At the northern tip of Sri Lanka, the Jaffna peninsula is steeped in history – both ancient and modern.
Largely inaccessible for nearly three decades, Jaffna is now free to welcome visitors, and has retained its spirit and vibrancy, despite many years of isolation and turmoil. Jaffna has undergone much hardship due to terrorism and war, and the effect of this destructive and traumatic period is still evident – although this ancient city has risen up valiantly; as it has done all throughout history. While Jaffna is highly influenced culturally by the Indian state of Tamil Nadu across the Ocean, it also retains its own complex identity shaped by a wide cross-section of influences, including Muslim, Portuguese, Dutch, British and Sinhalese. The busy town and its outskirts are a mix of old colonial charm and Hindu architecture, liberally dotted with Dutch and British style residences. A majority of Jaffna’s population are Tamil Hindus, but Christianity is widespread too. The region is scattered with ancient Hindu temples with colourful statues; colonial period churches that date back to the 17C; and interestingly ruins of ancient Buddhist temples that speak of long ago conflicts. The isolated islands around Jaffna peninsula are certainly worth hopping the ferry for too.
Jaffna Public Library
The Jaffna Public Library once had over 97,000 books and was the biggest library in Asia in the early 80’s. It had many valuable historical books and manuscripts written on palm leaves, historical documents and various important newspapers containing political history. While it is a historic symbol it also serves as a symbol of violence for Sri Lankans as this valuable library was burnt down in 1981 on the nights of May 31st and June 1st by a Sinhalese mob in response to a rally that was held on May 31st where 3 Sinhala policemen were killed. It was considered one of the most violent ethnic acts. Valuable works by the likes of Ananda Coomaraswamy, Sir Isaac Thambiah were among the destroyed works. Although it was reopened in 1982 it was attacked again in 1983 which was the beginning stages of the Civil Conflict that would continue on for 30 years. It was bombed once again in 1985.
Fittingly, one of the first major public buildings to be reconstructed after the 2002 ceasefire agreement was the Jaffna Public Library. While it may not have the valuable books and manuscripts that it was once famous for, The Jaffna Public Library is still very much a place of interest for anyone travelling to Jaffna. The library is spacious building with a statue of the Hindu goddess of knowledge Saraswati watching over it.
Nallur Kandaswamy Kobil
Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil situated in Jaffna is one of the most important and impressive Hindu temple on the Island. It is a towering structure decorated with brass work and has various Gods on the outside. Additionally the gold paint used in most places adds to its spectacular imagery. Its main deity is Lord Murugan or Skanda.
The original Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil was built in 948AD but was destroyed. The current kovil is the 4th replica and was built in 1734AD and stands at a different location to the original structure. Over the years it has been renovated numerous times in an attempt to make it look like the original one and now it even has a clock tower, a holy garden, a pond and a shrine surrounding the main kovil.
There are several priests who speak English and are able to answer questions regarding the kovil. When entering shoes must be removed and men have to remove their shirts too. One has the opportunity to say a prayer by the sacred tree, which can be found near the temple and take a cloth threaded in gold wrap a few coins and tie it to a tree.
This kovil represents punctuality, neatness and order and is a religious haven for Hindu devotees. It is also the focus of an extravagant Hindu festival which happens during 25 days in the months of July and August. Note that some displays of self mutilation by entranced devotees can be quite disturbing, especially for younger travellers.
The Keerimalai Tank is a natural spring situated next to the sea with only a wall separating the two. There is a large bathing tank next to it and the water required for it is acquired from an underground spring named Tellipallai-Maviddapuram. While this is not a hot spring, the water is said to have healing powers. Keeramalai means “mongoose mound” in Tamil and legend has it that an Indian priest bathed in it and was cured of his mongoose face, hence the name. There is a kovil next to it which is said to have been built by a princess who was cured of her horse shaped head after bathing here.
Many devotees are seen worshipping and bathing here all throughout the day, however the best time to bathe is in the morning before the crowd arrives. This complex overlooks the Palk Strait and provides a very scenic and serene view. Even though it is a place of worship there is plenty of noise and laughter from the pool as adults and children alike enjoy their daily bath. All in all it is a place of worship and much fun for people of all walks of life. It is best that females bathe in something modest such as a t-shirt and shorts or a sarong as it is spring is deemed sacred. There are changing rooms on site.
This long stretch beach derives its name from the Casuarina trees along the beach. It is approximately 20km from Jaffna and is situated in Karainagar and is a popular destination among the locals. A unique feature of this beach is that you are able to walk quite a long way into the clear blue water. The waters are quite calm with its gentle blue waves making it the ideal place for relaxing. The sand at Casuarina Beach is white rather than golden amplifying the beauty of the view and adding to the uniqueness of the beaches of the area. You will see fisherman quietly going about their daily duties which adds to the charm of this destination. There are small hotels and rest houses if you want to spend a night. Casuarina Beach is definitely worth a visit and should be included in your itinerary when visiting the Jaffna peninsula and is ideal after a day of travelling and sightseeing as one can relax and rejuvenate here.
Point Pedro is the northern most point of the island and is situated in the Jaffna district overlooking the Bay of Bengal. In Tamil it is known as Paruthithurai which means cotton harbour while it is called Peduru Thuduwa in Sinhalese. Back in the day it was the main place for the exportation of cotton. The name Pedro is said to have been derived from the Portuguese. Some also say it is derived from the Portuguese term ‘ Panta das Pedras’ meaning rocky or stony point.Others go on to say that the final name came from the Dutch. A Dutch sailor named Pedro having found this place named it ’Point Pedro’. Many Catholic churches can be seen left over from the Portuguese. Likewise Missionary schools left over from the British are also seen. Clearly this is a place that had come under the influence of all 3 invasions and is worth a visit.
Point Pedro is considered the second town within the Jaffna Peninsula and still has a hint of colonial style combined with lovely beaches. Unfortunately the region was one of the worst hit areas by the devastating Boxing day tsunami in 2004 which also caused the salt content to increase in the ground water. The destructive waves wiped out parts of the town with sea water remaining up to 4 feet high for quite a while. There are many interesting sites still to be seen in the area and visitors may wish to explore the churches as well as a curious stone tollgate which is said to date back to the Dutch era.
Situated in the Jaffna peninsula the Jaffna Market is a truly an experience like no other. Noisy and crowded, the market captures the rural life of vendors and fisherman who come to sell their produce daily. Chillies, beetroot, Bombay Onions, Beans . . . to name but a few all blend together to create an extremely colourful sight. The most popular items made from Palmyrah. Sampling these products is highly recommended as it has a unique taste which is unlike anything you may encounter elsewhere on the island. The nearby lagoons ensure that all seafood is as freshly caught and available throughout the day.
Once a war torn area, The Jaffna Market has now turned into one of the most popular markets in the country. It has undergone a vast change and today it showcases some of the best produce available in the country.
Commonly known as Nagadipa in Sinhalese and Nainativu in Tamil, this small island 30 km off of Jaffna situated in Palk Bay. It is possible to access this island via ferry. History suggests that it was home to the Naga tribe and as a result its name after them. Covered in golden sand and Palmyra groves, the island is sacred to both Buddhist and Hindu worshippers. According to the Mahavamsa chronicle Nagadipa was visited by Lord Buddha 5 years after he attained enlightenment to settle a dispute between the Naga tribes. This island has 2 jetties- one leads to the Hindu temple and the other to the Nagadipa Purana Viharaya which is the North’s only major pilgrimage site for Buddhists. It is believed that Lord Buddha visited the island to settle a dispute between a Naga King and his nephew regarding ownership of a precious gem studded throne. Lord Buddha’s solution was to donate the chair to the temple. The historical chair and the original temple no longer exist, but there is a silver painted Dagoba which pays tribute to the legend.
The Naga Pooshani Amman Kovil is the Hindu temple which is situated on the island amidst the picturesque setting of aging neem trees. The main deity is the Naga goddess Meenakshi and the kovil is a popular place for women who come in search of blessings for better fertility. These blessings are delivered during a midday puja. Men attending the kovil will need to remove their shirts and also their footwear prior to entering. The kovil hosts a spectacular festival during the months of June/July.
The port of Dambukola Patuna also known as the Port of Jambukola is of great historical significance and is an important religious place for Buddhist devotees throughout the country. It is here that Mahinda Thero who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka landed on the island in the year 250BC. A year later his sister Sanghamitta Theraniya brought the sacred Bo sapling. The temple Samuddha Pansala was built by King Devanampiyatissa who was the king at that time to commemorate this event and also said to have planted one of the eight shoots of the Sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree. However due to the recent 30 year civil war which raged in the region, the viharaya has been destroyed and today none of the original historic structures can be seen. Even the Bo tree is one which has been recently planted. New structures have been built and many devotees still pay homage to the area. Even though Dambukola Patuna has faded from significance as a port, it is still one of the most important places on the island which is rich in historical heritage as it is the entry point of Buddhism into the country over 2500 years ago.
Chaatty Beach is located just 11km from Jaffna. If you approach Velanai from Jaffna you will see the sign post guiding you to your destination. While the beach is not exactly spectacular compared to some of the other beaches in the area, it is easily accessible and okay for swimming. The beach has changing rooms and vendors selling a variety of snacks, as well as gazebos where visitors can picnic. Visitors to the area must be reminded of the conservative nature of the locals and ladies are advised not to wear bikinis or other such swim attire which may be deemed immodest, but to wear modest attire such as shorts and t-shirts to swim.
The lighthouse at KKS or Kankasanthure is the oldest lighthouse in the island and is situated at the tip of the island in close proximity to the KKS Harbour. Rising 22m in height the lighthouse was built by the British in 1893 and was once a popular tourist site. However due to the 30 year war that raged on in that area it was damaged and was on the verge of falling apart before it was renovated recently. There is an open gallery at the top which has a copper mixed metal to protect the lantern. The KKS Harbour now functions as a naval base but the lighthouse still stands as a remembrance of the maritime trade that used to take place long time ago. This area was part of a high security zone so access may not be possible. There are 2 other lighthouses in Jaffna, one at Point Pedro and the other in Karainagar. The Lighthouse at Point Pedro is off limits to visitors and cannot be photographed for security reasons.
Even though it looks nothing like a typical well, this well which is situated near a kovil is a much visited site in Jaffna. It is more of a limestone cavern where the top layer has collapsed causing it to expose a pool of aquamarine water and it is in the shape of a square. This is also known as Nilavarai well or the deep well. It is called bottomless for the simple reason that no one has been able to determine its definite depth so far and no matter how many pumps were used for several hours people couldn’t empty the well. It is also said to never have run dry even during severe drought. Although most say it is 40m in depth there is no definite proof of this.
The top layer of the Bottomless Well contains fresh water but as you go deeper one encounters mud, as a result the bottom layer of water never gets sunlight causing it to be rather salty. No one is sure as to whether the water comes from the sea or the Keeramalai pool.
Another thing people aren’t sure about is the origin of the well and as a result there are many legends surrounding it. Some say God Rama felt thirsty and couldn’t find any water so he shot an arrow towards earth and thus the well was born. Others say it was Sita who was thirsty and that Rama made the well for her. Today the water is mainly used for agricultural purposes by the farmers living in that area but the number of local and foreign tourists who show interest in the well is immense and it is a recommended attraction to those who venture to the Northern part of the island.