The mystique around Jaffna is strong, as travel was not authorized by authorities for so many years, during the civil war (which ended 2009).
Since we have been in Sri Lanka (2 months) we have not met any foreigners who have been to Jaffna and in fact, even many locals have not been there. Aside from it being the epicenter of the war, due to its very Northern location, it takes a considerable amount of time and effort to get there.
The first preconception that most people have of Jaffna, as did we, is one of war destruction. After all, the war only ended 7 years ago. That is not a long time historically speaking.
In the insert, upper left, you can see how close Sri Lanka is to India and at the most Northern point is Jaffna. To the right, you can see that Jaffna region is an archipelago of small islands connected by causeways.
To get to Jaffna, one crosses a super cool “causeway”, a narrow strip of land, with ocean on both sides.
As we arrive into Jaffna, there are physical signs of war-time bombardments ~ houses which are still in ruins or have walls riddled with bullet holes. However, there are way more signs of rebuilding and of renewed vibrancy.
Our first sighting when arriving in Jaffna – An abandoned large house, a shell of its former glory. A casualty of bombing campaigns.
Bullet holes, on the facade of a house, are a reminder of the tragic 29 year civil war.
Market place and center of commerce
The market place takes us by surprise! It is bustling with energy and activity. The economy seems very healthy ~ people are shopping, congregating and generally filling up the streets with color.
Tuk tuks line up waiting for customers in the center of the active market place.
Suddenly it feels like we are in India, again. Bright colorful saris everywhere.
The jet black long braid is something we will forever associate with Sri Lanka. It is traditional to have long hair and to have long braids. The longer the better. Sri Lankan girls are proud of their locks.
A typical small store packed with colorful outfits spilling out onto the sidewalk. All signs here are in Tamil, an entirely different alphabet and language to Sinhalese which is spoken in the South. In fact, issues of language primacy in Sri Lanka, and specifically the Sinhalese 70% majority that insisted in Sinhalese being the official language of Sri Lanka, was a core issue that contributed to tension between the 70% majority Buddhist Sinhalese speaking South, and the 30% Hindu/Muslim/Christian Tamils who speak their own Tamil language, in the North.
Buses, tuk tuks, bikes and people all share the streets. The mood is upbeat and the streets are full. Jaffna is no longer a war torn city. It will take years, perhaps decades, for the painful memories of the civil war to fade. But in the meantime, Jaffna is today on the rebound.
In between the main streets are narrower ones filled with vendors with stalls selling just about everything… from watches, to sunglasses to toys and clothing.
As in the South, newspaper stands do brisk business. The difference here is that newspapers are in Tamii. Cost of a newspaper is 30 rupees = 20 cents.
Hindu temples – Discovering the pantheon
On a scale of 100 relative to our knowledge of Hinduism, its practices, its multitude of deities, and rituals, it would be generous for us to consider that we are at a level of 2. We know very little (but we are enjoying the discovery process).
The colors of Hindu temples and cast of deities (and supporting actors) are unlike anything we have seen in our travels, save in India of course. But the extraordinary thing is that we are welcomed inside every temple we stop to look at ~ unlike India where we were not allowed inside Hindu temples as non Hindus. We ask permission to take photographs in the first few temples we enter, and the response is “Cultural reasons! yes.”
There are temples all along our route, large and small. There are very old ones, and very new ones. One large temple was Shiva-centric (Shiva is the 3rd god of the Hindu triumvirate. The triumvirate consists of 3 gods responsible for the creation, upkeep and destruction of the world. The other 2 are Brahma and Vishnu. Brahma is the creator of the universe, while Vishnu is the preserver of it.) Another was Ganesha-centric. (Ganesha is one of the best known and most worshiped deities in the Hindu pantheon. Ganesha is wildly revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences and the deva of intellect and wisdom.)
In all cases, these temples deliver an explosion of vibrant colors. Dull they are not.
This temple seems to call us in. Indeed, a haunting music comes out from its external speakers. We stop to take a peak. The music is not a recording, but rather the broadcasting of two temple musicians whose music creates an exotic atmosphere. It is less a “call to prayer” than a musical dimension that is part and parcel of the religious practice.
This temple is Ganesha-oriented. The priest is more than happy to give us a short explanation – There are 72 different images of Ganesha featured all around the temple. And now that we know that… we start seeing Ganesha EVERYWHERE in this temple.
Murals of Ganesha grace the walls ~ every color of the rainbow.
The outside of the Ganesha temple is quite elaborate. There are two elephant sculptures on either side of the roof at the entrance.
Above the elephants head there is a multitude of deities.. so many that one almost does not notice them until one actually makes a point of zeroing in on a smaller section of the 3-tier structure.
At the top of every pole.. a Ganesha.
Over the clock? a golden Ganesha…
Waiting for the priest to start the prayers…
The inner chambers of the temple are only accessible by the temple priest.
Next temple stop…
A majority of the temples here have red and white stripes on the outside walls. The red represents the female energy while the white stripes represent male energy.
Not all temples are so colorful outside, as the following temple shows. The natural stone color allows us to appreciate the quality of the carvings of the sculptures as it is more visible without the bright colors.
Another temple in a grey natural stone color. This one is unusual. The outside seemed to be quite old. Yet the inside was completely new and in fact in the process of reconstruction.
One of the new sculptures inside. These are each lit up by different colored lights.
Some temples require men to remove their shirts and be bare chested.. Others are less rigid about this requirement. Definitely amusing to see Ben with his very fair complexion intermingling, shirtless, with Hindu devotees.
A banian is a traditional Indian sleeveless undergarment. The sign has writing in both Tamil (top) and Sinhalese underneath.
A reconstructed entrance of a temple.
The coconut is one of the most common offerings in a Hindu temple. During the November U.S. election the Tamil community of Jaffna cracked 1.000 coconuts as their blessing and prayers for Hillary Clinton to win the election. She had been a staunch advocate of human rights in her dealings with Sri Lanka, as Secretary of State and the Tamil community was actively tracking the election.
The biggest and grandest Hindu Temple we see. We both definitely prefer the smaller ones.
A “Pooja” store where one buys prayer items for the temple such as flowers, incense, oil lamps, garlands etc. Typically these are found near the larger temples.
The Margosa Villa, Jaffna
Our destination for 2 nights is The Margosa Villa in Jaffna. An old villa which was deserted during the war has now been tastefully restored into a small luxury boutique hotel. Every so often during our Green Global Trek, we run into a particularly note-worthy boutique hotel that is memorable and contributes meaningfully to the experience.
As we enter the Margosa Villla after a few hours of driving, there is immediately a feeling of an oasis of serenity. With 6 spacious and elegant rooms around a central coutryard Margosa has a uniquely personal feel. After seeing several former grand homes in states of disrepair, it is really nice to see this one reborn and welcoming guests.
The artwork and decor has been carefully selected to represent elements of culture or Sri Lankan history. Local antique pieces add to the home’s beautiful structure and minimalist design.
The absolute highlight of our stay here, in addition to the super comfy beds, was without a doubt the Jaffna cuisine created by the Margosa Villa chef. Both nights we ordered the Margosa specialty of curried crab. It was so good the first night, we had to order it again, just a little less spicy please!
If Sri Lanka had a version of the French global restaurant / hotel Michelin Guide, Margosa Villa would no doubt earning a coveted “star”. The quality of the cuisine was positively memorable.
Between the attention to design detail, comfort and delicious food, this was a great place to base ourselves for two days of exploration in the Jaffna region.
Front entrance to the Margosa Villa has the look and feel of a tastefully designed elegant and modern space.
Copper storage containers for rice and water, used for centuries, are piled up against a sunburnt orange wall for dramatic effect.
Photos of the villa before the restoration.
A large front porch is perfect for relaxing with a book or doing some yoga overlooking the expansive garden in front of the villa.
Dark mahogany furniture against earth tones and a collection of copper pots makes for a restful environment.
Antique ceramic storage jars lined up from large to small make an attractive entrance to the courtyard.
Beds are uber comfy!
Meals are served outside the bedrooms and around the courtyard. This makes for a cosy and “at home” feeling for breakfast and dinner.
Delicious specialty of the house: Jaffna style curried crabs, coconut sambal, green leaf curry, vegetable curry and paper dosa. Phenomenal!
Coconut milk hoppers for breakfast. Thin and crepe like, round shaped with coconut milk and jaggery (palm sugar) in the center.
Margosa Villa is in a quiet location and we enjoy some down time after visiting Hindu temples in the area.
Beach front and harbor
As we stroll along the Jaffna beach front we have some friendly chats, photos taken and some scared kids – apparently they have never seem foreigners before!
Away from the buzz and high activity level of the market, the harbor front and residential area is a pretty chill place to be..
A particularly charming little house on the side of the small harbor.
The waterfront is dotted with fishing boats, small and large. All are wooden and have a lot of color and character.
There are houses which are still abandoned and in ruins in amongst those which are lived in.
Many use umbrellas to ward off the hot midday sun.
Colorful boats, colorful clothes.
A group of young guys are very eager to pose for a photo. Music blaring, Arak (rice wine) flowing. The mood is positively upbeat here. Reminds us of the vibrant youth in Cuba.
We have often seen the eye at the front of the boat, to ward off evil spirits. Usually they are modern, and sometimes scary. But never have we seen a long-lashed, coy girl’s eye, such as this one…
This specific area around the fishing community, in Jaffna, is mostly Christian. A portion of the Sri Lankan population was converted to Christianity when Sri Lanka was a Portuguese colony. Note the catholic “shrine” where the patron saint of fishermen watches over the community.
Jaffna Island hopping
Jaffna’s islands are low lying and reachable by boat or causeways ~ which connect most of them. We drive over the main causeway, which links us to a series of small islands and smaller causeways which navigate over shallow sea and lagoons.
There is a meditative, hypnotic quality to the landscape here. As the waters are so shallow they are a natural habitat for a plethora of birds and we are especially excited to see flamingoes. There are Palmyra Palm trees everywhere, like large green lollipops soaring up into the clear blue sky. The dried out leaves are used to make fences, roofs and the sap is used to make an alcoholic drink.
A small gas station, a few small stores, but other than that it is green fauna and blue waters with a few houses interspersed between.
We notice quite a few large churches. But here we drive past a small one, right next to a Hindu Temple.
This whole area feels like a protected natural reserve as it is so undeveloped… While we see no foreigners (and in fact in Jaffna itself we saw only 4 other foreigners in total!) this area does attract busloads of domestic tourists on the main road.
There is still a visible extensive military presence in the Jaffna region. Along the road there are many naval observation points. We are told by naval officers on watch that this is because of historical and still current drug trafficking from India.
Larger than usual goats running freely across the road on the island of Kayts.
A rather grand but abandoned and dilapidated house ~ one can certainly feel the grandeur of yesteryear.
This house has an Angkor Watt like feature ~ nature has taken over where man left off!
Most unusual feature of this house are the walls ~ which are made out of coral!
The causeways feel a bit like a road to nowhere… But it is clear that the investment in infrastructure is bound to have positive impact on the economy of the small island.
Swampy marsh-like areas are great for watching birds come and go.
We stop on one of the causeways to watch this fisherman throwing his net out.
(Green Global Trek received a complementary stay at Margosa Villa; All opinions are our own).