Everything about the Colombo Fort railway station suggests that we are in another country, in another era. The neat maroon-brown trains, the wooden staircases, the dim lighting and a reclining chair coach (called a sleeper in Sri Lanka) also reminds a traveller of an early 20th-century ride in British India, or at least as it has been depicted in cinema. The 4089 Night Mail leaves Colombo at 9 p.m. and my Sinhalese friend Pavithra and I are off to Jaffna, on the northern fringe of the island. The train, which stopped functioning during the country’s civil war between 1983-2009, snakes through the lush countryside. For entire swathes, we see nothing but silhouettes of village houses and halo-shaped neon lights that frame towering Buddha statues. This night journey is meant to ensure that we get some good sleep. It is not for glancing at the enormous stupas of Anuradhapura, nor observing how shop signs that change language once we enter northern Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority turf. It is not for marvelling at the Elephant Pass, that stunning and strategically vital piece of land on the isthmus connecting the Jaffna Peninsula to the rest of Sri Lanka—but we go renegade and choose to grab at stray sights and sounds along the way. By 5 a.m., we are in Jaffna, 30 minutes ahead of schedule. If we’d been blessed with sound slumber, there’s every chance we’d have travelled further to Kankesanthurai, a port on the northern tip of Sri Lanka.
We step out of the spotlessly clean railway station, keeping our goal in mind to act and feel as much as locals as possible. So is this the Jaffna that the famous singer A. E. ‘Ceylon’ Manohar, of “Surangani” fame, sang to? Armed with Google maps, we walk into a teashop to get some vadas and a cuppa! Jaffnaites drink their tea with milk, and not milk powder like their counterparts in southern Sri Lanka. Both of us are craving some good old South Indian filter coffee; after all, we are in Tamil land now! But at 5:30 a.m., as we hear prayers from a nearby Hindu temple, a local version of masala tea comes to our rescue.
The smell of jasmine is distinct, and the literal early birds burst into songs as we walk to the waterfront and the fort. Peace returned to northern Sri Lanka in 2009, but the armed forces weren’t leaving much to chance. Barbed wires and armed guards are visible in the heart of the city. Like other parts of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, Jaffna is definitely an ‘early to rise’ city. The area around the fort, built after the Portuguese invasion of the 17th century, reveals itself to be a hub of early morning fitness activities, and also some fun fishing spectacle. It is still palpable that we are in a small town, with a quiet and idyllic flow of life. The searing crimson, orange and reds that accompany dawn in Jaffna indicate that the city is free of the pollution that comes with our blinkered notion of development.
By 7 a.m., the southern sun starts to win the battle with the clouds, and our fatigue from the rough train ride sets in. We find a small restaurant serving local fare, where every single thing on the menu hints at a Kerala influence. We choose appam, chicken curry, idlis, and the sneaky thrill of maintaining our anonymity by speaking only in Tamil. Pavithra’s understanding of the ancient Dravidian language is not up to the mark, but a cosmopolitan Mumbaikar like me, with several Tamilian neighbours, orders with ease, feeling somewhat smug. Then comes the first error. “Anna, can you please give us some filter coffee?” I ask innocently. The middle-aged man smiles and asks us if we’re Indians! Then comes the curious but non-intrusive questioning. The owner comes over to tell us that he had lived in Chennai for several years, and on his return, introduced filter coffee in the city. But there were no takers. So, there’s clue number 1: Ask for good old instant coffee at restaurants.
As we find out later, Jaffna is so used to Tamil-speaking tourists from Tamil Nadu, the Sri Lankan Hill Country, and Colombo, that those of us without the Jaffna diction can still feel at ease. And as a duo familiar with the Tamil language and culture, it is simple enough to navigate. The city’s inherent characteristics help. For instance, autos do not run on meters, but nobody seems particularly interested in ripping people off.
With a mix of streets that feel like a cleaner version of Tamil Nadu’s, and squiggly lanes full of houses flaunting delicate architectural styles, there exists an air of placid oldness about Jaffna. Visual evidence suggests that the Portuguese passed on their architectural styles and colours, preserved in a cluster of once-glorious, now-crumbling mansions.
The first place we visit is the city’s most famous landmark, the Jaffna Public Library. Built in 1933, this grand white building looks like a cross between a classical European structure and a Hindu temple. Appropriate, for it is indeed venerated by the locals. You have to take off your footwear before entering this repository of an impressive collection. I see the expression on Pavithra’s face change from awe to shame as we enter. All he can think of is that horrible night in June 1981 when Sinhalese assailants backed by the police and politicians set fire to the building that then housed 97,000 books and some rare Tamil palm leaf manuscripts. This incident took place more than a decade before he was born, but that is no consolation for this fine young man. I can understand his sentiment. Similar horror fills my mind when we cross a hospital, where in the 1980s, Indian peacekeepers were responsible for the loss of civilian lives. Stepping out of the library, we glance at an ugly under-construction building looming behind it. Later when I ask my hotel owner who is building this monstrosity, he points his finger at me! Turns out, it is the Indian government’s idea of a cultural centre. With all the space in this quiet town, why, Bharat sarkar? Why?
Mahintan, something of a star on the crowd-sourced question-answer platform Quora, and our only friend in Jaffna, meets us at sunset by the fort. We learn from him that smiling at strangers is not a part of Sri Lankan Tamil culture, like it is integral to Sinhalese culture. His first tip for us to go local is to get a pair of slippers from Bata, for the sneakers we are wearing are a dead giveaway. This proves to be a valuable tip two days later, when we enter the fort and avoid paying for a foreigner’s ticket.
The next morning, emerald fields, blue lagoons, and colourful villages with even brighter temples mark our route to Nainativu island, as the Tamilians say, or Nagadeepa, as it is known in Sinhalese. A rickety ferry ride on the dazzling Indian Ocean, and we are on the island that has both a Buddhist shrine (where the Buddha is believed to have visited), and a sakthipeeth (Hindu) temple. As Pavithra films me, I speak in the thick American accent obtained from my childhood in New York City, noting that the lovely island also has a Sri Lankan naval presence. As if on cue, a man in a blue naval uniform approaches us, and for a minute it seems this could end badly. You see, Sri Lanka is happy to expel western reporters who come in on tourist visas. Thankfully, Pavithra asks for directions from the man in Sinhalese, and all suspicions melt away.
For all its idyllic charm, there is trauma hidden below the surface just about everywhere in Jaffna. On our bus ride back , my neighbour starts talking about the years of war, and about how few young men want to live in Jaffna even now that there’s peace. “Australia, Canada, anywhere! Legally, illegally,” he groans in his accented Tamil.
As evening descends on us, sitting near the towering gopuram of the Nallur Murugan temple, we see large groups of Sinhalese Buddhist tourists (evident from both their clothes and language) arrive in vans and buses to enter the Hindu shrine for prayers. It has become a tradition for those from the far south of the island to travel for prayers at Murugan’s abode, and then walk across the street to Rio, a famous ice cream parlour in Sri Lanka.
Jaffna is known for its delicious meat dishes, but Mahintan, who is no fan of its signature beef curry, highlights the diversity of vegetarian cuisine instead. Our only meal together is shared at the Akshathai restaurant, which floors us newbies with a buffet rich with okra sambar, spiced the Sri Lankan Tamil way; string beans with fresh coconut; a brinjal curry; a dal that is a crossover between the Sinhalese and Tamil style; appalams (Tamil papadam fried in coconut oil), two varieties of pickles, and three different payasams! We relish every morsel, while Mahintan declares it “average!”.
Before we take a scenic day-bus route back to Colombo, Mahintan tells us that Tamil Jaffnaites like to buy their groceries from shops run by the hardworking Sinhalese. We find this odd and endearing, given how many Sinhalese folks we knew in Colombo would want to visit a Tamil-owned shop for the same reason. I send out a prayer for this beautiful island to heal itself from memories of loss, and enjoy some well-deserved peace.
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India July-August 2021.
COVID-19 infections are decreasing in Sri Lanka, with about 1,758 new infections reported on an average each day. Sri Lanka has administered at least 4,122,829 doses of COVID vaccines so far, which accounts for roughly 9.5 per cent of the country’s population. The government has opened up its international borders for many countries from June 2021, although guests (carrying necessary vaccination evidence) will be required to isolate in a ‘bio bubble’ for a predetermined period of their stay.