Jaffna and the north Travel Guide

AS A COUPLE
expand_more
expand_more

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.

Jaffna

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 of Jaffna

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).

The EPRLF headquarters

Just around the corner from the Archeological Museum on Stanley Road you may notice the Jaffna headquarters of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), an extraordinary-looking building resembling a heavily fortified military bunker rather than a political secretariat. The EPRLF were long-term opponents of the LTTE, who repeatedly attacked their offices and leaders, most notably EPRLF supremo Douglas Devananda, who survived over ten LTTE assassination attempts – although it’s worth noting that Devananda (now member of parliament for Jaffna and part of Mahinda Rajapakse’s ruling PA coalition) is himself wanted in India on charges of murder and abduction.

The sieges of Jaffna

As the principal town of the north, Jaffna played a pivotal – and tragic – role in the early stages of the civil war. During the opening phase of the war, from 1983 to 1987, the LTTE gradually acquired control over much of the town and the surrounding peninsula, rendering SLA troops stationed in the area increasingly powerless. In the end, however, the first counterattack against the LTTE in Jaffna came not from the SLA but from the Indian Peace Keeping Force, or IPKF, who had arrived to police a ceasefire between the two sides and ensure fair treatment for the embattled Tamils – though in the event, they ended up attacking the people they had allegedly come to protect. In October 1987 the IPKF attacked Jaffna in an offensive called Operation Pawan (“Wind”). This was expected to last just two days, though in the event the Indian advance became bogged down by the LTTE’s determined resistance and a bloodbath ensued, with massive civilian casualties caused by indiscriminate IPKF shelling and bombing. IPKF forces were also widely accused of rape, looting and the random murder of civilians – most notoriously the storming of Jaffna hospital and the massacre of many of its patients. In the end it took three weeks of vicious street-by-street fighting before the IPKF could claim control of Jaffna.

The LTTE retreated into the countryside, from where they continued to harry the IPKF until the latter’s withdrawal from Sri Lanka in March 1990, at which point the LTTE simply reoccupied Jaffna. A brief ceasefire followed, though hostilities swiftly resumed. In June 1990 the LTTE captured and massacred around eight hundred Sinhalese policemen stationed in the east of the island. In retaliation, the SLA went on the warpath once more, advancing across the Jaffna Peninsula and subjecting Jaffna to a second siege. This proved a far more protracted affair than the first. Once again, Jaffna suffered indiscriminate shelling, killing hundreds of civilians. At the same time, the Sinhalese troops and others who had been trapped in Jaffna at the sudden resumption of hostilities took refuge in the town’s fort, where they were held by LTTE forces for three months – a bizarre siege within a siege – until a force of SLA commandos succeeded in rescuing them in a daring raid led by future Sri Lankan presidential candidate General (then Colonel) Sarath Fonseka.

Jaffna finally fell to the SLA in December 1995. As they had done in 1987, LTTE forces disappeared back into the countryside and merged with the local population, while continuing to attack the SLA. The LTTE never came close to retaking Jaffna, which remained relatively peaceful (at least compared to other parts of the region) right through until the end of the civil war, being mercifully spared the devastation visited on other northern towns during the final phase of the war.

Nallur Kandaswamy Temple

Jaffna’s most notable sight is the large Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, about 2km northeast of the town centre. Dedicated to Murugam (known to the Buddhist Sinhalese as Kataragama), this is the most impressive Hindu temple in Sri Lanka, and the only one on the island to rival the great shrines of India. The original temple is thought to date back to the mid-fifteenth century, though it was destroyed in 1620 by the Portuguese. The present structure was begun in 1807 and has now developed into an enormous religious complex, surrounded by red-and-white striped walls. There are numerous shrines inside, richly decorated corridors framed in rows of golden arches and a beautiful courtyard with a large tank. Men must remove their shirts before entering. There are no fewer than six pujas daily, with three between 4pm and 5pm, the best time to visit.

The Nallur Festival

Nallur Kandaswamy Temple is a fascinating place to visit at any time, but becomes unforgettable during the latter stages of the annual Nallur Festival, which runs for 25 days, finishing on the poya day in August. The crowds of festival-goers rival those at the far better-known Kandy Esala Perahera, and many Jaffna expatriates return for the celebrations. Men dress in fresh white sarongs, while ladies don their best saris, transforming the entire temple complex into a vast a sea of intense blues, reds and greens. Held on the 24th of the 26 days, the Ther festival is the biggest night, when an enormous chariot is pulled around the town by huge crowds of sarong-clad men; on the following day, particularly enthusiastic devotees mortify themselves by driving skewers through their bodies in honour of the god and making their way to the shrine accompanied by drumming and piping, stopping periodically to dance en route. Even more extraordinary are the devotees who, using skewers driven through their backs, suspend themselves from poles. These poles are then attached to the front of trucks and tractors, and the devotees are driven through town to the temple, dangling in front of their vehicle like bait on a fishing line. Supplicants who perform these self-mortifications believe that the god will protect them from any sense of pain. Many also carry a kavadi, the distinctive symbol of Murugam (or Kataragama), a semicircular yoke, placed across the shoulders, with peacock feathers at either end.

Accommodation in Jaffna

Jaffna has plenty of accommodation, although it’s all much of a muchness and there are few bargains to be had, and not many places are used to dealing with foreign tourists.

Jaffna food and drink

There aren’t many culinary treats in Jaffna – and (ironically) you’ll get better South Indian food in Colombo. Places for a drink are also in short supply compared to most places in Sri Lanka – the dining room of the Bastian Hotel and the garden of the Green Grass Hotel are two of the better places.

The Jaffna Peninsula

The agricultural hinterland of Jaffna town – and the source of much of its former prosperity – is the Jaffna Peninsula, a fertile arc of land criss-crossed with a lattice of small country roads and lined with endless walled gardens and smallholdings in which the peninsula’s famed mangos are grown, along with a wide variety of other crops including chillies, onions, bananas, jackfruit and grapes. Physically and culturally the peninsula is virtually an island, almost completely detached from the rest of the country, and has always been far more densely populated than the more arid lands of the Vanni further south.

Vanishing landmarks of the LTTE

The Jaffna Peninsula was formerly dotted with a number of memorials and other landmarks associated with the LTTE which have now been destroyed following the end of the war. Prabhakaran’s childhood home was one such place, formerly attracting a steady stream of visitors, many of whom recorded panegyrics to the great leader in graffiti on the walls (the more enthusiastic visiting LTTE cadres used to write messages in their own blood). The house, which was already roofless, has now been razed completely, and a resident soldier will prevent you from even taking photographs of the now empty plot.

If the government’s decision to destroy Prabhakaran’s house to prevent it becoming an object of pilgrimage is understandable, its decision to bulldoze the enormous LTTE war cemetery at Kopai (along with other LTTE cemeteries elsewhere in the island) is less defensible. The cemetery formerly contained the graves of around two thousand fallen LTTE cadres, although these have now been destroyed and an army camp built on the site. The army claims that none of the graves actually contained any human remains and that the entire cemetery was in fact simply a massive LTTE propaganda exercise, although it’s difficult not to feel, irrespective of the graves’ actual contents, that razing such a place amounts to a pointless and barbaric act of desecration. The cemetery’s alleged power to inspire future freedom fighters is in any case far from certain – indeed the sobering sight of so many young Tamil dead might have provided future generations with a powerful image of the futility of war, and therefore have helped to ensure such a conflict never arises again.

The Nilavarai Well

About 8km from Jaffna, right next to the Jaffna–Point Pedro highway, is the Nilavarai Well. Despite its unexciting appearance, the well is traditionally believed to have been the work of Rama himself, who created it by sticking an arrow into the ground to assuage his thirst. Its waters are said to be bottomless and appear to be somehow connected directly to the sea: the water is fresh near the top, but becomes increasingly salty the deeper you go.

The Islands West of Jaffna

West of Jaffna, a string of islands straggle out into the waters of the Palk Strait towards India. Two of them – Kayts and Karaitivu – virtually join up with the mainland, to which they’re connected by causeways, as is Punkudutivu further west. Punkudutivu is the starting point for ferries to Nainativu, home to two important religious shrines, and the remote island of Delft.

There are few specific sights. The point and pleasure of a trip here is in the journey, and in the subtle but memorable land- and seascapes, with the flat and largely uninhabited islands merging almost imperceptibly into the blue waters of the Jaffna lagoon and Palk Strait. There’s also an undeniable pleasure in simply reaching such a remote and little-visited corner of Sri Lanka.

The Vanni

The huge area of northern Sri Lanka between Vavuniya and the Jaffna Peninsula – the Vanni – has been devastated by the civil war, and large areas now lie ruined, abandoned and heavily mined – the task of bringing life back to the region following the most recent round of fighting is likely to be a long and difficult one. This entire region was controlled by the LTTE until 2008–09 from their “capital” at Kilinochchi, on the northern edge of the Vanni.

Madhu

Northwest of Vavuniya lies the remote village of MADHU, the most important place of Christian pilgrimage in Sri Lanka. The large, nineteenth-century Portuguese-style church here is home to the allegedly miraculous statue of Our Lady of Madhu. The image was brought to Madhu in 1670 by Catholics fleeing Dutch persecution in the Mannar area, and subsequently became revered for its magical qualities, particularly its supposed ability to protect devotees against snakebite. The shrine is revered by both Sinhalese and Tamil Catholics and, in characteristic Sri Lankan fashion, has also become popular among non-Christians, offering a rare beacon of religious and racial harmony in the troubled north. A festival in honour of the statue held here annually in August draws huge crowds – an estimated 500,000 pilgrims visited in 2011.

Kilinochchi

North of Vavuniya the A9 runs through huge areas of eerily deserted land, a few ruins and the odd palm-thatch hut. Most of the villages marked on maps of the country along the A9 en route to Kilinochchi have largely disappeared, although life is now returning – very slowly – to the region.

About 80km north of Vavuniya, the small town of KILINOCHCHI served as the headquarters of the LTTE administration – effectively the Tamil Tiger capital –for many years. The town was finally recaptured by the SLA after an intense three-month battle between government troops and rebel cadres – the fall of Kilinochchi in January 2009 effectively marked the beginning of the end for the Tigers, and was greeted with wild celebrations around much of the island.

The town – which was more or less obliterated in the course of the 2008–09 siege – is now rising energetically from the ashes. A rash of shiny new shops, offices and government buildings have sprung up along the main road and much of the wartime devastation has now been patched up, although a huge water tower, blown up by the LTTE during the final stages of fighting, has been left where it fell next to the road, serving as a powerful reminder of the appalling physical devastation wrought by the war. Slightly further down the road stands a striking war memorial – an enormous grey stone cube, pierced by an artillery shell and with a lotus blooming out of the top.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

Terrorists in the eyes of some, freedom fighters to others, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, were until their final defeat in 2009 one of the world’s most committed, effective and ruthless militant organizations. The LTTE was founded in the early 1970s, one of a string of paramilitary groups established by young Tamils in response to the decades of official discrimination meted out by the Sinhalese governments of Colombo to the Tamils of the north and east. The failure of the older Tamil leaders to secure political justice for Tamils and the heavy-handed behaviour of the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan Army and police in Tamil areas drove many young Tamils to espouse violence. All these groups of young militants called for the establishment of an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the island, to be called Eelam (“Precious Land”), and a number received training from special Indian government forces who were initially sympathetic to their cause.

Prabhakaran: elusive leader

The LTTE gradually rose to pre-eminence thanks to its ruthless suppression of all competing political groups and the assassination of rival politicians, and by the beginning of the civil war in 1983, the LTTE had become the leading player in Tamil affairs. At the heart of the LTTE’s mystique lay their founder and leader, the enigmatic Velupillai Prabhakaran (born 1954). Legends about this reclusive figure abound. According to some, he was a shy and bookish student with a fascination for Napoleon and Alexander the Great, who turned militant when he saw an uncle burnt alive by Sinhalese mobs, and who later trained himself to endure pain by lying in sacks of chillies. Known as Thambi, or “Little Brother”, Prabhakaran was held in quasi-religious veneration by many of his recruits, and proved a consummate political survivor who evaded capture for two decades until finally being ambushed and killed by the SLA in May 2009. He also proved a gifted military strategist, although reports suggest that much of the LTTE’s earlier engagements were based on the study of Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger videos – a classic example of life imitating (bad) art.

Guerrilla tactics

The LTTE began life as a classic guerrilla operation, harrying the (to begin with) far better-equipped and numerically superior forces of the Sri Lankan Army and later the Indian Peacekeeping Force with hit-and-run attacks, before retreating back into the countryside and mixing with local populations. These guerrilla tactics were combined with gruesome, attention-grabbing attacks such as that at Anuradhapura in 1985, when dozens of civilians and pilgrims were gunned down by LTTE soldiers in the symbolic centre of Sinhalese culture. The LTTE also pioneered the practice of suicide bombing (whose technology they are believed to have exported to militant Palestinian organizations such as Hamas), with notable attacks against Colombo, the international airport and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, amongst many others. Suicide bombers have also been used in a string of high-profile political assassinations – victims included former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, making the LTTE the only militant organization to have assassinated two world leaders. As the war progressed and the LTTE acquired better armaments and military know-how, they gradually began to function more as a conventional army – exemplified by their seizure of Elephant Pass, at the southern end of the Jaffna Peninsula, from the heavily entrenched forces of the SLA in 2000.

The tigers: past, present and future

The LTTE’s ability to take on and defeat the huge forces of the Indian and Sri Lankan armies reflected its legendary discipline and commitment to the cause, fostered by relentless political indoctrination and quasi-monastic discipline. In addition, hardly any LTTE fighters were ever captured alive, thanks to the phials of cyanide which all cadres wore around their necks. They also – by Asian standards at least – had impeccable feminist credentials. The shortage of men of fighting age led to many women – the so-called “Freedom Birds”, memorably described by British writer William Dalrymple as “paramilitary feminist death squads” – being absorbed into the LTTE military apparatus and often pitched into its toughest fighting engagements.

Attitudes towards the LTTE have always been sharply divided. In the early years of the civil war they were often seen as heroes who were prepared to lay down their lives in the fight against Sinhalese oppression. As the conflict dragged on, however, opinions changed thanks to the LTTE’s systematic assassination of rival Tamil politicians, their massacres of innocent Sinhalese civilians, Muslims and suspected “collaborators”, their use of child soldiers and abduction of young Tamils to fight for the LTTE, the widespread extortion of money from Tamils at home and abroad, the ethnic cleansing of areas under their control and their indiscriminate use of suicide bombers – all of which led to their being proscribed as a terrorist organization by over thirty governments worldwide. In addition, their apparent use of thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields during the concluding stages of the war would most likely have seen their generals charged with war crimes, had any of them survived.

Virtually the entire leadership of the LTTE was killed by the end of the war (as well as a large proportion of its fighters). Rumours of surviving LTTE activists attempting to resurrect the organization regularly circulate, although it seems unlikely that the Tigers will rise again in any meaningful way, not least because of their widespread atrocities against their own people, which has effectively destroyed whatever popular support they once enjoyed. The fact that the LTTE are held responsible for the deaths of over eight thousand of their fellow Tamils proves that it was ultimately the Tigers, far worse than any Sinhalese government, which ended up oppressing and brutalizing the very people they had once claimed to protect.

The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka and related travel guides

In-depth, easy-to-use travel guides filled with expert advice.

Find even more inspiration for Sri Lanka here

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

author photo
Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
Ready to travel and discover Sri Lanka?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels