Jaffna: Islands off the Northern Shore
Part Two of a two-part series on the island’s northernmost region.
Jaffna Town remains the only area on the peninsula that is even remotely a bustling hub, as the tourism brochures would like you to believe. The villages away from it and these islands in particular are a stark contrast to it, even more so from the more well-travelled towns and villages of the south.
In this piece, we’ll cover some of the islands that surround the peninsula, easily accessed by public transport and ferries. Part One looked at icons on the mainland and the town centre.
The Pannai causeway that leads out of the Jaffna town makes its first main stop at the island of Kayts. Home to only a small population, most of the landmass remains bare apart from a few pockets of inhabitation. The rest of the view is green fields and roads of red dirt, lined always by a sentry of majestic palmyrah.
The picturesque Chatty beach is the draw on Kayts. Soft white sand and gentle waves fringed by majestic palmyrah, an isolated sunset on this stretch makes for a perfect close to the day.
Several buses leave for Kayts regularly from both the private and CTB stands on Hospital Road in the Jaffna Town.
Crowds flock to this island to enjoy the waters at Casuarina Beach, one of the most popular in the region with locals and travellers alike. Families make the journey with kids who run screaming into the waves, and groups of young people come by for a relaxing evening chill. It is a beautiful spot to have a swim and watch the world pass by from the little huts by the water, though the shallows near the shore will get crowded on weekends.
Both navy operators and local fishermen park their boats by the shore — we recommend approaching the latter to negotiate a boat ride according to your budget. The basic offering is a quick 15-minute trip that goes out to sea a little bit and then loops back to land.
We took a ride that went out a few kilometres from the shore to sandbanks covered in patches of coral. Shallow enough to stand in and with the water being blissfully warm, the disconnect from the shore was thrilling. Sunset on one side, moonrise on the other — probably one of our most surreal experiences.
Several buses leave regularly from both the private and CTB stands on Hospital Road in the Jaffna Town — say you’re heading to Casuarina and they’ll drop you off at a junction, from which the beach is about a 2km journey.
Growing up, you heard of Nagadeepa as one of the few spots in the country the Lord Buddha visited. What you’re not taught is that it is actually a sacred space for two of our main religions. The Nainativu Nagapooshaniamman Kovil has been around for quite longer than the Nagadeepa Rajamaha Viharaya and the two can be seen almost side-by-side from a boat arriving at the jetty.
Religious observances and exploring the two temples aside, there does not seem like there is much to do on the island. However, you can talk to a tuk driver about a drive through the island, to the shore opposite from where the pilgrims congregate, an isolated stretch of rugged beach. Costs will vary, but the drive is like most in the region — vast open lands, bright under the hot sun, and a rocky shore with barely any waves.
Interestingly, there’s also a tiny church and mosque at two other points on Nagadeepa, checking off houses of worship for all four faiths.
Your first point of contact on Delft will be a line of tuk tuk drivers, offering to take you around to the island’s various sites for a negotiable fee. Delft has an interesting collection of unconventional sites peppered around the landmass. A giant baobab tree with a little cave in the trunk, slightly smaller than the famous one in Mannar. A ruined Dutch Fort, made of red brick and now overgrown with greenery and thorn. Wild ponies, though sightings can’t be guaranteed, in a wide open field.
What is essentially a coral graveyard that then stretches in blue sea all the way to India. The shallows of a pristine beach beckon for a warm swim when the tour ends. Houses and gardens are lined with walls of coral and palmyrah.
Our tuk driver stopped by his home, to offer us a drink of fresh toddy, a drink extracted from the palmyrah flower. Just a few hours after being brought down from the clay collection pots set in the trees, it had a fresh yet funky taste pre-fermentation.
Getting to Nagadeepa and Delft
Ferries to both leave from the Kurikattuwan jetty on the island of Punguduthivu. The first 776 bus leaves at 6.20am from the Jaffna private stand — the ride takes around one hour and arrives at the jetty in time for you to queue up for the first ferries.
The first ferries leave at 8 and 9.30 am — these can get crowded as they are the most wallet-friendly shuttle around these waters. The ferry to Nagadeepa takes 30 minutes to reach the island while the ride to Delft is approximately an hour long. The amount of visitors allowed on the latter will vary as first priority is given to residents of the island travelling to and from the mainland.
Ferries are run by the navy as well as local fishermen. The navy presence here speaks to the large-scale militarisation still present in the North. Travellers can move more freely than most residents can, unfortunately.
There’s a lot more left to see and learn from this region and we hope to return in time. We recommend doing some reading, basic awareness, beforehand so that your interaction with the destination is a meaningful and respectful one. Note that this series captures only slivers of the reality that is the atmosphere in the North. Some unsettling elements remain, people are thankful for small improvements but there’s a long way to go before a sense of ease can be restored to the people who live and have returned to these areas. We’ll let you visit and see this story for yourself.