Remote and war-torn JAFFNA is far and away the largest town in northern Sri Lanka and the undisputed cultural capital of the Sri Lankan Tamils, who have controlled the area since the thirteenth century. The town was the focal point of many of the early civil war’s fiercest battles, although having remained under government control since 1995 it at least avoided being caught up in the devastating fighting which enveloped the rest of northern Sri Lanka during 2008–09. Largely inaccessible for over two decades, Jaffna is now once again freely open to visitors, still unexpectedly vibrant, despite its many years of isolation, and, in places, strangely beautiful.

Jaffna is closer to India than to Colombo, and in many ways looks across the Palk Strait to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu rather than to Sinhalese Sri Lanka for its cultural and political inspiration. Arriving in Jaffna can come as something of a culture shock if you’ve spent much time in the rest of the island, and you can’t fail to notice the profound Indian influence here, exemplified by the replacement of the Buddhist dagoba with the Hindu gopuram, and by the switch from the singsong cadences of Sinhala to the quickfire intonations of Tamil – as well as myriad other details like the sultry Indian pop music which blares out of shops and cafés, and the quasi-subcontinental hordes of kamikaze cyclists who rattle around the congested streets. Yet although there’s a fair bit of India in Jaffna, the town has its own unique and complex identity shaped, in true Sri Lankan fashion, by a wide cross-section of influences, including Muslim, Portuguese, Dutch, British and Sinhalese. Although Hinduism remains the dominant religion, Christianity is also strong, and the town presents an intriguing mixture of Tamil and European elements, with colourful temples set next to huge churches, and streets of a beguiling, faded colonial charm dotted with old Dutch and British residences. Perhaps most striking of all, is the sense of cultural sophistication here, embodied by the remarkably cosmopolitan and highly educated populace who, despite battling for almost half a century against institutionalized racism and devastating civil war, retain a charm, curiosity and intelligence which is one of Jaffna’s most unexpected but memorable attractions.

Brief history

The Jaffna Peninsula has always been a focus for Tamil settlement in Sri Lanka, thanks to its proximity to the Tamil heartlands of India, not much more than 50km away across the Palk Strait. The earliest settlers arrived as far back as the second or third century BC, and this population was constantly supplemented over successive centuries by migrants, mercenaries and assorted adventurers. Interestingly, some of these early settlers may have been Buddhist rather than Hindu, as borne out by the enigmatic cluster of dagobas at Kantharodai.

There are few records of the Jaffna region’s early history, but by the thirteenth century, as the great Sinhalese civilizations of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa had fallen into terminal decline, Jaffna had developed into the capital of a powerful Tamil kingdom known as Jaffnapatam. In 1284, a Pandyan general, Arya Chakravati, seized control of the north. Over the next fifty years, his successors extended their power gradually southwards, gaining control of Mannar and its valuable pearl industry and continuing to push south. For a brief period in the mid-fourteenth century they gained control of the whole of the west coast, almost as far as Colombo – the greatest expansion of Tamil power in the history of Sri Lanka. In the fifteenth century, Parakramabahu VI (1412–67), king of Kotte, turned the tables, gaining control of the whole of the north by 1450; the Tamil kingdom quickly re-established its independence, however.

Portuguese invaders

In the early 16th century, Jaffna was faced with the Portuguese, who coveted the kingdom, since its strategic position next to the Palk Strait allowed it to control the sea route between east and west India, and also because its ruler had the revenues of the huge pearl banks at Mannar. The Portuguese were taxing the pearl industry as early as 1513, and they spent much of the sixteenth century harassing the rulers of Jaffna from their base in Mannar and converting large numbers of the local fishermen to Catholicism – though it wasn’t until 1621 that they finally seized Jaffna itself. The Portuguese spent much of their time destroying Hindu temples and building churches in their place, though God appears not to have looked favourably upon their actions, since in 1658 they were evicted from Jaffna by the Dutch. The Dutch gave the town an imposing fort before the British took over in 1796. Jaffna became something of a backwater during the later colonial era, although the railway arrived in 1905 and the Jaffna Tamils continued to thrive under the British administration.

After independence

Following independence, Jaffna found itself increasingly at the centre of the island’s growing ethnic storm, with regular clashes between young Tamil militants and Sinhalese soldiers and police culminating in the infamous destruction of the Jaffna library by government thugs in 1981. The burning of the library, however, was just a small foretaste of the destruction to come during the civil war itself, during which large parts of the centre were reduced to rubble by the various battles which raged in and around the town (see Jaffna Fort).

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