Jaffna, one of the northern most towns in Sri Lanka, is also one of the most fascinating and varies dramatically to the rest of the country. It is well worth a visit if you get the chance. Typical Jaffna scenes include people bicycling home with bananas and firewood on the back of their bicycles and majestic old houses adorned with carved roundels, grand porches and beautiful doors and windows.
The cuisine is a real highlight of a visit to the region. The crab and prawn curries are fantastic, as is the Indian food such as tandoori chicken and delicious naan bread. Other local treats include fragrant karthacolomban mangoes and the palmyra sweets that come wrapped in woven palm leaf parcels.
You shouldn’t miss visiting Nallur Kovil at puja time, especially if it is a god’s birthday when the ceremony is extra special. It is an amazing experience to follow the priests and worshippers around the interiors as they stop to offer prayers to each God. The drumming and nadaswaram playing make it incredibly atmospheric.
Point Pedro is also well worth a visit. The sleepy town is still very traditional; narrow streets are full of small individual shops selling spices, chickens, spicy samosas, mangoes and basket-wear. The peninsula reveals a white sandy beach dotted with colourful fishing boats. It is not possible to climb the lighthouse but you can walk to a point amongst the rocks where a flag marks the northern most part of the island.
Back in Jaffna town it is worth wandering around and exploring – admire the old Austen Cambridge taxis and the market place where huge dried kattawa fish hang from the beams of the shops, and white-clad pilgrims from the south buy treats to take home to their families.
A walk around Jaffna Fort built by the Dutch offers a different perspective of the town and brilliant views over the lagoon. The causeway that carves through the water has a magical quality, particularly at dawn and dusk when the light is breathtaking and fishermen on their bicycles, buses and tuk tuks bounce along it.
The grand whitewashed library has a special feel, and is well used by a conscientious group of students and spotlessly maintained by a friendly group of staff. It is interesting to look through the books and the old newspaper cuttings.
Journeying to the different islands is also a must. Heading to Mandaitivu island along the causeway from Jaffna town, it feels like you are travelling into a different realm. The landscape is incredibly serene with the glassy lagoon on one side, and the ocean on the other. Resting their bicycles by the side of the causeway, fishermen wade out to their reed traps and some cast nets. These waters are rich in stocks – we see sizeable crabs, prawns and fish being poured into bags.
You can also make the cramped ferry crossing along with many pilgrims to the Nagadeepa temple on Nainativu island. Wandering around the Bo tree, and the silver stupa we learnt how in the fifth year after enlightenment, Buddha visited this site to settle a dispute between two Naga kings.
You might also like to visit Delft island famous for its wild ponies, introduced by the Dutch and its old baobab tree.
NOTE: Despite the recent constraints on travel to the north of the island implemented by the government on all foreign travelers, we’d like to remind you to keep calm and not cancel plans. SLIS will take care of obtaining any permits for all visitors who want to visit the beautiful northern peninsula of Sri Lanka (providing we have all your details in advance).
An Insider's Perspective
A visit to Jaffna is not complete without visiting the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil in the heart of the city. The presiding deity here is Lord Muruga. There have been four temples over the centuries. The original one, built in the 13th century was in a different location and close to the royal palace. Sadly, this was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1624.
The temple that stands now dates from 1749 when the Dutch were controlling Jaffna.
It is worth visiting at pooja time when worshippers pray in front of the different statues. This is accompanied by drumming and nadaswaram playing.
On a different note, Jaffna is famous for its ice cream parlours and this is a popular social activity in the city. Enjoy soaking up the atmosphere with a sweet treat.