Jaffna Travel Guide
The unofficial capital of the north, Jaffna has a complicated history stretching back to colonial times. Controlled by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British, it took until the mid 20th century for this region to know freedom.
Then, a generation later, it became embroiled in a civil war that lasted for 30 years. These days, however, things have settled down. Not only is it safe to visit, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not taking in this region’s story.
Begin your tour of Jaffna by spending time exploring Jaffna Fort. The Portuguese built it in the early 17th century after seizing control of this Sri Lankan port. Over the years, it changed hands several times, first to the Dutch (1658) and then the British (1795).
During the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Tamil Tigers held this citadel from 1986 to 1995. However, after a 50-day siege, the Sri Lankan military took it back. To this day, this nation’s armed forces maintain a garrison here.
As such, some parts of the complex are off-limits. However, enough remains open to make this coastal beauty a part of your travel itinerary. Bear in mind that due to the recent end of the civil war, workers are still refurbishing some parts. Be patient and understanding as Sri Lanka continues to restore this top attraction to its former glory.
While the north is home to the Hindu portion of Sri Lanka, you’ll still find Buddhist sites of note. Nagadeepa Purana Vihara is among the most significant of these sites. According to Buddhist lore, this spot is where the Lord Buddha himself came ashore to Sri Lanka.
Two Naga Kings summoned him to mediate a dispute between them. At issue was a throne encrusted in jewels. However, Buddha performed a miracle (he appeared suspended in the sky before the Kings), which impressed both of them. Buddha then delivered a sermon on harmony and unity. This lesson put the noble’s dispute in perspective – they paid homage to Buddha and offered their throne to him.
Today, it is one of 16 holy shrines that Sri Lankan Buddhists hold in high regard. Keep this in mind by dressing respectfully and removing your shoes before entering this temple.
As mentioned earlier, the Jaffna area is home to a significant Hindu population. To them, the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple is easily the holiest site in the region. Locals constructed it in the mid 10th century in honour of Lord Murugan. Here, he takes on the avatar of Vel, a warrior that used a divine spear in battle.
The present temple was not the one built more than a millennia ago. The Portuguese demolished that one and built a church in its place. Temple authorities rebuilt what stands today in the 17th century during the reign of the Dutch.
This holy place occupies a special place in the hearts of Tamils. Those who have moved around the globe have built temples mimicking its characteristic red and golden spires.
Nainativu Nagapooshani Amman Temple is another Hindu sight you shouldn’t miss while in Jaffna. Another place the Portuguese smashed during their conquest of Sri Lanka, the current temple dates from the 18th century.
However, Adi Shankaracharya mentioned this place’s existence in the 9th century. Built to honour Parvati, the goddess of fertility, you’ll find over 10,000 sculptures within the bounds of this temple. Take in the Mahostavam festival during Aani (June and July), as over 100,000 pilgrims turn up for it.
The army and the Tamil Tigers fought much of the Sri Lankan Civil War in the Jaffna area. Elephant Pass was a key point of contention, as it controlled access to the Jaffna peninsula. Indeed, this area has been militarily strategic since colonial times – the Portuguese, Dutch, and British all garrisoned forces here.
The Sri Lankan Army held the peninsula for much of the war. However, from 2000 to 2009, the Tamil Tigers controlled the area after scoring a stunning upset over the military. Today, remnants of wrecked military fighting vehicles rust in fields, but signs of rebuilding are evident. The government is now restoring its once-famous salt fields, while the area’s train station was rebuilt and reopened in 2016.
Visit another site of strife during the civil war by dropping by the Jaffna Public Library. The structure that sits there today is a rebuilt replica. The first library, one of the biggest in Asia, was burnt to the ground by a Sinhalese mob in 1981. This provoked the Tamil majority, setting off a chain of events that led to the Sri Lankan Civil War.
Despite being new, the current library is a stunning reproduction of the original structure. Inside, you’ll find free wi-fi – use it to catch up with family and plot your next adventure.
After a long day of sightseeing, kick back and relax on Casuarina Beach. A stunning stretch of white sand, it is popular among locals and travellers alike. Food vendors are hard to come by here, so consider packing in your own food.