Many consider the north of Sri Lanka to be the country’s last frontier. Closer to southern India than it is to Colombo, the region is culturally and characteristically unique owing to a mixture of influences from both Hindu India and Buddhist Sri Lanka.
The conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Sri Lankan Army (SLA), a civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2009, inevitably reinforced the already tumultuous relationship of the Tamil north and Sinhalese south. For a while, a large part of the north was controlled by the LTTE where they established an actual independent state. They also controlled Jaffna and the Jaffna Peninsula until the SLA took control in 1995.
Inescapably, the decades of war, pain, and destruction have greatly affected the north and its people. Many have lost their lives, lands, and livelihood.
However, the region is slowly but surely emerging from the shadows of isolation and ruin.
At the centre of it all is Jaffna, the largest town in northern Sri Lanka. A stronghold of Hindu tradition and culture, the town features an interesting mix of colonial charm and vibrant Tamil culture.
While it is predominantly Hindu, Christianity is also strong in the area. The Muslims and Buddhist community remain a minority. The town has a unique multifaceted identity stemming from a wide array of influences including Muslim, Portuguese, British, Dutch and Sinhalese.
The town still bears scars from being at the centre of a nearly three-decade-long conflict. However, the town and its people are looking upward. Jaffna has only recently opened its doors to welcome visitors. Through this, travellers have a unique and fascinating opportunity to explore a region that is emerging from isolation and rebuilding from the rubble.
Reaching the town is straightforward. But the accessibility does not mean it will be an easy travel. The journey can be long and arduous unless you are taking a short flight but it can be immensely rewarding.
If you have been travelling around Sri Lanka, Jaffna will be a vastly different scene. The sight of Buddhist dagoba is replaced with Hindu gopuram, streets are filled with people speaking Tamil instead of Sinhala, and you can hear lively Indian music playing in cafés and shops that are uncommon elsewhere in the country.
Understandably, Jaffna is not a heavily touristy place. But there is much to explore and enjoy for people who visit. The architecture features a convergence of colonial and Indian influences, which make it even more eclectic.
Not far from the bustling city centre is Nallur Kovil, a beautiful Murugan temple. The devout Hindu starts and ends their day in this Hindu shrine. A place of worship, visitors must abide by the dress code. Women must cover their legs and men must take their shirts off before entering the premises.
Another place of great religious importance is the sacred Nagadipa Purana Vihara, a Buddhist temple east of Jaffna. Many people believe that Lord Gautama Buddha visited the temple during his stay in Sri Lanka. Many devotees go here for the said reason. You will need to go on a 20-minute boat ride to reach it.
One of the most remarkable structures in Jaffna is its public library. The Jaffna Public Library was built in 1933 and was once considered one of the biggest libraries in Asia. It housed over 97,000 books and manuscripts. The building was burnt down in 1981. Its rehabilitation was completed in 2001.
If you want a glimpse of the local life, wander around the colourful Jaffna shopping market to see it in action. Observe the tradesmen and shopkeeper or purchase locally grown fresh produce, homemade local treats, and handcrafted palmyrah goods.
Built by the Dutch in 1618, the Jaffna Fort is the second biggest fort in Sri Lanka. The walls are intact. However, the inside of centuries-old fort shows significant damage as a result of the civil war. Nearing four centuries old, the once formidable fort is a captivating piece of history.
Perhaps the greatest asset of the charming colonial town is its resilient people. There is something truly admirable about a populace that endured a bloody, excruciating past but finds it in them to stay optimistic, warm and welcoming. Travelling, after all, is not only about the destination. Most of the time, it is all about the experience.
Charles is a world traveler having lived in 44 states and 11 countries and traveled to dozens more. He and his wife spend time between London, Ireland, Canada, and the Philippines.