Jaffna) at 6:30pm. We checked in, showered and headed straight to Harry Hotel for dinner.

This was a very basic and local eatery, filled to the brim with locals sitting on plastic chairs around long tables. Plates covered in plastic bags were placed in front of us, and a large plate of paratha roti (a thin flaky roti / called godamba roti in the south) a was placed in the middle of the table. This was the first paratha roti meal we’d had in Sri Lanka, and I was looking forward to it. The waiters then brought small bowls of pepper beef curry, chilli beef curry and cuttlefish curry to the table, which were replenished as we ate. The food was fantastic, and I loved the pepper beef curry. I was really falling for Jaffna’s thick and fiery curry sauces.

Harry Hotel was loud and local, so we finished our meal and left by 8:30am – it was not a place to sit around and chat. On our way back to JetWing Jaffna we dropped into Rio Ice Cream to cool the curry heat from Harry’s. I ordered a small tub of kithul pani (palm treacle) with nuts ice cream, while Ren opted for a tub of mango ice cream. We arrived back at the hotel and marvelled at Jaffna’s amazing skyline from our room. As I stood on our small balcony in the balmy night air, I felt like I was in Darwin. However, Jaffna’s heat had exhausted us, so it wasn’t long before we collapsed into bed.

We woke at 6am and headed down to JetWing’s amazing breakfast room about an hour later, where I refreshed with egg hoppers (thin crispy rice flour and coconut crepes cooked in a mini-wok, with an egg in the centre), tea, mango juice and a banana smoothie. I’d happily have grazed there for another hour or so if not for our early start. Our first point of call was Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, a huge Hindu temple not far from the hotel. I donned a sarong that Melanie (Ren’s cousin) had given me in Colombo, and I also removed my shirt as a sign of respect. As we wandered the temple’s inner sanctum, I was taken by its calm and friendly atmosphere. Two young Sri Lankan men came up to me and asked where I was from, and when I said Australia, they both smiled enthusiastically and asked if Jesus was in Australia. I didn’t really know what to say, so I said there were many people in Australia. 😊

On leaving the temple (with shirt donned and sarong removed), we drove out of Jaffna’s outer suburbs and found ourselves on long, endless causeways that connect the Jaffna Peninsula as we made our way south west towards Nainativu (or Nagadipa), one of Jaffna’s low-lying islands. The roads were narrow, rough and uncrowded, and many of the dwellings we passed still bore the marks of war.

We arrived at Kurikadduwan jetty mid-morning and waited in a holding area with about 30 locals before boarding a small, basic, over-crowded ferry for our 30 minute crossing to Nainativu. The ferry had upper and lower deck seating inside, but the seats were quickly taken by the locals. I opted to sit on the open deck at the front of the ferry, and after 15 minutes in the searing sun I realised why the locals didn’t want to sit outside. However, it was a great trip, and a great opportunity to relax as the ferry slipped through the calm waters of Palk Strait.

We docked at the tiny island, jumped off the ferry, walked down a long jetty and there, right in front of us, was the Naga Pooshani Amman Kovil, a colourful Hindu temple with an impressive entrance sculpture held up by two large, pregnant bikini-clad figures. I donned my sarong, removed my shirt and thongs and ran to the main temple to escape the searing sun and hot sand. We then piled into a three-wheeler (motorised tricycles with a passenger cabin, also called tri-shaws or tuk-tuks) for a bumpy tour of Nainativu. We sped around the island’s narrow dirt tracks, visiting an old Buddhist temple, a derelict toddy bar (populated by around 15 local men) and a working Muslim temple. Our quick-fire circumnavigation came to an end at the Nagadipa temple, a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site which also happened to be near our departure jetty.

We walked down the long jetty, climbed onto a virtually empty ferry and slowly chugged back to Kurikadduwan. We docked against another ferry, clambered over its deck and made our way to the minibus. We left Kurikadduwan a little after midday and settled in for a long, slow journey back to Jaffna on bumpy narrow roads and long endless causeways.

On arrival in Jaffna, we headed to the Malayan Cafe for lunch. Much like Harry Hotel the night before, this place was loud and local, and it took us a while to adjust. Banana leaves were placed in front of us on the table, a ulundu vadai (lentil flour doughnut) was dropped on the leaf followed by a ladle of coconut chutney (a thick mixture of ground coconut, tamarind and chilli) sploshed from a stained metal bucket. This was basic stuff, but the place was crammed with locals, so we realised it must be good. The ulundu vadai was steaming hot and the chutney was fabulous. A second ladle of chutney was sploshed on my banana leaf, followed by a ladle of sambar (a lentil based vegetable stew) and a steaming hot, freshly cooked ghee thosai (thin lacy crepe made of lightly-fermented black lentils and rice / called dosa in India). At some stage a plastic cup of rasam (a thin soup of tamarind juice and spices) was also placed beside me, and it was intensely flavoursome. The thosai was amazing, so I soaked up the remaining chutney and sambar with as much as I could eat (less than half). We finished the meal with sweet tea and sweets – an orange jalebi (deep fried pretzel shaped sweet soaked in sugar syrup) and a dry ladoo (sweet of chickpea flour, semolina, ghee and sugar).

We picked up our banana leaves, dropped them in a waste chute and walked out of Malayan Cafe into Jaffna’s searing afternoon sun. We walked back to the hotel, where we relaxed in our room and caught up on our travel writing before heading out to the Jaffna Fort in the late afternoon. As the sun slipped below Jaffna’s flat horizon, we wandered the remains of the bombed ruins (the area was extensively damaged during the war). With photo opportunities aplenty, my camera battery ran out – I’d forgotten to charge it…

Jaffna’s Fort had a beautiful atmosphere – school groups, families and young lovers were wandering, sitting and cuddling on the old crumbing stone walls. As the sun set and dusk fell, we left the old Fort area and drove to the house of a local Tamil family for dinner. We settled in the family living room and shared a few drinks before crowding into the kitchen to watch our meal being prepared. The mother did most of the cooking, while an English-speaking friend stood with her and described the process. The friend’s mother looked in from outside the kitchen window, and two children from next door wandered in and out throughout the night. Another family friend turned up to practice his English, and he tried very enthusiastically to explain and entertain. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand the concept of subtlety, so his attempt to give everyone a nick-name took a turn for the worse. I was Shrek and Ren was Kili (a female parrot). I think his intentions were in the right place. I realised he was struggling when he asked if Ren and I met through an arranged marriage…

We sat down to an incredible meal of rice with fish curry, eggplant curry, dahl, moringa (drumsticks) and potato curry, fried fish and ulundu vadai (lentil flour doughnut). The fish curry was an absolute standout, and one of the best dishes I’d had so far in Sri Lanka. I was very much becoming a fan of Tamil curries! We ended the meal with bananas, ginger tea and palmyra jaggery (palm sugar). As we were leaving the family gave us the remaining bananas to take with us. It was such a generous gesture – especially given the level of poverty that seemed to be apparent within their home. The outside toilet was basic (and locked), and the walls of the living room were emblazoned with descriptions of their children’s wedding and engagement dates.

We headed back to our hotel, and for the second night in a row we crashed almost immediately. It had been a long enjoyable day, and we were exhausted. We had another long day of travel (by bus) to Trincomalee the following day, so we needed to be fresh.

We woke at 6am, which has become the norm for us on this trip. Andrew had woken a bit under the weather with a sore throat and chestiness, and had to take a cold and flu tablet to help the four hour train trip to Jaffna go smoothly. We weren't leaving Anuradhapura until 8:30am, so we had a bit of time to pack leisurely and have a relatively relaxed breakfast.

The breakfast at the hotel was good and full of variety, and I was back to having a Sri Lankan breakfast (after thinking I'd reached my limited with them the morning before). I had string hoppers (steamed vermicelli-like rice noodles), dahl (lentil curry), chicken curry, pol sambol (shredded coconut with onions, chilli and lime) and katta sambol (salty chilli and lime paste). This was followed by French toast and maple syrup, pawpaw juice and tea. For someone who doesn’t eat breakfast at home, I really do make up for it when we travel. 😊

We left the hotel by minibus and arrived at the Anuradhapura train station in minutes. It was a smaller than expected station with only two platforms. We bought some vegetarian short eats (an umbrella term for Sri Lankan fried or baked snacks) from the small station canteen for the trip. The 9:10am train was delayed by 20 minutes, but we were soon settled in our comfortable first class seats and off on our journey.

First class was air conditioned, so the windows didn't open for scenic photography of the desolate and arid landscape we were chugging through. Even with no photography distractions, I was still struggling to keep up with my travel notes. I wrote for about an hour before falling asleep, waking up just before we hit Elephant Pass – the narrow causeway that allows entry to the Jaffna Peninsula. The view was of lagoons of brackish water, and salt pans.

Jaffna is the capital of the Northern Province and the cultural capital of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE (colloquially called the Tigers, a militant outfit that fought for a separate country for Tamils in the north and east), had lasted 25 years and ended with a bloody battle in 2009. The train line we were on had only been recently reinstated, as all entries into the north had been blockaded by the army. And most notably, until recently all visitors to the north had to get permission from the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence.

The Elephant Pass causeway we’d crossed is aptly named from ancient times, when elephants were herded along it on their way to India. But sadly I’d only ever heard of it in the context of the war – it was a strategic point that was constantly and bloodily fought over by both sides of the conflict.

Jaffna was once a strong northern Kingdom which had transitioned into an esteemed, highly educated and prosperous centre in the modern world. However, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the city and its people after a war had savaged it for so many decades.

I started feeling a sore throat and a slight fever coming on. I was glad I had packed some throat lozenges for Andrew, as I seriously needed them too. I fell asleep again and didn’t wake up again until we hit the outskirts of Jaffna town. I noticed that the willowy coconut trees had been replaced with upright and sturdy palmyra trees, and almost every house had a mango tree in their garden. Bala (our group leader) also pointed out that a lot of the houses still bore bullet holes in the walls – inescapable scars of war.

The train trip took three hours, but seemed to fly by. When we got off at Jaffna station, I felt the much hotter and drier heat straight away. We walked a short distance to Green Grass Restaurant for lunch, and it was a delicious welcome to the north of Sri Lanka – our first taste of the famed Jaffna curries totally lived up to all expectations. The whole table shared rice and vegetables curries of dahl, potato and cabbage curry, potato and chilli capsicum curry, beetroot curry, and a watercress salad with pappadums – but we ordered different meat dishes individually. Andrew and I shared chicken and prawn curries, and everything was utterly delicious!

Anil (our driver) and Hemantha (our bus assistant) had driven the minibus up to Jaffna with our luggage, and met us at the restaurant. The plan after lunch was to drive further up the Jaffna Peninsula and see some sights on our way to Point Pedro – the country's northern most point.

Anil got lost on the way to our first stop – the Kantarodai Ruins. We were driving on tiny country lanes that all looked the same, and the site wasn’t well signposted. In a small allotment hidden among houses with palm frond fences, there was a group of very ancient limestone stupas that looked like little grey igloos to me. Depending on whose history you read, these ruins were either Singhalese Buddhist shrines or Tamil Buddhist crematoriums from around the 5th century BC. As I mentioned in our Notes from plane seats blog, the early history of the island is extremely contentious for religious, ethnic and political reasons. So contentious that these stupas were cordoned off and guarded by the army! How do you begin to promote a unified country and heal from a war, when even historical relics are used as tools to intimidate?

The whole site was filled with palmyra trees, which are a beautiful symbol of the Jaffna Peninsula. In much the same way that the coconut palm is loved in the south, every part of the palmyra tree is fully utilised in the north too. It wasn’t until I got close to the trees that I realised they were very similar to the sugar palm trees of Cambodia.

We kept driving and by now the landscape had changed very much, and the small farms and houses we saw on the drive were fascinating. The predominant crop for this dry time of year was tobacco. We saw rows and rows of the large leaf crop sitting in garden plots next to cassava, sweet potato and chilli plants. Many walls of the houses along the road were adorned with tobacco leaves hung to dry in the sun.

Our second stop was at the Naguleswaram Shiva Temple in Keerimalai. Once one of the five revered Shiva temples in the country, it was decimated by aerial bombing during the civil war – while many people were sheltering in it. Apparently, whenever there were bombing raids, civilians would flee to schools or temples to seek refuge, but on this occasion the unwritten rule of not bombing holy sites was broken. It had been a huge complex of multiple temples, shrines and rest homes for pilgrims, but now only a few of the original chambers of one temple are left. However, slowly but surely, the complex is being rebuilt from the ground up. They were literally in the process of reconstructing the gopuram (gatehouse tower) when we visited.

This wasn’t the first time the Naguleswaram Shiva Temple had been destroyed – in the 17th century the Portuguese invaders destroyed the temple in their quest to convert the locals, then a fire in the early 20th century damaged much of it. And now, they’re rebuilding yet it again. A poignant story, but also one of determination and resilience.

Next we drove a short distance to our third stop – the Keerimalai hot springs. Despite sitting right on the coastline, the spring water in two stone stepped bathing pools is fresh, with no salt water contamination – a feat of engineering. The mineral spring water gained notoriety for having healing powers when an Indian Princess was apparently cured of her horse-like head, and a Hindu priest’s mongoose-face turned into a human face. Hmmm. The setting was pretty enough in a forlorn kinda way, with the brown stone stepped pools in the foreground of a hazy blue sea. However, there has been zero maintenance on the pools or the area around it, so the water was full of algae and rubbish. And yet the men’s bathing pool was full of young boys dive-bombing each other and having heaps of fun – no different to the local pool in any Australian suburb. Neither of us took any pictures of the pools, as we didn’t wish to invade the privacy of the people bathing in them.

The smaller women’s pool is tucked away around the corner and sits sunless behind a high wall. It was empty when we visited, and the neon green water made it much less appealing than the open men’s pool. I would say it was a definite health hazard. As we walked around, I was very distressed to see a very ill tiny puppy in the final hours of his little life. There was nothing we could do. Poor little puppy, dying all alone.

The dying puppy put me in a miserable mood for a couple of hours, and that may have contributed to my attitude to the next two stops we made. However, on talking to others in the group, it seems I wasn’t alone in my opinion.

We stopped at a random stretch of road and walked into a fenced off area that had people milling about. Bala pointed to a sign that read Nilavarai Bottomless Well, and next to it sat a dirty concrete wall around a tank-like stone water structure with small steps, and manky looking dark water. There was literally nothing else of note to see. So we read the sign… this was a limestone cavern connected to a deep underground water source thought to be connected to both fresh water springs and the sea (the first 40 feet of water was fresh and then turns saline further down). After multiple attempts to determine its depth, they eventually calculated that it was about 50m deep – so it wasn’t bottomless after all. It had a religious context a while back, and it’s pretty cool that the well never runs dry even in the worst droughts, but I’m really not sure why it’s considered a local attraction (in its current state).

At the fifth stop, again on the side of a bit of nondescript road, Bala walked up into an abandoned weed-filled piece of land with a small well. He made a big show of pumping a lever system to draw the water out – apparently it was a highly regarded Dutch engineering mechanism. By now we were all very hot and tired, and couldn't hide the fact that we weren’t sure why we’d stopped to see this well. At least the previous well had an interesting story to go with it. Even a group of local men seemed amused that we had stopped here. The only interesting thing about the stop was that it was right near a pavilion had been constructed in Dutch times to trade spices from the peninsula.

I get that water is scarce and therefore a valued resource. I also know that the two wells were culturally and historically noteworthy, and significant engineering achievements for their time, and possibly even once beautiful to behold… but at the moment they are extremely unsightly and in surrounds that are hardly inviting. It was difficult to get excited about any of it.

We eventually got to Point Pedro on a desolate but beautiful stretch of coastline. The sharp bright light made the sand on Munai Beach gleam white, and the salt-spray from the ocean shimmer. Reminders of the war were more pronounced here, and what the war hadn’t destroyed, the Boxing Day tsunami wave in 2004 had. We passed whole areas with bullet ridden buildings, rusty discarded barbed wire and a landscape of abandoned houses ruined by the wave. The eerie landscape of post-war and post-disaster Jaffna. 😞

We could see the Point Pedro Lighthouse in the distance but couldn't access it due to the navy encampment near it. However, we could access the jetty which was built on the northernmost point of Sri Lanka. The jetty had a few raggedy looking fishing boats moored to it, as well as an unnerving armed navy presence. It was hard not to notice that there were far more army uniforms around Jaffna than anywhere else we'd been in the country.

Bala's mother was from Jaffna, and he had been visiting the area since he was a kid. As a result, he was able to give us a good idea of how different the peninsula landscape (that we were looking at) was to the pre-war glory days of Jaffna. He pointed out factories that had either been abandoned or bombed, and affluent areas that were now fields of weeds hiding piles of rubble.

Outside the townships on the peninsula, sadly there weren’t many signs of life. This was very unlike the other parts of Sri Lanka we’d travelled in. Every now and again there were tiny fishing hamlets with a couple of boats and makeshift huts used by farmers, but the most hopeful sight was the small housing projects built by the Indian government – where compounds of identical matchbox houses and small gardens were laid out in rows. Apparently the population of Jaffna is less than half it used to be pre-war.

On the way back to Jaffna town, we stopped for a cup of tea and some local sweets. It would have been a nice break had the shop not been hot like a sauna. It made me feel a bit stifled, and I needed to get outside for some fresh air quickly. The cup of tea was lovely, but the sweets were way way way too sweet for me to enjoy as a snack.

Back in town, we checked into the Jetwing Jaffna Hotel with relief. The simple but elegant interior design in the foyer, and the excellent staff who served us tall cold drinks, were an accurate forecast of how enjoyable our stay would be. We loved our beautiful room on the 6th floor with its 180 degree view of the city from our balcony. The hotel seemed to be one of the highest buildings in the area.

We dropped our bags and walked to the nearby chemist for some throat lozenges and panadol. It seems the throat infection / flu that had been going around our last group had finally caught up with us. It had been a long day – not helped by the intense heat, and definitely made worse by the two or three unnecessary and uninteresting stops we’d made on the day trip to the northern coast. Nevertheless, I had still enjoyed our first day in Jaffna.

We considered having an early night, but changed our minds and joined a few others for a paratha roti (a thin flaky roti / called godamba roti in the south) dinner at the very local Harry Hotel. We had the roti with pepper beef curry, chilli beef curry and a squid curry. The restaurant setting was hardly salubrious, but the green pepper beef curry was seriously fabulous. After dinner we stopped off at the famous Rio ice creamery for dessert. Andrew loved his kithul pani (palm treacle) ice cream, but my mango ice cream was a bit bland.

Until coming to Jaffna, our trip had been in areas with a Sinhala Buddhist majority, with only pockets of other races and religions mixed in. This was our first introduction to the Tamil Hindu part of the country. The different language and religion gave the place a very different feel, I would even say it felt like we’d travelled to a different country! Ha! Fancy that. I was eager to explore more of Jaffna.

We woke at 6am and prepared for another big day of exploring. Breakfast at the Jetwing Hotel was the best hotel breakfast we’d had so far. I spotted the ‘hopper station’ and ordered three egg hoppers (thin crispy rice flour and coconut crepes cooked in a mini-wok, with an egg in the centre) for Damien, Andrew and myself. The hoppers were the best we’d had on the trip (and we’d sampled many) – beautiful crispy walls and a light fluffy centre. I've decided that egg hoppers with pol sambol is definitely my favourite Sri Lankan breakfast. The hoppers I tasted here will be the ones against which all future hoppers will be judged! 😊

We set off at 8am to the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil a few streets away from our hotel. A golden gopuram and ornate entry led into the sprawling temple complex that’s devoted to the god Murugan. It’s one of the most significant Hindu places of worship in the country, and the most revered temple in Jaffna… so I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was busy even on a Thursday morning. As normal for all temples, women had to cover their shoulders and knees, and men had to cover their knees (Bala kept a supply of spare sarongs in the minibus for this purpose). However, very differently to any other Hindu temple we’ve visited, Bala suggested that it would be even more respectful if the men took their shirts off. After an initial hesitation, it was hilarious that they were all very quick to strip their tops off and strut about in their sarongs. 😊

When we walked into the temple’s dim interior that twinkled with brass ornamentation, we were faced with a puja (prayer ceremony) where a woman was getting a personal blessing with a priest chanting and pouring oil onto a flame at the end of every chant. We didn’t wish to intrude, so we walked away to admire the extensive murals in the pillared hall that wrapped around the square stepped holy pool. I would have loved to document the art and architecture of this temple, but sadly photos weren’t allowed.

The rest of the morning was dedicated to exploring the islands that lie off the west coast of the peninsula. We drove through a low lying coastal area and crossed a long narrow causeway across Palk Strait to Kayts Island. The shallow water close to the causeway was almost entirely set up with fishing nets. We drove through Kayts Island and across a smaller second causeway which took us to the island of Punkudutivu.

Our minibus dropped us off at the ferry terminal on Punkudutivu Island. All the ferries in the area are still controlled by the navy, and for some reason the main navy guy seemed to take exception to Bala. However, after a few terse words, we were allowed to embark the slow passenger ferry. It was insanely hot inside the very packed top level of the ferry, but I was luckily invited to sit on the bench seat next to the captain. Andrew went out on deck where it was breezy, but the cargo stacks made the railings inaccessible, so I stayed inside… and slowly melted into a human puddle.

Thankfully it was a quick ferry trip, and we soon disembarked on the low-lying sandy island of Nainativu (Nagadipa in Sinhala) – one of the smallest of the cluster of islands in Palk Strait. Interestingly, the small island was a pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists.

It was an oddly picturesque setting as we walked along a concrete jetty with flocks of seagulls and other birds lining the verges next to bobbing rusty fishing boats. At the end of the jetty, a brightly coloured gopuram with prominent Hindu deities welcomed us onto the island.

We were starting our explorations at the very friendly Naga Pooshani Amman Kovil complex, an amazing riot of colour and sound. We walked through a covered outer pavilion that was filled with families on pilgrimage and the temple’s free roaming cows. The very cute cows were attracted by the food and were patiently hanging around, waiting for snacks. 😊

We stepped into a large enclosure that was thankfully shaded in parts by neem trees, where we had to take off our shoes and step on hot sand. The lads had to take their shirts off again, and given we were the only tourists at the temple, it caused a good natured stir among the locals. In the time it took me to turn away and take a photo of a friendly cow, the topless boys in their sarongs were lined up, obligingly posing for photos. 😊

We braced ourselves before leaving the shady area, as we had to run across the burning hot sand to the temple. This temple is famous for mundan (head shaving ceremony), where a child’s hair is ceremoniously shaved in a cleansing ritual. The temple was packed with all the ceremonies, and there were many small kids, mostly toddlers, who had a pale yellow paste of sandalwood and turmeric applied to their shaved heads. Apparently, the paste calms the skin and protects it from sunburn.

The temple interior was so packed that I could only walk in about a metre. But even submerged by the crowd as I was, I could see that every centimetre of the temple was covered in ancient and modern Hindu art. I didn’t wish to intrude on the ceremonies, so I decided to explore the outside alcoves and walls. The wide selection of sculptures and paintings was so eye catching that I didn’t know what to focus on first. However, my external explorations were very much determined by where I could walk on tiles or sand that were in the shade.

There was a wedding taking place in one of the outer buildings. The wedding outfits were amazingly colourful and made me feel quite underdressed! The ceremonial music and chanting prayers, although quite loud and not always in sync, were a lovely soundtrack to our visit to the temple.

As we were leaving the complex, a beautifully dressed young woman and her daughter arrived on a motorbike, presumably to attend the wedding. The mother was happy for me to take a photo of the cute little girl, but try as she might, she couldn’t get her daughter to smile for the photo. I admired the kid’s strong little personality. 😊

It was insanely hot by now, and I was dreading walking around the island. So it was appreciated when Bala organised three-wheelers (motorised tricycles with a passenger cabin, also called tri-shaws or tuk-tuks) to take us around. The ride around the island was under a dazzling blue sky, on a dusty road next to a sparkling emerald sea. Our first stop was at a tiny ancient Buddhist statue that sat in a cool and shady courtyard, followed by a stop at a very small mosque almost right on the beach used by the small number of Muslim fishing families on the island.

We skipped a planned palmyra sap tapping demonstration, as one of the three-wheelers broke down and we lost some time as they fixed it. After this we did some very bumpy off-track driving and arrived at a small plywood shack on the beach. A group of seedy men were drinking that morning’s tapped palmyra toddy out of cut-out plastic bottles. I skipped the toddy tasting because not only did it smell seriously yeasty (the toddy ferments very quickly with heat, and the alcoholic component increases by the hour), but the communal plastic drinking scoop that was being passed around did not appeal to me one bit! 😱

Our last stop was at the Nagadipa Buddhist Temple, which marks Buddha’s visit to the island to settle a rift between two warring kings. As a result, it’s a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists from around the country. A striking silver painted dagoba is a dazzling centerpiece in an otherwise rather calm and tranquil complex full of white-clad pilgrims. The temple behind the stupa held some interesting Buddha statues and art, but seeing as only Andrew and I even entered the temple, we didn’t linger long. The high temperatures were taking their toll on everyone’s energy levels.

We caught the same ferry back, but this time from the second jetty on the island – at the Buddhist temple. I couldn’t help but notice that this jetty was visibly grander with potted plants, street lights and paving. This wealth was also mirrored in the plush boats moored off this jetty, compared to rusty fishing boats at the other. While the Buddhist temple and the Hindu kovil were only 300m apart, the difference between the two jetties couldn’t have been starker. A cynical mind may find this to be a metaphor for the country.

The return ferry was a private charter for us, and with no cargo obstructing the deck this time, I joined Andrew on the deck. The breeze made the trip far more enjoyable, although it still barely tempered the ruthless heat of the sun.

We returned to Jaffna town and walked to Malayan Cafe for a very local vegetarian meal served on banana leaves (the traditional option to plates). This restaurant consistently gets good reviews, and I’d been looking forward to trying it – so I feel I should say that I may have enjoyed this meal far more if I hadn’t been feeling a bit feverish, and/or if we’d sat in the breezy front part of the cafe instead of the sticky hot back room. We started the meal with an ulundu vadai (lentil flour doughnut) which was fresh and tasty. The ghee thosai (thin lacy crepes made of lightly-fermented black lentils and rice / called dosa in India) with coconut chutney (a thick mixture of ground coconut, tamarind and chilli) and a soupy sambar (a lentil based vegetable stew) was also very delicious. However, the cup of barely warm rasam (a thin soup of tamarind juice and spices) wasn’t brilliant. I love eating at local eateries, but this was very very local. The sambar came in a metal bucket and was slopped onto our banana leaves with a ladle. I shouldn’t have looked at the gooey bucket, as I couldn’t bring myself to eat the sambar after that. Dessert was a selection of bright orange jalebi (deep fried pretzel shaped sweet soaked in sugar syrup) and a ladoo-type square (ladoos are balls of chickpea flour, semolina, ghee and sugar). Again, as we found at the tea shop the day before, the sweets were too sickly sweet to enjoy.

I was starting to feel quite sick by the end of lunch, and the short walk back to the hotel through the hot and busy market felt very very long. Back in our very comfortable room, I barely managed a shower before crawling into bed and sleeping heavily until Andrew shook me awake in the late afternoon.

We’d planned to go up to the roof top bar for a quick drink before our evening activities, but the bar was closed. So Mark, Andrew and I squeezed onto Damien’s balcony for drinks before we set off for a walk around the Jaffna fort. The Portuguese/Dutch-built Jaffna Fort was a sprawling star shaped space that we entered through a large gateway. It had been fought over for centuries, and wasn’t spared during the civil war either. The army had camped within its wall, resulting in it being heavily bombed by the LTTE. Sections of the walls and moat had been rebuilt, but for the most part, it looked and felt neglected and was in dire need of more large scale restoration. We roamed around the ghostly ruins in the early evening… with a bunch of loud school girls, a few romantic couples and some free range cows.

When we walked to the most westerly rampart to watch the sunset, Bala pointed out the local coral that had unusually been used in the construction of the fort along with the standard materials of stones and motor. The sunset over the Jaffna lagoon was absolutely incredible… just when I thought it couldn’t get any more dramatic – it would! We were treated to every shade of red, orange and gold imaginable. I was also captivated by the reflection of the sunset in the lagoon that was dissected by a causeway with cars, buses and bicycles silhouetted against the beautiful light. A perfect urban sunset.

Dinner was at a local Tamil house near the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil we’d visited that morning. The family was super friendly and tried hard to communicate with us through Bala. The mum of the house cooked, and she was helped out (in varying degrees of competence) by her husband, a lovely neighbour and her mother. Random neighbourhood kids also dropped in to see us. A friend of the family’s son turned up to practice his English (he wanted to become a tourist guide). This kid was nice enough, but was trying too hard and frequently became lost in translation.

We watched the cooking of dahl, fried fish, eggplant curry, and moringa (a long thin fibrous vegetable also called drumsticks) curry. We had these dishes with red rice, pappadums and a fish curry that had been cooked earlier. The dahl was very delicious, and quite different to the flavour we’d had in the south. The Jaffna fish curry was also very delicious but cooked on the bone, which I get very nervous about. We were too full to eat the local bananas offered for dessert, so Bala insisted that we take them to try later as they weren’t found outside Jaffna. We finished with a lovely ginger tea with palmyra jaggery (palm sugar). It was a perfect end to the meal, and it soothed my sore throat.

I was so grateful that we had the opportunity to eat with this gorgeous family, and get an insight into their lives. As we were leaving they asked Bala if I was Sri Lankan, and when he replied that I was half Tamil, I got a big hug and a kiss from the mother. While it was very sweet, I don’t consider ethnicity to be a good measure of a person. But then again, this is a different world… a world where throughout its history people have been assessed on their race, and until recently, their race was reason enough to be killed or spared.

We came back to the hotel to a ‘turn down’ service that included spiced Sri Lankan milk toffee squares (a fudge-like condensed milk and cashew nut sweet) which I scoffed with a cup of tea before crawling into bed. It had been a very long and full day, but also an absolutely brilliant day of Jaffna experiences.

Our adventures in Jaffna had come to an end. I had arrived in Jaffna not really knowing what to expect, and I was leaving with my hat tipped to a spirited and robust people. They had prevailed through the worst sort of trials and tribulations that life had thrown at them, and yet were dignified and friendly to strangers. Though far from ‘recovered’, I was amazed by the determination with which they had regrouped. I think Jaffna will rebuild and regain its footing very quickly.

My highlights were the activities that gave us an insight into the different culture in the north. I would highly recommend a meal at a homestay or local house to experience Tamil culture close-up, and to get an idea of the distinctiveness of Jaffna food. Even though Hindu culture is evident in other parts of the country, the visit to the central Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil was quite special, as was the ferry trip to the island of Nainativu / Nagadipa which showcased the distinctive landscape of the Jaffna peninsula. 😊

Next we travel south-east to Trincomalee.


18th January 2018

Ren & Andrew! Your journey through Sri Lanka has been so informative and delicious. I can’t wait to go back and see the rest of the country, places like Jaffna and Trincomalee. Your blogs will lead the way!
18th January 2018

Re: Unbelievable!
The northern and eastern parts of the country were a revelation, and so different to our southern experiences...from what I know about your travel loves, I'd say you will love it! You might need to desensitise your taste buds before that trip through - I found Tamil curries way hotter :)
20th January 2018

Nice to read about your visit to my hometown, and also nice to see more tourists are slowly coming back. I sent this link to my family in Canada so they can visit also!
21st January 2018

Re: Jaffna
Hi Priya, thanks for your comment! We really enjoyed our time in Jaffna, but weren't there for long enough to really get to know the city - hopefully we'll be back soon :)
22nd January 2018

Sri Lanka
You've really seen every nook and cranny of this country. As Andrea says people can use these as a guide for their future travels. Always good to visit where things started.
22nd January 2018

Re: Sri Lanka
Going to the less visited north and east of the country was high on our list as we really wanted to get a sense of the whole country - and we were so glad we did! Thanks for following along and commenting MJ :)
22nd January 2018
sunset from jaffna fort

Amazing sunset
Very nice
22nd January 2018
sunset from jaffna fort

Re: Amazing sunset
Thanks! It would rank as one of the most beautiful urban sunsets I've seen :)
3rd February 2018

Uncivil war
Glad to see that there is a level of recovery from the civil war, and you can now visit the area and help with the local tourist industry, will make this a must see when we finally get to Sri Lanka. It is sort of weird visiting an old war zone, particularly when the people are so lovely, you can never quite understand what all the shooting was about. Of course when we do get to Sri Lanka my first stop will be at the Meerimalai hot springs because I have a bad case of Mongoose face.
3rd February 2018

Re: Uncivil war
Hahaha yes you should make visiting the hot springs a matter of priority! I can never get my head around war and the need for it... humans can be such idiots at times. In hindsight, maybe you should hang on to your Mongoose face - it may give you a significant evolutionary advantage when we totally stuff up this planet and our animal overlords take over the running of things :)

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