Sri Lanka: Jaffna, Home of Untold Stories

The view from the ramparts of Jaffna Fort in Sri Lanka. Zinara Rathnayake photos.
The view from the ramparts of Jaffna Fort in Sri Lanka. Zinara Rathnayake photos.

Jaffna, Sri Lanka: The Long-Lost Home

By Zinara Rathnayake

Cows are regarded as sacred beings, deeply respected, and worshiped in Hindu culture.
Cows are regarded as sacred beings, deeply respected, and worshiped in Hindu culture.

We were in Jaffna, the Northern Peninsula of Sri Lanka. In 2009, it marked the end of the 30-year-old civil war in Sri Lanka between Tamils and Sinhalese.

In recent years, tourists flock to Sri Lanka for its breathtaking landscapes, hidden, pristine beaches, tea gardens and the world’s most beautiful train ride.

“You have a Tamil name. But you don’t look Tamil. You don’t speak Tamil either. You speak Sinhalese.” That was Raj, a twenty-something boy from Jaffna. He was also the caretaker of our small guesthouse.

The multitude of colors at the local vegetable market in Jaffna.
The multitude of colors at the local vegetable market in Jaffna.

Raj then turned to Nathan, my partner. “You look Tamil. You speak Tamil. And I know you are Tamil.” We all have a giggle. He looked at my 17-year of sister only to say she looked like an English girl.

“What’s going on guys?” Raj asked us in his polished English. He speaks beautiful English. Tamil is his native language, and he’s able to converse in good Sinhala.

“Okay, I know. Mommy is Tamil. She is, right?”

“No, no, no!” that was our answer to all of his questions. Nathan told Raj that he was Tamil, my partner, while rest of us were one family, and Sinhalese. “God bless you all,” Raj left to bring our bill.

We drove past paddyfields, and endless barren lands in Jaffna. Tuk-tuks (trishaws) are a popular mode of transport in the island.
We drove past paddy fields, and endless barren lands in Jaffna. Tuk-tuks (trishaws) are a popular mode of transport in the island.

And Raj was not the only one to ask us about why Nathan spoke in Tamil while rest of us didn’t. The sweet old lady at the guesthouse, too, did. She and my mum talked in Sinhala about jaggery hoppers.

She spoke to Nathan, in Tamil, about where to find best crab curry in Jaffna. And whenever I had trouble operating the AC remote, she came running to me talking to me in English.

Jaffna Town

Earlier that day, sitting in our air-conditioned Nano car, we drove past abandoned old houses, the leftovers of the Civil War. The Jaffna Fort was built by the Portuguese in 1618. Many years later, in 1986 it was under the control of LTTE. Inside the Fort amid the ruins, there is still a military watch-post.’

The tall walls of the Jaffna Fort in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.
The tall walls of the Jaffna Fort in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.

My sister walks on the ramparts overlooking the crystal clear blue water. The Fort walls are cracked, but stand still bearing the witness to shelling, and pitched battles during the period of war. Jaffna is rarely a place-to-go for many tourists who come to Sri Lanka.

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Those who go call it a “colorful” town but, deep inside these colors lies untold stories, all tangled with each other the rest of the island fails to understand.

Exploring the Markets

After our visit to Jaffna Fort, we walked into the Pannai Fish Market in Jaffna. My mum wants to buy one kilogram of tiger prawns. A middle-aged fisherman tries his best to tell my mum the price of it. But both I and my mom fail to understand what he says.

Pannai Fish Market is the main fish market in Jaffna.
Pannai Fish Market is the main fish market in Jaffna.

It reminded me of the time a boy at Clock Inn, a backpack hostel in the heart of Colombo asked me a question I had no answer for.

“Why is it necessary for us to learn Sinhala but not necessary for Sinhalese to learn Tamil?”

At the main market, mum buys me 500 grams of grapes for 150 rupees ($1). They taste a little sour than the usual supermarket grapes in Colombo. The main market, like all markets in Asia, is a chaotic place, yet brimming with colors, and smack dab in the center of Jaffna Town.

The locals come here daily or weekly to buy fresh vegetables. We buy ourselves a packet of Thal Pinatu, a popular Jaffna snack, only to realize that our tongues don’t quite like the taste of it.

We, however, loved Thal Hakuru (Palmyrah Jaggery). It’s a dainty prepared with palm toddy and a popular alternative for sugar with tea.

Jaffna Crab Curry

It was midday when our driver took us to Cozy Restaurant for lunch. We order three plates of Chicken Biryani and one portion of Jaffna Crab Curry. The region is famous for its crab curry. It’s deep red, unapologetically spicy, and powerfully flavored. Many star hotels in Colombo serve foreign visitors a watered down version.

The Northern Peninsula is popular for its crab curry. It's punchy red and packed with flavors.
The Northern Peninsula is popular for its crab curry. It’s punchy red and packed with flavors.

The authentic dish, however, is not for those who are timid. Our bill comes to 3000 rupees ($20) with three cups of tea, a bowl of ice-cream and a glass full of Lassi, a thick yogurt drink blended with Ceylon spices and ripe mangoes.

Nallur Kovil and Karainagar

Later, we drove to Nallur, a suburb, 3km south of Jaffna. Nallur Kandaswamy Temple is an iconic place in the region. The walls and its pillars are awe-inspiring with gold, handpainted carvings. The sun shines through the walls, and my mum falls in love with its gleaming interiors. Nathan tells me about his mum’s old house in Nallur.

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Casuarina Beach. The North of Ceylon has a pleasant climate throughout the month of December with some occasional rains.
Casuarina Beach. The North of Ceylon has a pleasant climate throughout the month of December with some occasional rains.

His mum was born in Jaffna, and later, moved to Colombo for school. They all flew the island in the ‘80s when the Civil War started. Born in Saudi Arabia, Nathan lived his life in many places until he came to Sri Lanka two years ago.

And here he is, finally seeing his long-lost home. And he was happy. The boy was happy. I think it was my favorite part of our journey to Jaffna.

We drove past barren lands, filled to the brim with herds of cows, lagoons with little water and finally to Karainagar. ]

At Casuarina Beach, a popular spot among the locals in Jaffna, we ran to the sea as we were little kids again.

Nathan feared the idea of going to Jaffna. But when he did, he loved it. He finally found his long-lost home, a place where his roots come from. And to top it off, we had the sweetest plain tea at Karainagar.

Nallur Kandaswamy Temple and it's impeccable architecture. Visitors must remove their shoes, and men their shirts as well before entering the temple.
Nallur Kandaswamy Temple and its impeccable architecture. Visitors must remove their shoes, and men their shirts as well before entering the temple.

Journey to Jaffna

Jaffna is the capital city of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. It’s roughly 400km north of Colombo. The easiest way to get to Jaffna is by Uttara Devi Intercity Express Train which takes about 6 hours from Colombo. Now, there are air-conditioned overnight buses which take up to 10 hours to reach Jaffna.

Another popular option is the Yal Devi Express Train which leaves Colombo at 6.30 in the morning and reaches Jaffna at 3.30pm.

Lodging options are limited. One can opt for luxury hotels such as Jetwing Jaffna, The Thinnai or budget homestays depending on the budget, including D’Villa Guest House where we stayed.

Zinara Rathnayake

Zinara Rathnayake is a 23-year-old Humanities student, born in Kandy, Sri Lanka. She’s currently based in Colombo, and the co-founder of the travel and food blog www.natnzin.com. She tweets  @Zin10SantaFe.

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