Tour guide to Jaffna Sri Lanka !
Visiting Jaffna is like taking a trip across the waters of the Bay of Bengal to South India, yet this northern tip of Sri Lanka remains unique.
An off-the-beaten track tourist destination, the Tamil capital of the island offers a sharp contrast from the rest of the country. Here, you feel the centuries’ old cultural gap between the Sinhalese part of Sri Lanka and the North, with its unmistakable South Indian influence. The culture, the language, the religion, the cuisine and of course the women draped in colourful saris make the difference. Before the civil war broke out, Jaffna was outstanding for its colonial buildings and mix of Hindu temples and Christian churches. Today, after decades of hostilities, the town of Jaffna is bustling with renewed activity. Thanks to both internal and foreign tourism, Jaffna’s economy is growing. The few foreigners that arrive here, after the authorities suspended travel restrictions, are welcomed with open arms here.
What surprises the visitor is the military presence, the way the inhabitants here speak about the difficult years of civil war and how openly they discuss their differences and their outlook for the future. If you know little about the civil war, just lend a patient ear and listen to what they have to say with a courteous smile.
How to get to Jaffna and how to move around
Depending on the period of the year, Jaffna is worth seeing. Try and avoid the Northeast monsoon that lashes out at the peninsula during the months between October and January.
Jaffna is reachable by plane. Flights from Colombo land at Palali Airport, to the north of Jaffna town. Flying to Jaffna is an option you might want to try if you are short of time during your stay and want to avoid a long road journey.
By road, it takes about 8 hours from Colombo and about 4 hours from Anuradhapura. If you start out from Trincomalee, it is advisable to drive through Vavuniya. This option will definitely be a time-saver once the road-laying work on the A9 highway is completed. If you are considering reaching Jaffna by bus, you should consider taking an air-conditioned bus to avoid the heat.
Jaffna is reachable by rail since September 2014 from Colombo. After 24 years of suspension, new tracks have been re-laid and the legendary Yal Devi express arrives here from Colombo.
Top tourist attractions in Jaffna
Nallur Kandaswamy Temple
The main attraction in Jaffna is this sprawling temple complex dating back to the fifteenth century but destroyed in 1620 by the Portuguese. The temple was rebuilt in 1807 and is dedicated to Murugan, son of Shiva and Paarvathi, known for his wisdom. In Sri Lanka, he is revered by Buddhists too (they refer to him as Kataragama). The architecture is typically South Indian colonnades, courtyards, corridors, gopurams, water tank and different shrines make this temple complex worth visiting. The festival period that lasts over twenty-six days in July and August is an extraordinary sight of colour, devotion and fervour that light up the whole town. Thousands of Hindu pilgrims coming from all over Sri Lanka attend this event.
This icon of Tamil culture, built in the early 1930s, housing tens of thousands of books including ancient palm leaf manuscripts was burnt down in May 1981. The ruin of a stately building of great aesthetic value marked a prelude to the dark days of the civil war to come. The building was rebuilt by the authorities and is now open to visitors.
Jaffna fort was initially built in 1618 by the Portuguese after their invasion of the peninsula. It was later taken over by the Dutch in 1658 who expanded its walls and fortifications making it one of the biggest Dutch forts in Asia. When the British took over the fort in 1795, they maintained it as a military garrison until their departure when Sri Lanka became independent. The fort became the centre of several battles during the civil war and the Sri Lankan army had to abandon it in 1986 after a siege that lasted more than a hundred days. Its recapture in 1995 by the government after a two-month siege was equally bloody.
Today, battle scars are visible everywhere especially on the massive walls that resisted many a mortar shell.
There are a number of fish markets where fishermen sell their daily catch. If you want to admire the exotic variety of the catch, you should get there early. The one located on Beach Road is easy to get reach and the locals are happy to show you around. If you are looking for variety, you might want to try the Pannai fish market.
A choice of appealing places to visit when you venture outside Jaffna
Jaffna peninsula, referred by Ptolemy as Nagadibois, is worth a day's excursion. The peninsula countryside is rich in fruit orchards and vegetable plantations. The causeway to Kayts Island is picturesque.
A trip to the islands situated off Jaffna can provide you another view of Sri Lanka's rich history, a chance to meet the “theevars” (islanders) and admire the vegetation and marine life of this region.
From Jaffna, you can stop over at Nainativu (the name refers to the Naga people and “theevu” means « island » in Tamil). The island is a sacred to both Hindus (who worship at the Sri Naga Pooshani Amman Kovil) and Buddhists (who visit the Nagadipa Purana Vihara).
Delft Island / Neduntheevu
A trip to Delft Island is a great experience to relive Sri Lanka's colonial past and to enjoy pristine beaches. The Portuguese called this place « Ilha das Vacas ». The Dutch named it « Delft », as an ode to the beautiful city in the Netherlands, also home to the Dutch East India Company. Neduntheevu is the last inhabited Sri Lankan outpost before reaching the Indian subcontinent. The coral growth is so phenomenal here that the locals talk about growing rocks! You will come across wild ponies and baobab trees brought in by the island's colonial masters. To get there, you need to take a ferry. Check out the timings from your hotel. Ferries may leave late but have a habit of being on time on their return!
To get around the island, the best way is to hire a tuk-tuk for the half-day and ask the driver to show you around.
Jaffna has some great beaches to offer
The Casurina Beach is a local hit. Situated on Karainagar Island, about 20 km from Jaffna town, you can reach it by road by taking the Ponnalai causeway. The sea here is shallow and not rough, the reason why locals consider it as a salt-water pool. The beach gets its name from the lovely casurina trees that provide this area with a beautiful contrast between the clear waters and white sands. There are lifeguards around this long stretch of sand.
Keerimalai Hot springs
If you want to mix with the locals and enjoy a hot bath in holy waters, this is the ultimate experience for you in Jaffna. Set off to the Keerimalai Naguleswaram temple and you will discover a real swimming pool with waters from an underground fresh water spring. The mineral content of the water is believed to have miraculous powers to cure diseases. Men and women have separate bathing areas. A word of caution: if you find the water green, give the springs a miss!
This is a smaller and lesser-know option to Casurina Beach. Situated on Kayt's island, you can try it if you have already been to Casurina or if you plan to dedicate a day to visit Nainativu and Delft Island.
Activites for children when travelling in Jaffna
This is a wonderful place to visit for birdwatching. For bird enthusiasts, this place can be a real paradise to spot many species like Flamingo, Spot-billed duck, Painted Stork, Black-tailed Godwit, Marsh Sandpiper, Whrimbel, Eurasian Curlew, Brahminy Kite, etc.
Great things to do in Jaffna
Jaffna cuisine is different from the rest of the island, and a closer cousin to South Indian gastronomy. Don't forget to taste “Kool”, a unique seafood stew and other mouth-watering dishes like “Jaffna curry” or its lighter version, a “kozhambu”.
For lunch and dinner, expect to be served rice and curries.
For breakfast, try « idiyappams » (or “string hoppers” as they are called in Sri Lankan English) accompanied with spicy curries. Alternatively, you can try dosas, idlis, chapatis and uppuma.