North to Jaffna

Sri Lanka’s for­mer hot spot is cau­tiously open­ing up for tourism

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - DI­NOO KEL­LEGHAN

EMERGINGnorth out of the lush­ness of Sri Lanka, like a bare toe stick­ing out of a sock, is Jaffna, a penin­sula sur­rounded by 10 islets linked by cause­ways and an­cient fer­ries chug­ging through the calm seas in­ter­sect­ing the frag­mented land.

There are plans to de­velop the is­lands as high-end tourist des­ti­na­tions, but for now — ex­cept for lo­cal fam­i­lies trav­el­ling up from the south to dis­cover the re­mote north af­ter 30 years of civil war — the long stretches of ocean and beach are like the land that time for­got.

Ca­sua­r­ina Beach on Karaina­gar Is­land, just a few kilo­me­tres long and wide, lies at the end of a cause­way linked to the penin­sula. Apart from an oc­ca­sional ve­hi­cle and a few cy­clists, all a trav­eller sees on the jour­ney here are storks del­i­cately feed­ing in the wa­ter and fish­er­men throw­ing their nets. The beach is fringed by ca­sua­r­ina trees that pro­vide shade, and the flat, calm sea breaks qui­etly on the pow­der-soft sand. The wa­ter is just waisthigh for a long way out.

From Karaina­gar a wooden ferry trav­els across a sparkling sea to the is­land of Kayts, even more se­cluded, and Chatty Beach, which will prob­a­bly be the first in the de­vel­op­ers’ sights.

At Ca­sua­r­ina Beach there’s a small kiosk sell­ing lim­ited food and drink, and near Chatty Beach you can hire a room or a small, ba­sic bun­ga­low, but that’s it. There are no burg­ers, neon signs, hawk­ers or touts — hardly even a sign­board to say where you are.

Jaffna is such a con­trast to the rest of Sri Lanka, which is so ver­dant and vi­brant. Here, ev­ery­thing is min­i­mal­ist and hard-edged ex­cept for the lu­mi­nous sea; and spiky — even the na­tive palm trees, the palmyras, have jagged sil­hou­ettes, un­like the gen­tle fronds of the south­ern co­conut palms.

Wa­ter comes from sub­ter­ranean streams tapped by wells dug deep into the lime­stone. The ef­fort of cul­ti­va­tion in this arid ter­ri­tory has bred an aus­tere cul­ture quite dif­fer­ent from that of the laugh­ing, ef­fu­sive Sin­halese. The Jaffna Tamil, like the Scot, is care­ful with money, dili­gent, tra­di­tion­ally the ad­min­is­tra­tor of choice in the pri­vate sec­tor.

Re­spect for learn­ing is para­mount. One must en­ter the revered Jaffna Li­brary with un­shod feet, as when en­ter­ing a tem­ple. It is worth a stop just to see the value at­tached to ev­ery dated English book and jour­nal, soft with use, hand-me-downs from em­bassies and NGOs.

The pen­tag­o­nal Jaffna Fort — one of the strong­est forts in Asia — built in 1618 by the for­mer Por­tuguese rulers of old Cey­lon, and taken sub­se­quently by Dutch and British colonis­ers, was a tragic ca­su­alty of the civil war, its im­mense, black co­ral-lined rock walls and build­ings, the dim, cool chapel with grave­stones un­der­foot, pounded in bat­tles with Tamil Tiger rebels, who after­wards con­tin­ued de­mol­ish­ing it as a colo­nial sym­bol.

A Jaffna youth who had slipped his Tiger leash and es­caped to Colombo said that his pu­n­ish­ment for some mi­nor in­fringe­ment had been to take a spoon and chip away at the an­cient walls.

While it stood, Jaffna Fort was beau­ti­ful and dra­matic, with greensward inside the perime­ter walls for chil­dren to run about on and niches in the ram­parts for lovers’ ren­dezvous. As evening shad­ows fell, young ones would run back to their par­ents, not want­ing to play near the gal­lows, and re­mem­ber­ing the story about the love­struck daugh­ter of the Dutch gar­ri­son com­man­der who drowned her­self in the fort’s well and whose ghost walked on the ram­parts, wring­ing her hands and weep­ing. (Bless­ings on the Dutch gov­ern­ment, which is fund­ing the restora­tion of the fort.)

Min­i­mal­ist and stern as Jaffna is, its Hindu tem­ples, or kovils, are the glo­ri­ously mad ex­cep­tion. In the colourful, ebul­lient south the Bud­dhist tem­ples, or vi­hares, are white and sim­ple, but spar­tan Jaffna’s kovils are sur­rounded by candy-striped walls, the build­ings the colour of fire, with tall tow­ers carved with mul­ti­coloured Hindu deities. Inside, the Jaffna Tamil sur­rounds him­self with fran­tic drumming, wail­ing trum­pets and a hor­ren­dous clash­ing of cym­bals dur­ing cer­e­monies.

The gor­geous Nal­lur Kan­daswamy Tem­ple, built in 1749, ex­udes an at­mos­phere of ho­li­ness. Male vis­i­tors must re­move their shirts and, as in all tem­ples, ev­ery­one en­ters with bare feet.

War stopped the clock in Jaffna for decades, and de­spite the fu­ri­ous re­build­ing now vis­i­ble ev­ery­where, the signs of old bat­tles show some­times in walls dot­ted with bul­let holes and shelled homes whose own­ers left long ago for Colombo, Aus­tralia and all points west.

Once thickly sown with land­mines, the penin­sula is now 95 per cent cleared, an army pres­ence of more than 50,000 has been sharply re­duced, and even the re­main­ing can­ton­ment area is quick­en­ing with civil­ian life as the main air­port and har­bour ex­pand. Scores of guest­houses and small ho­tels have opened.

Prob­a­bly the pick of the ac­com­mo­da­tion is Thal­se­vana in Kanke­san­thu­rai, al­though I’d also give the ba­sic, teal-hued Lux Etoiles a whirl; the owner, an en­gag­ing Tamil chef re­turned from France, is re­ported to dish out a mean crab curry, and there is a rare swim­ming pool.

Thal­se­vana is run by the army with a high de­gree of spit and pol­ish. One wants to burst into ‘‘Three lit­tle maids from school are we . . .’’ at the dainty trio in fuch­sia saris bow­ing obei­sance at the re­cep­tion. It de­fies be­lief that these ethe­real be­ings must march about in cam­ou­flage and boots at other times. There is a fine beach, de­cent food, large, air-con­di­tioned, en­suite rooms and ser­vice per­formed at the dou­ble.

I lounge in soli­tary splen­dour on the pa­tio, sip­ping Old Re­serve Arrack as a full moon rises over the sea, and trem­ble sud­denly with an ache for child­hood hol­i­days when the ho­tel was a hum­bler rest-house and mylav­ishly tip­ping fa­ther or­dered re­lays of fiery dev­illed prawns, and we mar­velled at ships be­ing un­loaded at the nearby har­bour, labour­ers waist-deep in the moonlit wa­ter, toss­ing loaded sacks down the line to a rhyth­mic chant.

Tonight’s men­uof­fers dev­illed prawns but I can’t en­joy it alone. I must come back with a com­pan­ion. Travel is a jour­ney of the heart as much as any­thing else. Di­noo Kel­leghan was born and grew up in Sri Lanka. She is The Aus­tralian’s deputy world ed­i­tor and was a guest of Thal­se­vana.

LAL NANAYAKKARA

An or­nately dec­o­rated ve­hi­cle at a reli­gious pro­ces­sion in Jaffna

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