(398km north-east of Colombo)
Jaffna comprises many things. From its rich history to colourful cultural traditions, to unique landscape to delicious mangoes and other Jaffna specialities – there is too much to discuss. The images in my mind of Jaffna are its tall, straight palmyrah palm trees; women riding bicycles equally straight and tall; and the beaming unconditional smiles that readily come to people’s faces, especially if you smile first. Furthermore, you will find Jaffna people more than happy to share with you their vast knowledge of the region and its attractions.
Jaffna’s original name was Yalpanam and its history dates back to at least the second century BC. Jaffna has faced many invasions from India to the Portuguese in the early 1600s and then the Dutch in the mid-1600s. However, it is unclear whom the first inhabitants were and when they arrived.
Jaffna is worth more than a fleeting visit to fully appreciate all it has to offer. Roam the bazaars and the fish market, visit the religious places, admire the colonial architecture, buy handicrafts and souvenirs such as basketry made from the palmyrah palm - take time to relish all. Step away from the town and be charmed by the beauty of the landscape and villages, the abundance of bird life, and enjoy the evening light which seems so different in the north.
First on most visitors’ list in Jaffna is the Nallur Kandaswamy temple, an impressive Hindu kovil dedicated to Lord Murugan. It is at its most frenetic during the annual festival time in July-August when thousands of devotees flock to worship. In addition to the numerous Hindu temples you will find in Jaffna, and some Buddhist temples, there are a number of Christian places of worship, evidence of both Portuguese and Dutch rule in the north.
The Jaffna Library is an imposing white building constructed in Moghul style near the fort. The original library was torched by a mob in 1981. What was considered to be one of the best collections in South Asia was completely destroyed, including many irreplaceable manuals and palm leaf manuscripts. It was always a great source of pride for Jaffna and the library’s destruction was considered a terrible blow to a people who greatly value learning.
The new library opened in February 2004 and is gathering a new collection of books with donations from around the world. It is a cool place to escape from the Jaffna heat. You must remove your shoes at the entrance and there is a fee to take photographs inside the building. It is wheelchair accessible, and there is an internet café facility for library members in an air-conditioned section. The library is open from 9am to 7pm every day except Monday.
Sadly the Dutch Fort, one of the finest examples of its type prior to the civil conflict, is off-limits at present, though you can drive around the exterior. It is not recommended to take photographs of it, however, as it is part of a military security zone. For a closer look of the fort with its now overgrown moat go round the back of the Muniyappar Temple, which is opposite the rear of the library, next to a playing field.
Other interesting sites around Jaffna include the statue of Changili, the last king of Jaffna in the 15th century, who fought the Portuguese upon their arrival. He was removed by the Portuguese and sent to Tamil Nadu in southern India where he was executed. Close by there is a small pool, Yamunari, where the queen used to go swimming. The only remains of the palace – an archway – are in this vicinity. A delightful sightseeing point is Mandri Manai, the minister’s residence. Some experts say it was constructed by Changili, but others say it was built or modified under Dutch rule as the front of the house clearly shows these characteristics. There is apparently a staircase at the rear of the building leading to a dungeon, or perhaps more eloquently a cellar!
In Jaffna one must eat its famous prawns, dosai (served on a banana palm leaf in the small kades or local food outlets), jaggery and vadai – in my view the best in Sri Lanka. Vadai is a traditional Tamil speciality - a delicious snack made from ground corn, lentils and spices, deep fried in oil, normally served with dried chillies. During my stay I sampled many vadai and upon return to Colombo have sampled many more, but one particular small vendor in Jaffna stands out from the rest.
Jaffna mangoes are the best I’ve ever eaten. They always seem to taste the best eaten in Jaffna itself with the juices running down ones arms to the elbows. Jaffna mangoes invoke warm memories in a friend of mine who grew up there. Now resident in Colombo she recalls the huge mango tree in their garden and the abundance of fruit, so much so that one crop would produce about 300 mangoes. All these were carefully stored under the beds nestled in blankets of straw and family members would come along regularly to shuffle through the straw and find the ripe ones. My friend’s brother would fill up his sarong with mangoes and sneak out before his mother could catch him!