Jaffna - a taste of Tamil culture.


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Asia » Sri Lanka » Northern Province » Jaffna
March 3rd 2019
Published: March 13th 2019
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As we drove towards the northern tip of Sri Lanka we realised our driver Saman was nervous. We knew he wasn’t happy about going to Jaffna, but we had told the company we wished to visit the area prior to booking with them. Jaffna is the capitol city of the northern province, a peninsula which bears the same name. The majority of the city’s population are Sri Lankan Tamils and most are Hindus. It was also the region that, until 2002, was involved in a long running civil war between Sri Lankan government troops and Tamil guerrillas. It was effectively a no go area for many years and has only recently has welcomed tourism and the dollars it brings. It is still not on the established tourist route, probably because of it’s distance from the rest of Sri Lanka’s main sites.

It was a long drive - six hours in total - with nondescript countryside most of the way, especially the closer we got to Jaffna. Leaving Anuradhapura it was green, with many palm trees and lots of roadside coconut sellers. Also many lakes, small and larger, covered in a dense mass of water lilies. There was also rice growing and some lying on tarps beside the road, drying in the sun.

After we entered the Tamil area we passed many military bases - literally one base after another. All with very ornate gates and well kept gardens. There was also a strong police presence on the roads, with many cars being stopped. We were stopped once and Saman produced a heap of paperwork before being waved on. We went through kilometres of small white butterflies fluttering across in front of us. We also stopped at a vibrantly garish Hindu temple, which had only just been completed. There were many small Hindu temples beside the road.

At one stage he pointed out an area which he said was off limits due to unexploded ordnance. It seemed to go on for kilometres and we passed a NGO mine clearance site. The region was obviously poorer the closer we got to the city, and we started to see abandoned buildings, with damage from bombing during the war. A toilet stop left a lot to be desired, by far the dirtiest one we had seen for a long time. All slime and disgusting smells. Saman was quite embarrassed about it.

We stopped at Elephant Pass an hour before we arrived in Jaffna City. Elephant Pass is a narrow causeway that connects the Jaffna peninsula with the rest of Sri Lanka. It is infamous for being the spot where heavy battles took place between government soldiers and the Tamil Tigers during the recent civil war. Today it is a war memorial glorifying the Sri Lankan army. On display is a battered armoured bulldozer in which a Sri Lankan army officer blew himself up by deliberately triggering the armaments the vehicle was loaded with enroute to a suicide mission. A bus load of Sri Lankan men were huddled around a television set watching a documentary about the man. Whilst we were looking at the memorial a man approached Saman and advised him to move the car as another group of young men in a nearby food stall were making threats towards him and the car. The number plates on the car identified it was from Colombo.

Saman has requested that we stay at a particular hotel in Jaffna which had been recommended by another driver. Upon arrival and checking the room I refused to stay. It was dirty, dark and dingy and a group of young men who were hanging around outside the room made me feel uncomfortable. There was one I had chosen from the guidebook and I asked to be taken there. However on the way we passed another hotel with a high fence and tour cars inside so we stayed there instead. It was fine, the room was comfortable (and expensive) but the breakfast we had both morning was nearly inedible. The fruit was going off etc. and they were rated as a 4* hotel. It was however just down the road from the main tourist spot - the amazing Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil - and Saman was happy with the security.

We walked to the golden ochre coloured Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, an enormous Hindu temple towering over the surrounding buildings. All the Hindu temples, large or small, in this region are surrounded by red and white striped fences. Taking off our shoes, and Jerry his shirt, we entered the temple. No photos inside were allowed. It was dim inside, dirty, (most Hindu temples look grubby and garish) and immense. The posts holding up the central hall were covered in mirrored pieces, which I’ve not noticed in other Hindu temples. The locals were performing puja (prayer ritual) and placing offerings under a brass framed image. When they finished were wiping flour from a large brass tray onto their foreheads before walking anti clockwise around the temple’s arched interior. This temple is considered the most significant Hindu religious complex in Sri Lanka.

We caught a tuktuk from outside the temple to the city centre. Despite it being Sunday it was teeming with people, though most of the shops were closed. After wandering through the local market we walked to the railway station, a nicely restored building in Art Deco style, to try to buy tickets for a train we planned to catch a few days later. Unfortunately all reserved seats had been sold out for months so we were going to have to try for a ticket on the day we wanted to travel.

Next door to the train station was the hotel we planned to stay in. It was busy with tour buses and would have been a great place to stay. We had dinner there and a couple of drinks before going back to our hotel. Alcohol is not available easily in Sri Lanka - though you can usually get it if you stay at a guest house or hotel. We’ve had it put on the bill as a banana milkshake! You can buy from beer shops if you can find them. Usually in a side street, we have purchased without showing papers, but the locals do have to produce papers to buy.

Next morning we planned a trip around the peninsula, to check out the scenery and visit an island temple. It was a really interesting drive. We crossed many causeways and drove passed kilometres of waterways dotted with birds, including some flamingos. The water was very shallow and full of endless rows of prawn farms. The tide was low and large patches of salt pans were visible. There were a lot more war damaged houses in this area of the peninsula. The people living there seemed to be very poor, and the undamaged houses were very run down. Again there were more military barracks.

We were planning on crossing by ferry to the tiny island of Nainativu, which is the site of both an important Buddhist temple and a Hindu temple. The 20 minute ferry crossing is supervised by the navy. We arrived on the tiny island of Velanai via another long causeway. Lots of banyan trees and battered fishing boats greeted us plus a crowd of white clad devotees waiting for the next ferry to the temple. We had read online that the temples were lovely to visit, but the ferry trip was totally frightening as the tiny boats were always overloaded and full of engine fumes. We decided that the crowd size was acceptable and sat to wait the ten minutes to the ferry’s departure. In that 10 minutes bus loads of people began to arrive and push their way towards the boarding gates. Deciding we really didn’t need to see another Hindu temple we left the crowds and started our return trip to Jaffna.

We wanted to visit the other side of the peninsula, an area Saman had never been to and had no idea (or desire I think) how to get there. He was reluctant to go but we insisted so with my phone and google maps we navigated our way through the city to the top of the main peninsula - a journey of about 35 kilometres. The scenery was very different there, fertile with lots of farms and noticeably wealthier. Again there were dozens of red and white striped compounds and as many statues of Buddha. This region grows most of the red onions eaten in Sri Lanka (every meal seems to include them) and tobacco. The fields were full of tobacco plants. We arrived in Point Pedro, the Jaffna peninsula’s second town. Leaving Saman snoozing, in the car, behind a big Hindu temple we walked into town in search of lunch and toilets.

It was a really friendly place and didn’t appear to see a lot of foreign tourists as the local people were all really happy to see us. We found a bakery and bought an assortment of pastries and headed back to the car. There are many bakeries in Sri Lanka selling an assortment of spicy and sweet pastries. Unfortunately few sell coffee or tea, only refrigerated drinks. Pointing to the end of the street we directed Saman to the beachfront where we ate the food whilst watching the local fishermen unload a catch.

Saman got quite excited and was taking photos on his phone. It was a very pretty spot, bright sunshine and an iridescent sea. We wanted to visit Point Pedro lighthouse a few kilometres along the beach. The road was terrible and Saman was nervous. The houses were literally shacks, strung with fishing nets. Interestingly it was a Christian area as there were many tiny brightly painted churches between the shacks. The sand also was lined with brightly coloured Christian crosses. We presumed these were memorials to the many who lost their lives here in the 2004 tsunami.

Saman felt more comfortable when he spotted another car and tourists at the lighthouse. From there we drove back along the coast ten kilometres to Valvettiturai. The road hugged the beach most of the way. Neither the condition of the road or state of the houses improved. It really was a pretty, but very poor, area. Again there were many homes damaged beyond repair by the war. Back ‘safely’ in Jaffna we left Saman recovering and headed off by tuktuk to visit the fort. It was once one of the greatest Dutch forts in Asia. Built in 1680, today little is left of it except some of the walls, gates and the moat. It must have been enormous in it’s day though.

It was still very hot, though with none of the humidity of the southern part of Sri Lanka, as we walked back into town. It was bustling and we visited the fruit and vegetable market before walking to the clock tower. The streets were very busy, lots of buses and tuktuks and not much that resembled a footpath. The clock tower was built in 1875 to honour a visit by the Prince of Wales. Just down the road was a luxury hotel, the highest building in the city, with a rooftop bar. We spent a happy couple of hours there watching the sun set over the water and enjoying a very powerful cider or two. We got chatting to the couple we saw at the lighthouse - they told us that their driver too was very nervous and not happy about being in the Jaffna region as well.

A tuktuk took us back to Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, glowing in the dusk and closed for the evening. We had dinner at a very busy restaurant near the temple before walking back to the hotel. We stopped on the way to watch a celebration at another smaller Hindu temple. It was covered in coloured lights, clashing music was playing, lots of smoky incense and many children, all with numbers pinned to their chests, were sitting quietly at the front of the temple. They were being called up, one by one, and going to the back of the temple. It was obviously a very special occasion as they were all dressed in new traditional clothes.

For the rest of the night we could hear the music coming from the temple and tuktuks passing the hotel playing really loud music. Next morning we left and headed back down to ‘civilisation’. We passed a couple of elderly men riding bicycles along the highway. Each bicycle was piled high with firewood - the men had fabulous balance skills...

Saman drove very slowly (as he had on the way up - averaging 40 kilometres an hour) as he was terrified of being stopped by the police for speeding. He was much more relaxed when we left ‘Tamil country’....


Additional photos below
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The Hindu temple next to the hotel.The Hindu temple next to the hotel.
The Hindu temple next to the hotel.

All night drums and trumpets sounded from this temple. It was here the children were waiting before being called, one by one, to the back of the temple for a special puja


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