‘Surrounded by lime-green paddy fields and sprawling lagoons, the bustling city of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka offers a quaint mix of old-world colonial charm and rich heritage, says Zinara Rathnayake’
Historical buildings loom over dense palmyra groves, punctuating the busy cityscape with spots of tranquility. In the neighbourhoods, lined with paved paths, local women in printed silk sarees pile up bananas on their makeshift stalls, readying for a busy day. Embedded with sequins, their sarees glisten in the brilliance of the morning sun. Around them other sellers have already put up local produce on sale – from farm-fresh vegetables to crispy lentil snacks and local grape wine – a lot is on offer.
After an hour, the bazaar is up and about, with sellers and buyers haggling, as an occasional tourist from the south of the island looks for jaggery kuddan wrapped in dried palmyra leaves. These are small sugary blocks made with palmyra sap. Outside the market, tin fences surround the city homes, their walls painted in bright colours. The aroma of freshly-plucked jasmine fills the morning air inside the temples dotting the city. Welcome to Jaffna, a heritage city in the northern part of Sri Lanka. Bustling yet refreshingly green, with secluded colonial-era neighbourhoods, ancient buildings, and beautiful temples and churches, Jaffna is a hidden gem on the emerald island’s tourist map.
Overlooking the Jaffna lagoon is the tranquil Jaffna Fort, the most popular site in the city. Originally constructed by Portuguese army official Philippe de Oliveira in 1618, it was later fortified by the Dutch. Having been a witness to several battles over centuries, the fort was in ruins, till restoration work began recently. It was once one of the greatest Dutch forts in Asia, but today it stands largely unexplored, with sections of its walls that were constructed with stones like coral, still hidden beneath overgrown bushes.
An archway, originally built by the Dutch, marks the entrance to the fort. Stroll along the ramparts, which open up to the azure sea, where the postcard-worthy scenery attracts photographers and tourists. In the evenings, golden rays of the setting sun sweep the deep moats filled with aquamarine water.
Located on the island of Karaitivu, Casuarina Beach is home to powder-soft sandy stretches. Not yet on the popular tourist map, the beach remains secluded. But there are enough activities to keep you occupied, if you get bored of long walks by the sea, which stays mellow throughout the year. Casuarina groves dot the shoals, giving the beach its name. For a local flavour, taste the corn ice cream and sip cups of tin paal tea, at the beach stalls.Thicker and creamier than regular tea, tin paal tea is made with condensed milk.
Karaitivu island is about 27 km from Jaffna, connected by the Ponnalai Causeway, which runs through salt pans, shallow pools of saltwater that are home to shrimps, rice fields and vegetable farms.
An ancient kingdom
Before the arrival of the Portuguese to the peninsula, Jaffna was under the rule of the Aryacakravarti monarchy. Hailing from the historical region of Kalinga in India, these kings ruled the northern parts of the island from 1215 to 1624. One of the most striking remnants from that era is Mantri Manai. An archaeologically-significant monument, it is said to have been the abode of a minister in the court of King Cankili II, the last ruler of the erstwhile Jaffna kingdom. The old walls of the dilapidated building depict traces of Dravidian architecture mixed with Dutch and British influences. Nearby is Yamuna Eri, a pond built for the use of the royal family. An ornamental gateway greets you at the entrance of the building, leading to an arched porch and a tower. The two-storey building is supported by massive brick wall sand wooden rafters. The interior boasts beautiful wood carvings.
Nallur Kandaswamy temple
Nallur, a quiet suburb in Jaffna, is home to the Nallur Kandaswamy temple, devoted to the Hindu God Murugan. A sight to behold, the temple has not one but four majestic gopurams. An exclusive trademark of Dravidian architecture, gopurams are entrance towers and feature elaborate work. The main gopuram soars above all, reaching a height of 25 m. In the sunlight, its goldenochre tower shimmers from a distance. The complex also houses shrines dedicated to several other gods. Large open halls with ornate columns, murals and sculptures of Hindu deities decorate the temple interior.
If you get tired of walking around, stop by at one of Jaffna’s busy markets and devour pittu (steamed rolls of ground rice layered with grated coconut). It comes with a deepred Jaffna crab curry with a hint of lime and fresh drumstick leaves. Jaffna offers a unique mix of the past and the present. One just needs a little time to explore.
Go island hopping
Sri Lanka’s northern peninsula is surrounded by small islands. Many of them can be accessed from Jaffna. A short ferry ride takes you to Nainativu Island. Legend says that Lord Buddha had once visited Nainativu. There are two popular temples here – Nagadeepa Purana Vihara, a Buddhist temple that stands opposite Sri Naga Pooshani Amman Kovil. The latter is a Hindu temple with vibrant sculptures of Hindu deities.
Cruise further off the landmass to the Neduntheevu Island. Popularly known as the Delft Island, the rugged landscape rises above coral and limestone topography. Cycle across the island to see the Portuguese Fort