Jaffna: Icons of the Peninsula

Part One of a two-part series on the island’s northernmost region.

People have asked me to write guides to and give recommendations for Jaffna several times but it still throws me off. Considering the island’s recent history, specifically in the North, you’d know that every story Jaffna has to tell has ten others beneath it, in layers hidden beneath the colours and sights of the everyday.

In this piece, we’ll cover areas on the peninsula itself, easily accessed by public transport. Part Two will look at four of the islands off the Northern shore.

Nallur

Photos aren’t allowed inside the main kovil building, so here’s an inside-outside view of majestic Nallur.

The architectural highlight of this area is the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, probably the most iconic kovil in the region. Nallur stands tall with the towers of intricate carvings, gold or painted and gleaming in the sun. Its interior is vast and breathtaking, with handpainted pillars and stepwells in courtyards where the light falls through strong walls. I once visited when renovations were still ongoing, and saw a craftsman using a stencil and gold paint to adorn the walls — seeing that put into perspective the work that went into the decoration of the site, and the hands that make it so.

Pilgrims from far and wide make their devotions here; the Nallur festival season sees the town filled to the brim with the faithful.

Old walls and new hearts, Mandri Manai.

Down the road from the kovil is the area identified as the kingdom of King Sangili, an ancient ruler of Jaffna. A gold statue of him atop a horse marks the start of the stretch. Further down is what remains of his palace, an entrance façade nearly hidden by a patch of palmyrah.

What’s worth visiting is Mandri Manai, a building that was once a Minister’s House. Taken over by the Archaeology Department, it somehow manages to have lovesick graffiti scrawled all over its ageing interior.

Nallur is a walkable distance from the town centre at Hospital Street. You can also take a 750 bus going to Point Pedro and ask to be dropped there — it stops just outside the kovil.

The old kachcheri

This building once served as the residency of the British Government Agent and a public park area, along with a functioning kachcheri [district administrative office]. The ruins, demarcated a historic site by the Archaeology Department, are a vast complex of corridors and rooms, with walls of varying materials that indicate extensions having been made over time.

While most of its state is a result of the neglect of the years, it was also damaged by bombing during the conflict and levelled in parts by armed groups. The ‘Old Park’ area next to it was once a rebel stronghold, with high walls fencing it from sight.

It has since been transformed into a ‘Children’s Park’, in a stark contrast to the role it played in the region’s recent history, textbook of some of the ‘developments’ that have happened in the North since 2009. This sits opposite the new District Secretariat office, at the approach along the Kandy Road.

You could take any Colombo-bound bus from town and ask to be dropped at the kachcheri. It’s a walkable distance from the Nallur area.

Point Pedro

Point Pedro or Paruthithurai is a one-hour journey from Jaffna town that cuts right across the peninsula. Through fields of green and shallow lagoon, the route passes scenes that starkly contrast the frenzied city. The jetty that marks the tip drops off to clear waters of a million shades of blue, sparkling in the warm sun. On the coast closest to it are the ruins of several houses, their blue paint fading and foliage emerging through cracks in the walls.

Coexistence of the region’s natural and recent histories.

Take the 750 bus from the town centre and head to the last stop at Point Pedro. The jetty is a short walk from the market complex where the route terminates.

Sakkotai

This little cape about 3kms west from the Point Pedro jetty marks the northernmost tip of the island. Shallows where fishing boats rest and fish laid out to dry line the road to this point. You can’t miss the little hut painted with the bright map. Closer to the coral-lined shore is a squat block of concrete painted with the Sri Lankan flag. It’s interesting, and jarring, to note that a navy base sits on the stretch between Point Pedro and this point.

A fair walk from the jetty, you could also take a tuk for the 3km journey and return.

Kankesanthurai

The northern shore extends west along what’s abbreviated as ‘KKS’, a region littered with historical and cultural landmarks.

The sacred Keerimalai tank, where crowds come to swim in blessed waters by the edge of the ocean.

Dambukolapatuna [Tamil — Jambukolapattinam], where Bhikkuni Sanghamitta is believed to have disembarked with the sapling of the sacred Bo tree.

The newly-built Naguleswaran kovil, colourful and majestic, which stands next to the ruins of its original structure.

KKS remains one of the most militarised areas in the peninsula, with a high-security zone [HSZ] stretching along most of the coast. The villages along the approach are empty for the most part — they either fall into the Palaly/KKS HSZ or have only been recently released to civilian owners, most of who have either moved far away from Jaffna or are yet to return.

The waters at KKS are a surreal blue, shallow and good for a dip. Along the coast is Thalsevana, an army-run resort — owing to the HSZ, this is the only accommodation option on this stretch of beach but we advise against staying here. Access to the beach is through the hotel — as of early this year, non-guests can walk in freely but please note that one is not required to purchase anything to enter, so make no payments here either.

[If you’re interested in why we advise such, give this a read.]

The Kankesanthurai bus stops inland from most of these spots. While we’ve never explored this area by public transport, you can arrive at the terminal and negotiate with a tuk driver for a price that allows you to see any sights you pick. They’re a good 45 minute walk from each other.

Jaffna Town

The destruction of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981 by a rioting mob was a great loss of Tamil history and culture, considering the material it held within its walls, and your heart aches on seeing the new structure. Once the largest library in South Asia, it contained one-of-a-kind historical and literary texts that were a cornerstone of the region’s identity. This new reincarnation, opened in 2015, was contested as well, because some in the community wanted to see the ruins of the old structure remain — a message to the future.

The building is pristine and the gardens maintained in perfect lines and patterns of coloured foliage. Inside, a surreal weight hangs in its halls. New books line the shelves, and you feel like you’re stepping on sacred, storied ground.

A few steps away from the library and overlooking the vast, glassy lagoon is the Jaffna Fort. Its walls bear witness to shelling and combat — a military watchpost is located in the ruins of the building inside the Fort — yet still stand strong, accommodating a small museum at the entrance. It could do with better preservation. This is the perfect spot to sit and watch sunrise/sunset over the water.

The market is sensory overload that demands a visit at the end of a trip. Stalls filled with everything from produce to clothes to jewellery are abound but the stars are the snacks and food stalls for traditional treats — everything from murukku to sweets and brightly-coloured fruit cordials. Palmyrah, abundant in the region, is as versatile as its southern counterpart, coconut. Palmyrah jaggery, sweets, snacks and other items derived from the tree are local favourites. The market is also famous for dried fish/shrimp and grape wine, made by the Rosarian nuns at a convent outside the town; it is sweet and has a distinct flavour and bottles are extremely affordable. [Also, palmyrah arrack. Because.]

Plan to buy one pack of murukku, leave with 5 bags full of stuff you didn’t even know you needed.

There’s a lot of the area we haven’t covered here, obviously. The wine-making convent at Atchuvely. The garages full of Morris Minors tailored to run on kerosene during wartime fuel embargoes in Thirunelvely [highly recommend watching this short film on the story of these machines]. The inner villages and outer islands. We’ve tried to give you a picture of the Jaffna that is — not the Jaffna that the flashy tourism promotion stuff says it is. It’s a fascinating place to visit, but it is also laced with historical and social relevance, to today and especially the future.

Getting there

Buses from both Pettah stands are either the number 15 — via Kurunegala, Dambulla, Anuradhapura — or the 87 — via Negombo, Puttalam and Anuradhapura — leave every hour. The 87 route leaves only from Wellawatte at night and doesn’t make a stop in Fort while the 15 bus leaves from Fort every few hours in the night.

Buses can be booked from operators in Wellawatte for comfortable rides on luxury coaches, though they are a little pricey.

Trains such as the Jaffna Night Mail and the Yal Devi can be booked from Fort Railway or via a telecom operator. The train ride is beautifully scenic but note that it does take up half a day.

Read our transport and accommodation guide for more.