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Jaffna, at last!



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by Andrew Milhuisen


 


I have always wanted to visit Jaffna. My father who was an avid traveller would take my mother and me on drives around the country when I was a child but stopped short of Jaffna due to the troubles there. Now I had the time and desire to complete that final lap.


I had heard you could fly by commercial aircraft for a reasonable price or take the bus or train or drive up and down by vehicle using the new roads.


 


I decided to take the train.


I purchased the ticket at the Colombo Fort Railway station for the ‘AC’ train to Jaffna and at 5.45 am I boarded with a ‘picnic’ of assorted homemade sandwiches.


I was very excited as the train galloped with shaking carriages almost non-stop to Jaffna. As the early light shed its illumination, the train had mercifully passed the cement clogged outskirts of Colombo, and I was well on my way through a much changing environment outside the carriage; the view so different to anything in the south.


At about 11.30 am we reached Jaffna station and I leapt outside and placed my feet where it had never been before.


A friend met me at the station and we went by tuk tuk to a nearby guesthouse aptly named the ‘Palace’ two minutes from the station. You can very easily walk to any destination in Jaffna city by foot.


On the first day, settled into my cosy, air-conditioned room, I decided to walk to town. I soon saw the tall Jaffna Cargill’s shopping centre and the newly built Jetwing Jaffna. The latter is one of the higher buildings in town.


With directions, I decided I would have a look at the Jaffna fort built by the Portuguese in 1618 and then captured and extended by the Dutch in 1658. It was garrisoned by the British military until 1948.


The Fort is almost in ruins. The war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government forces, which ended in May 2009, with the defeat of the LTTE, had caused havoc. The Jaffna fort is being rebuilt by a grant from the Netherlands and the work looks like it is still in progress. It is a beautiful fort but obviously needs repair and reconstruction and sadly it will never look like the original structure. The difference between the old and the new construction material is noticeable. The grandeur of the old Jaffna Fort is indisputable and one can sense the history and affluent commerce that must have flowed though this region in centuries past.


The Jaffna library is about a minutes walk from the Fort and is a treasure house of books, manuscripts and knowledge and is revered ground as the people of the region attach value and importance to this building. First constructed in 1933, it was then burnt to the ground in 1981, fanning further the flames of war in the peninsula. In 2001 it was ‘rehabilitated’ and reopened and is still considered holy ground. I was asked politely to remove my rubber slippers before entering.


It is a testimony of the tenacity of the people of this region who view knowledge and advancement as sacred.


It was a Sunday and I read through one of my articles in the Sunday Island at the library and decided to continue with my walk.


A few minutes further into town and I was feeling hungry and not being familiar with the great eating places off the by roads of town, which I discovered later, I decided on Jaffna mutton, dhal and rice – a tasty repast at the Jetwing Jaffna.


After parting with a small fortune, I was enthusiastic to find the locations where the regular people of Jaffna eat. Feeling the need for a cold dessert I hailed a tuk tuk to avoid the mid day sun and asked for the ‘Rio’ ice cream parlour. My friends had recommended it highly. I have never in my life tasted such delicious ice cream and returned several times during my short stay to eat the same item on the menu namely the ‘the kitul nut’ ice cream which comes with a (secret) spoonful of condensed milk. I experienced profound explosions of pleasure in my mouth - it’s addictive. After two orders of the same item I stumbled out later like a man arrived and the journey sanctified. Jaffna had won me over.


That evening I walked over to the ‘Green Grass’ hotel. It has a pool and a restaurant that serves Jaffna cuisine and I sampled the crabs. Jaffna crab curry is legendary and once again I was blown away by the deliciousness of my simple meal of crab and string hoppers with Jaffna dhal. Walking back to my guesthouse completely satiated, through the charming sand paved streets with tiny twinkling stars above me, my first day in Jaffna was a complete success.


I had been advised to leave early the next day to visit the ‘Nagadeepa’ island. I had slept like a baby and woken up late! I purchased a hat to avoid the sun and got a tuk tuk to the bus that takes pilgrims to the ferry, which is approximately 35km away and takes about one and half hours. The journey was pleasant but one can see the scars of the war on the landscape. Of course, stunning scenery is also viewed.


The Ferry Quay to the island, manned by the Navy, was clean and neat and we were all ushered together with life jackets on. The tightly packed wooden ferry had on the roof, from where I stood, an almost a birds’ eye view of the crossing to one of the most mysterious and astonishing holy sites I have ever been to.


The ancient Nainativu Sri Nagapooshani Amman Temple is intimidating in its colossal size, age and height and the innumerably colourfully painted stone illustrations of Hindu gods and demons and their consorts, intricately carved on the sides of the giant pyramid like towering structure reaching far up to the sky.


The Nayinaar deity (a five headed cobra) is worshipped today within the Temple. The tremendously loud sounds of drums and particular trumpets accompany rituals. The smell of burning incense and smoke within the sanctum of the temple is a heady experience. The throng of pilgrims flock from a far as Switzerland and distant Canada; children of the Diaspora returning with their parents to be blessed.


Near the Amman temple is the Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya, a Buddhist temple with a magnificent history.The site is where Lord Buddha came during his second visit to Sri Lanka, five years after attaining Enlightenment, to intervene and mediate in settling a dispute over the possession of a gem-studded throne. Ancient history according to the Mahavamsa chronicles and the Tamil Buddhist epic Manimekalai mention a gem-studded throne and a stone with the Buddha’s footprint on the island, which pilgrims from India and Lanka visited since the first century AD.


I found myself well informed touring by Tuk Tuk and by foot so much so that itI was noticeable that both Buddhist and Hindus coexist in an exemplary custom with tales of each community assisting each other with the maintenance and preservation of the structures on the island.


Arriving back in the city, I visited the Nallur Kandasamy Kovil known also as the Nallur temple. This is one of the most significant Hindu temples in the Jaffna district and the historically rich city of Nallur.


The presiding deity is Lord Murugan. A 25 day-long pageantry held annually at the temple is recognized as Sri Lanka’s longest, holy festival. The temple is huge and has a history of repeated destruction since its founding in 948 AD by invading forces; most recently the Portuguese. The present temple was constructed in Nallur in 1734 during the Dutch colonial period.


The following day the guesthouse keeper kindly gave me a bike and I took off en route to Point Pedro the Northernmost point of the island of Sri Lanka.


I decided to take the route from Jaffna to Kankesanturai, then to Point Pedro and then back on the B20 new road back to Jaffna.


Once again the absolute ease of travel within the Peninsula was brought back to me as I completed the circuit in not more than a few hours. I requested directions from people that I met and spoke with, which was interesting.


Kankesanturai, KKS, is a historic port town and is now under the direction of the Sri Lankan Navy. A fairly decent resort is run by the seaside. The train service ‘Yal Devi’s last stop used to be here until 1990 and the station has only recently being reopened.


Not wanting to tarry I made my way along the coast and the old Pallali road until I came upon Point Pedro, at the other end of Sri Lanka.


I stopped there in awe. I could go no further as I thought back on my journey thus far.


Point Pedro is also a shipping port and historically famous for the export of cotton. Fishing boats of all colors litter the beaches with Churches and crosses marking the advent of the Portuguese to the region. I parked my bike and walked up the ocean to wet my feet.


A lone fisherman walked up to me and asked me in Tamil who I was and what was I doing. I said I was from Colombo and he immediately asked me to lunch at his home displaying that Sri Lankan hospitality remains the same from the Northern most tip to the Southernmost tip of Sri Lanka.


The road back was excellent and I made good time and got into the city to purchase some souvenirs for my mother and friends and a last meal at the finest vegetarian restaurant in Jaffna, The Malayalan Café.


The café is pure vegetarian with meals being served on plantain leaves on marble topped tables. It has been in existence for many many years. The food is absolutely delicious and inexpensive. I purchased 750g of the most mouth-watering Dodol to take home.


 


I felt complete.


I decided I could now leave this beautiful peninsula and make my way back home on the convenient Jaffna-Colombo coach. I had been treated like a Prince in far away Jaffna………


 


 


 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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