North to Jaffna
Sri Lanka’s former hot spot is cautiously opening up for tourism
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.
An ornately decorated vehicle at a religious procession in Jaffna