Sri Lanka Travel: Jaffna in Focus

  • Sri Lanka travel: festival at the Kandasamy Kovil in Jaffna

    Sri Lanka travel: festival at the Kandasamy Kovil in Jaffna

  • Stripe The distinctively striped outer wall of the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple

    Stripe The distinctively striped outer wall of the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple

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Above: Crowds gather for the annual Nallur Kandaswamy Temple festival.

The battle-scarred Sri Lankan city of Jaffna is open again for tourism, if barely

By Ross Tuttle
Photographs by Dominic Sansoni

Once, when in a small mountain village in northwest Japan, I stood in front of a simple wooden bathhouse faced with a decision. There were two doors—one presumably for men, the other for women—with signs written in Japanese. Unable to decipher the script, I had to guess which do or to enter. Within seconds, I knew I’d chosen poorly.

The memory of those ruddy and bewildered faces came flooding back to me on a recent afternoon in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, when I walked into a Hindu temple during its biggest and holiest festival of the year. Moments earlier at the entrance, a gatekeeper had instructed me to take off my shirt. “Yes, your vest too,” he said, as I stood barefoot in the searing heat pointing with crooked brow and disbelief at my sweat-soaked tank top. This time I’d entered the correct door, but I was still the odd man out. It was not because of my gender—there were hundreds of other shirtless men, as well as sari-clad women and wide-eyed children, worshipping inside. It was because I was the only foreigner there.

I felt at once strangely excited, physically uneasy, and more than slightly self-conscious, especially when I conspicuously began to apply insect repellent to my newly exposed flesh. But I wasn’t surprised. Though Jaffna is a stimulating and worthwhile destination, it is a difficult one to access, both figuratively and literally.

Travel to postconflict regions is invariably complicated, and Jaffna, a peninsular city on Sri Lanka’s northernmost tip, is no exception. As the country’s largest Tamil-majority city, it was headquarters to the separatist movement, known as the Tamil Tigers, which waged a violent insurrection against the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government for nearly 30 years. During much of that time, Jaffna was cut off from the rest of the country—either under rebel control, or behind military cordon. It endured roadblocks, curfews, power outages, food shortages, and sporadic fighting.

But since the civil war ended in May, 2009, Jaffna is open and back on the tourist map, if just barely. Curious nationals and Tamil expats are visiting in record numbers. It’s a different story, however, for international travelers. Though rumor has it they’re now welcome, few are making the trip, and there is little available information about how or if, in truth, they can go.

At the tourism office in the capital, Colombo, a widescreen TV pulsed images of Sri Lanka’s legendary sights, which have attracted visitors as notable and diverse as Marco Polo and Duran Duran: the fabulous beaches and lush hill country, rich wildlife and spectacular Buddhist monuments. Yet Jaffna, a vibrant, predominantly Hindu city with a compact historic center and passionate but friendly people, is barely mentioned in the promotional materials. Indeed, the staff was so unfamiliar with the destination, they had to make two phone calls to confirm the existence and timing of Jaffna’s Nallur Kandaswamy Temple festival, which, at 25 days, is the longest religious celebration in the country.

The dearth of information in Colombo is understandable given Jaffna’s isolation over the years. It also reflects ambivalence by the central government to send tourists to a location that still exhibits the visible residue of war. Yet the absence of promotion ensures many potential experiences like the one I encountered at the temple. This makes Jaffna both an exciting and frustrating travel prospect. Today’s visitors are at the vanguard, with all the novelty, curiosity, inconvenience, and importance that implies; and much of the experience involves figuring out how to get there.

I learned that although the road connecting Jaffna to the rest of the country opened last January, foreign travelers are as yet prohibited from taking it due to “security reasons.” According to Colonel Athukorala of the Sri Lankan Army, “There are mines and construction, and we don’t want to take a risk.” I’d also heard speculation that the government didn’t want foreigners going by road for fear they might make stops along the way to visit and document some of the Tamil refugee camps, which have been a lightning rod for criticism of the government and its handling of postwar reconciliation.

Whatever the reason, if I wanted to go to Jaffna, I was told I’d have to go by plane, which would deprive me of the opportunity of driving through one of Sri Lanka’s most enchantingly named landmarks: Elephant Pass, the gateway to Jaffna. I’d had visions of a razor-thin causeway spanning tranquil waters south of the Jaffna Peninsula, where ancient pachyderms made their evolutionary southern trek to populate the rest of the country. But legend has it that the narrow corridor was actually named for the elephants’ northward journey, driven in the 17th century by Dutch traders bringing them to market at Jaffna’s port. More recently, it was the site of three pivotal battles for control of the peninsula, and currently it’s the restricted location of a strategic army fort. I consoled myself with the conclusion that I was probably better left with my romantic vision.

Flying, I’d find, was no simple matter either. First, I had to get a special permit from the Ministry of Defense. Next, I discovered that I’d have to fly with the Sri Lankan Air Force. The handwritten round-trip ticket costs about US$170, and flights depart three times a week from an air base 16 kilometers south of the capital. At the base, every passenger was weighed and frisked by Sri Lankan soldiers before being escorted to a waiting room where a TV played music videos. I watched Coldplay’s “Violet Hill,” which begins with band members walking across a foreboding landscape and past a bullet-pocked building. It could have been an ironic promotional video for Jaffna.

The plane’s 15 seats were full, mostly with Tamil expats, and a solitary tourist—an expectant Japanese man, who’d previously been to Sri Lanka seven times, but never to Jaffna because it had always been prohibited. The only amenities for the hour-long flight were noise-canceling headphones to drown out the sound of the propellers.

Upon landing on the tarmac at Palali Air Force Base, Jaffna’s only airfield, we were picked up by bus and driven through a  military checkpoint—one of dozens on the peninsula—toward the center of town. With its scraggly brush and red clay, the low-lying region reminded me of East Africa, without the hills. Barbed-wire fencing, which in other contexts might have designated the borders of pastureland, appeared to define former minefields. As we drove past crumbling concrete foundations, I noticed the eyes of the Japanese man surveying the unfamiliar and ethereal landscape with the joy and sorrow of new discovery. Though the city has 2,000 years of history, it was immediately apparent that it would be hard to focus on anything beyond the last three decades.

Approaching the narrow, shop-lined streets of downtown Jaffna, the bus jockeyed for space with bicycles, tractors, tuk-tuks, 1950s taxicabs, and roaming cattle. And when it finally deposited us at the now busy central station, a strange and refreshing thing happened: we were ignored. No touts, no tour guides, no over-eager taxi drivers offering to take me to my hotel. Whereas in the rest of Sri Lanka—and much of the rest of the world—a well-developed cottage industry of arrival-depot tourism facilitators descends upon visitors, in Jaffna there haven’t been foreign tourists for so long, no one seems to know what to do when one shows up.

The lack of tourism, I would find, also had its downside. When I got to my hotel—one of Jaffna’s tattered best, due to its option for air-conditioning—which was tucked away next to a small, grassy courtyard, I inquired about potential day trips. But instead of suggesting I call a tour guide, the hotel manager suggested I call a friend. “Don’t you know anyone up here who can show you around?” he asked.

Fortunately, I did. I’d made arrangements to meet a 64-year-old journalist named Aiyathurai Satchithanandam—or Satchi for short—who was born and raised in Jaffna. We met on a drizzly morning at the austere, two-room office of a Tamil-language daily newspaper for which he reports on politics, sells advertising, and writes the horoscopes. “It’s compulsory reading,” he said of the latter. I asked him to tell me his “forecast,” as he called it. “Aries,” he read, “financial problems and a lot of work-related tension.” What about predictions for Jaffna—will the fragile peace hold, will international travelers return? This was more complicated, he told me, but his cautious optimism would eventually reveal itself as we rode through the streets in the back of a tuk-tuk.

Like the smooth, brown fruit of the peninsula’s majestic palmyra palm, the charms of Jaffna are not always easy to spot. On the surface, the city still bears many battle scars, from a haunting waterfront stretch of bombed-out buildings, to the headless statues of former statesmen. And due to the considerable military presence, many roads are closed, and some areas still out of bounds. But there are many options available, including attractive trips that can be undertaken in a day—in fact, they must be, because outside of Jaffna proper, there are few other lodging options.

Jaffna lacks somewhat in the stunning and obvious physical attractions replete in the rest of Sri Lanka. But walking or driving in a tuk-tuk through the streets was its own epiphany, with the locals never seeming to view me as a business opportunity, but as someone with whom to share a moment—whether a word, a photograph, or simply a smile —however fleeting.

A short walk from the town’s center is the city’s most uplifting site: the stately, Mughal-style Jaffna Public Library. It had become a symbol of the strife between the Sinhalese and the Tamil minority when it was firebombed by a pro-government mob in 1981. But in a gesture of goodwill, it was one of the first buildings to be rebuilt. When I arrived at the library one morning, it was temporarily closed to visitors, but I saw more than two dozen Sinhalese from the south standing outside and waiting to enter what has become an unofficial shrine of reconciliation.

A popular day trip is a visit to the Keerimalai Springs, a sacred, stepped pool adjacent to the ocean and next to a modest Hindu temple—one of hundreds on the peninsula. But en route with Satchi, we were interrupted by the sight of a large gathering on the side of the road. As we approached, we noticed several bemused onlookers, including more Sinhalese Sri Lankans, watching the preparations for an arcane Hindu rite. A priest was inserting large metal hooks into the backs and legs of two young men, who were then hoisted horizontally onto a wooden plank that was suspended from a tractor. The men then went in boisterous procession, complete with a blaring soundtrack, along with a dozen others, to a nearby temple to give offerings and show their acts of penance to the goddess.

“Does this look like a war city or a peace city?” Satchi asked rhetorically and excitedly. “Look how the people are enjoying,” he said, motioning at the hundreds of animated spectators and worshippers as the tractors descended upon the Thurkkhai Amman Temple, in what was yet another extraordinary rite —one not even mentioned in the guidebooks. Satchi kept reminding me that, for a foreigner, this was a unique experience. “No one has seen this,” he said with a bit of hyperbole. But I got the impression that he was speaking for himself and the rest of Jaffna, too. This year’s festival, he told me, was the most spectacular and well-attended in nearly three decades. The Nallur festival, where I was made to remove my shirt, also witnessed a spike in attendance of nearly 25 percent over 2009, according to official estimates.

Satchi’s euphoria soon waned when we tried to reach the Keermalai Springs behind a high-security zone. In what seemed to be an arbitrary decision, a young soldier denied us access. So instead, we went to the beach. A 40-minute drive from downtown Jaffna, over an incomplete causeway and past stork-like fishermen casting their nets, we approached Casuarina Beach, Jaffna’s finest. Even though it was late in the day, the brown, sandy stretch, with shoreline trees and too few trashcans, was humming with both Tamil locals and Sinhalese from the south. Women in colorful saris dipped into the shallow and tranquil waters, as young men frolicked 20 meters from shore. The entry fee for each car was the equivalent of 50 cents. On this day, the gatekeeper said he’d taken in nearly US$300—a sure sign that the new peace is having an impact.

“People are coming,” a local government contractor told me, “and I encourage them to come. It can only improve the economy, and that can only improve the [political] situation.” Back in town, however, progress didn’t seem fast enough. At one of the city’s most highly recommended restaurants, Taste of Jaffna, where I dined on succulent, freshly caught fish at a table draped in white linen, I was the only patron. I asked the owner about business. “It’s been good,” he shrugged, “especially on weekends.” But this was Friday night, and at eight o’clock, Taste of Jaffna was sadly empty.

The manager of my hotel offered a more frank perspective. When I asked where I might rent a moped to take me to the Nallur festival, he had a hard time suppressing his laughter. “After 30 years of war,” he said, “there’s no bloody business.” This meant there was also little attendant infrastructure. Finally, though, he was able to furnish me with a rickety bicycle. “Slowly, slowly it is coming back.”

The Details:
Jaffna

Getting There
All foreign visitors to the Jaffna Peninsula must obtain a special permit from Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defense in Colombo, a process that can take a couple of days. The thrice-weekly flight to Jaffna is operated by Helitours (395 Galle Rd., Colombo; 94-11/314-4244; airforce.lk), a civilian tourist service run by the Sri Lanka Air Force; tickets, US$171 return, must be paid for in cash.

Where to Stay
While plans are in the works to build new hotels and resorts in the Jaffna area, for now, accommodation is fairly basic. The pick of the bunch is Pillaiyar Inn (31 Manipay Rd.; 94-21/ 222-2829; doubles from about US$50), a friendly city-center establishment with helpful staff and a good restaurant.

Originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A Separate Peace”)

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