Whenever I told anyone in Sri Lanka that I was making the long trek to Jaffna, the northern town which is the heartland of Tamil culture, I was met with one of two reactions.
Foreigners and other travellers expressed either admiration or envy.
Sri Lankans just looked deeply concerned.
It’s not particularly hard to see why my hosts should have been worried. For the Jaffna peninsula was the central power base of the LTTE, otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers, during Sri Lanka’s brutal 30 year civil war, which only came to an end (the government won) in 2009 amidst accusations of genocide and atrocities.
I live in Ireland—and the general perception around Jaffna is a bit like that around Northern Ireland 20 years ago. It’s probably going to be fine, but there’s a very real chance it could all kick off again at any moment, and do you really want to be stuck in the middle of that?
However, the area has been steadily opening up to trade and tourism over the last few years. Indeed, just two weeks before we went, in February, soldiers were taken off the streets of the city. The soldiers are still in the territory, and there is an undeniable feel of occupied territory, but, for now at least, they are staying in their camps and bases.
The train now goes all the way to Jaffna from Colombo, but we boarded it at the town of Anuradhapura, the ancient cultural capital of Sri Lanka which is thick with temples and religious sites. Previously, Anuradhapura was as far north as 99% of tourists got, with the remaining 1% being turned back an hour further on at the police check point at Vanuniya (the police point there has now been abandoned).
But now we just sat on the train (first class for our family of five cost about $35) and gazed in amazement out the window as the landscape changed from lush jungle and palm trees into a dryer, arid tundra.
At the pinch point of Elephant Pass, our two older kids hung out of the open train doors as we chugged across a very narrow land mass onto the Jaffna peninsula, entering the magical landscape of lagoons and islands that dominates this northern region.
Seasoned travellers making their first trip to Sri Lanka are often amazed at how little resemblance the place bears to India, just a few miles off its North West coast, but stepping off the train at Jaffna you feel the Indian influence all around you.
The Tamils come originally from the southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu and whilst Tamils are well integrated into other aspects of Sri Lankan society, in Jaffna they jealously guard their world apart.
In Jaffna the food is different (dosas, the big Indian lentil flour pancakes predominate), the music is different (Indian Ragas are widely heard on the radio) and the language is different (Tamil rather than Singhala). To this day, almost no non-Tamils call Jaffna their home.
On the afternoon we arrived in Jaffna our guide, Pathy, met us at the train station and took us immediately to a temple where a major celebration in honor of Shiva was kicking off. We couldn’t have been made more welcome. The children (especially the baby) were picked up and twirled by local women, as we were guided around the temple.
At one stage, Pathy stopped to introduce us to his friend who he told us ‘owned’ the temple. This took us rather by surprise, but it is apparently reasonably commonplace for temples to be in private hands in Jaffna.
The temple, like much of the rest of the city, was in the process of being rebuilt. The city changed hands three times in the civil war and was abandoned altogether in 1995, and the damage was vast.
Nowhere was the damage worse than in the old fort. This massive star shaped structure, built by the Dutch in 1618, was until the outbreak of war the center of government in the city and the place where all the city officials and colonial overseers lived.
Now, cattle graze among the ruins of bombed out churches inside the fort, but the external walls have, happily, been almost entirely rebuilt and restored—with Dutch money. As a symbol of optimism, it is a powerful one. When I came back down south, Tamils I met who had not been to Jaffna for decades could not believe it when I showed them pictures of my kids running along the ramparts of Jaffna fort.
Discussion of politics is, as you might imagine, hard to avoid. The root of the conflict goes back to the fact that the Tamils were given preferential treatment and positions in Sri Lankan society by the British colonialists, who adjudged they had a better work ethic than the Singhalese population.
After independence in 1948, the Tamils allege, they became second class citizens as the Singhalese took revenge. The civil war broke out in 1983 as the Tamils sought to make the North and North Eastern part of Sri Lanka a country of their own.
Down south you hear only how wonderful it is that the civil war and the LTTE’s reign of terror is over—and indeed the peace has brought remarkable opportunities for Sri Lanka as international investors have the confidence to pile into the country, which has grown at an average 7% a year since the end of the war.
But up here are the people who lost the war. They have seen a lot.
Our guide estimated that 10—15 of his friends had been killed in the war. His brother had been forced to emigrate to Europe. And yet, among ordinary people, there is a clear desire that the peace will hold.
“We don’t want to see another generation of children eaten up by war,” one Tamil man told me.
Jaffna city is well worth a clear day of exploration, but the stunning islands that surround it are probably worth two. The remarkable islands of Kayts, Mandaitivu and Karainagar are all connected via roads on causeways which hover just a few feet above the waterline. Because they have been literally deserted for 30 years, they are all virtually undeveloped and rich in a stunning array of bird life with Brahmin kites (massive birds of prey) and long legged, high-stepping cranes being the most notable varieties.
You travel between Kayts and Karainagar on a small car ferry, which is free of charge. The only seriously depressing thing about the islands is the endless parade of demolished or abandoned houses, testament to the nightmare this region has endured in the civil war.
If we hadn’t been travelling with three children, we would most certainly have made the 1 ½ hour boat ride to the island of Delft, famed for its wild ponies. But we were deterred by the fact that transport and lodging are hard to come by on the island—and the main mode of transport for visitors are Landmaster mini tractors.
But even without making the trip to Delft, Jaffna is a fascinating and rewarding destination in its own right. It’s all too easy to float around the south of the country in a little air-conditioned bubble, bobbing along from one luxury villa to the next. It is heavenly, but you get a distinct sense you are only being shown the set itinerary for visitors.
Every time you try to wander into the ‘real’ Sri Lanka, you are politely but firmly guided back to the bits they want you to see. Sri Lankans are just so nice to tourists that, down south, it is hard to believe there is such a recent history of bloody war and murder.
In Jaffna, that history can’t be avoided. The sad procession of demolished houses see to that. A visit to Jaffna is like going backstage. After seeing Jaffna, a traveller can say they have really seen the whole of Sri Lanka, in its complicated and deeply controversial entirety.