The north is a world away from the rest of Sri Lanka. Closer to southern India than to Colombo, the region was settled early on by Tamil migrants from southern India and has retained a unique character and culture, one which owes as much to Hindu India as to Buddhist Sri Lanka. From 1983 to 2009 the entire region was engulfed in the civil war between the rebel guerrillas of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers), and the Sri Lankan Army (SLA), and the decades of fighting have further reinforced the two-thousand-year history of difference that separates the Tamil north from the Sinhalese south.
For much of the past two decades, large areas of the north were controlled by the LTTE, who established their own de facto independent state stretching from just north of Vavuniya through to Elephant Pass (while for a period they also controlled Jaffna and the Jaffna Peninsula until it was recaptured by the SLA in 1995). The region is only gradually emerging from the long years of isolation and fighting, and the painfully slow process of rebuilding shattered towns and villages, de-mining fields, restoring roads and returning refugees to their former homes is likely to continue for some time to come.
For the traveller, the north is Sri Lanka’s final frontier, and offers a fascinating opportunity to explore a region emerging from over twenty years of isolation and civil war. Reaching the area is now straightforward, and although it still entails a long road journey (or short flight), for those who make the effort there are rich rewards. Foremost of these is the fascinating town of Jaffna, with its absorbing mixture of colonial charm and vibrant Tamil culture, while the Jaffna Peninsula and surrounding islands offer a string of remote temples, beaches and more off-beat attractions. Further south, the vast swathe of sparsely populated countryside known as the Vanni is little visited, even by Sri Lankans, although the remote church at Madhu draws a steady stream of pilgrims of all faiths while the war-torn town of Kilinochchi, former capital of the LTTE, provides a stark reminder of the destructiveness of the war.