Sri Lanka's Northern Soul

The people of Sri Lanka’s Jaffna District are a resilient lot. Post civil war, they’re opening up their idyllic beaches, tiny isles and urging you to visit

7 mins

Friday night in downtown Jaffna and the streets were deathly quiet. Only the cows were out, sauntering down the middle of the unlit roads like they owned the place, while a few figures moved sinisterly in the shadows. It was as though trouble was brewing and, for the briefest of moments, I wondered whether I’d travelled back in time.

My guide, Sid – short for Sidantha – was quick to reassure me. “It’s usually really lively but everyone’s in the Nallur temple for puja,” he said, breaking the eerie silence.

For nearly three bloody decades, however, this had been the sad reality of life in Sri Lanka’s northernmost city: only the bravest ventured out after dark. This was Tamil Tiger territory and much-besieged Jaffna felt the full force of the country’s devastating civil war.

The Tamil dynasty ruled this area for 400 years until the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century. However, it was gaining independence from the British Empire in 1948 that sparked tensions between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities. From 1983 to 2009, war raged between the army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam  (LTTE), who were fighting for an independent state. More than 100,000 people lost their lives; many more were displaced. It’s thought that half of the 600,000 people living in the Northern Province’s Jaffna District – a slither of land anchored to the mainland by a spindly causeway – fled the country.

A lot has changed since those dark days. With the declaration of peace came hope and a new lease of life for the locals who’d abandoned their homes. The Northern Province has been reborn. Many people have returned, turning to tourism to rebuild their lives. Hotels and homestays are springing up, military bases have been transformed into wildlife parks and nature resorts, and former battlefields are now family-friendly seaside getaways. Individuals who once fired bullets are revelling in newfound careers as tour guides – a turn of events many never dared dream about.

“The north is unchartered territory, the people are resilient and they welcome change,” Sid declared, defiantly. “It’s high time people moved away from the war stories and focused on everything that makes this place so special.”

More than war

The next morning I woke to the mellifluous bells of Nallur temple chiming across the rooftops. Sid was right. Jaffna was indeed a lively place. Upon first glance it seemed like any other city on the subcontinent: loud and proud, chaotic and exotic. The beating of drums and honking of horns added to the complex cacophony. Weaving through the traffic were holy men in billowing white robes and ladies in bright saris with plaits down to their waists.

But these streets were far from ordinary. Beyond the markets, the Technicolor temples and the striking 17th-century fort (scene of a 107-day siege in 1990) stood the ruins of war. There were buildings scarred with bullet holes, walls blasted out, ceilings long since caved in.

Jaffna’s imperial railway station is a shell of its former splendour. Built in 1902, it was bombed in 1990; the railway line was also destroyed, further isolating Jaffna from the rest of the country. The tracks are now buried under a carpet of overgrown grass, and graffiti and mortar damage are etched onto the crumbling walls.

“Sri Lanka is famous for two things,” said Sid as we left the city, “tea and the Tamil Tigers. But there’s so much more.” His passion for the north is heartfelt. After spending almost a decade climbing the corporate career ladder in Colombo, he quit and decided to reclaim his life. He sought refuge in the secluded north, reassessed his future and reincarnated himself as a tour guide.

We travelled north to the severely bombed but now rebuilt Maviddapuram Kanthaswamy Kovil temple. In a departure from the usual rule of having to cover up in such places, the old saddhu (holy man) at the door ordered me to strip. Men must go topless – a sign of purity apparently, though the abundant pot-bellies and hairy backs on display seemed anything but pure.

The temple’s colourful interior was filled with statues and paintings of Hindu deities and was almost completely silent aside from the loud crack of coconut shells being smashed against the stone fl oor – a ritual believed to ward off evil spirits.

Across the road, under an ancient archway strangled by vines, was a pool containing the holy waters of Keerimalai. It’s believed to have possessed curative powers since the seventh century, when a disfigured princess with a head that resembled a horse was healed after taking a dip. Sitting on the pool’s stepped walls were people with scars and missing limbs. Teenagers dived in for a paddle; others quietly cleansed their sins. On the nearby beach, families waded into the murky water to scatter the ashes of their dearly departed.

Fighting on the beaches

The north’s abundance of picture-perfect shores is a secret waiting to get out. But even paradise wasn’t safe during the conflict. The LTTE’s naval division, nicknamed the Sea Tigers, regularly launched attacks on gun-laden dinghy boats. In places, army checkpoints were situated every 100m along the coast.

The very idea seemed almost absurd on Casuarina Beach where music played, sandcastles were built and families cooled off in the water. The first tourists here were southern Sri Lankans. They arrived almost immediately after peace was declared in May 2009, armed with morbid curiosity and a desire for bragging rights.

Our journey back to Jaffna took us along the peninsula’s northern coast, an area still heavily mined and severely damaged by the 2004 tsunami. We passed small jungle shrines where monkeys crashed through the treetops. Indian rollers with vibrant aquamarine plumage sat perched on overhanging branches.

Further along, on the shores of the Bay of Bengal at Mullaitivu, is where the war ended: one final skirmish in which LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed.

Isles away

Even places miles from the firing line felt the ripples of war, including the handful of islands trailing off Sri Lanka’s northernmost tip. The biggest of these is sleepy Neduntivu (named Delft by the Dutch), home to just 3,819 people and herds of wild horses; it was my next destination.

The bright blue and almost dangerously overcrowded trawler docked at Neduntivu on schedule at 10am. We stumbled ashore, a few of our fellow passengers looking slightly green from the choppy hour’s crossing. Our time on the island was short: it has no accommodation, so we really couldn’t miss the 2pm ferry back to the mainland. We set off in the hope of finding some bicycles to rent. Local hospitality soon prevailed.

Outside the market (six mostly closed shops) was a fisherman by the name of Anthony Joseph, his shirt unbuttoned almost to the navel. He immediately offered us his motorbike. “It doesn’t always start and there are no brakes but other than that it’s fine,” he said, flashing a smile that revealed his missing front tooth.

The quiet, sandy streets were lined with walls made from pieces of dead coral that resembled oversized fossilised brains. “Neduntivu is a island of coral. Even some of the houses are made of it,” explained Sid, assuring me it was all already dead before being used.

We explored almost all of the island – 8km, end to end – with Sid hitting the ‘flip-flop brake’ whenever we spotted something of interest. There was the gargantuan baobab tree, thought to be 1,000 years old, and the Dutch-built fort made entirely of coral; a yellow lizard scuttled across its coarse surfaces.

Two hours later we pulled up outside Anthony’s house. Lunch, unexpected but welcome, was served. Laid out on a pretty tablecloth and beside a vase filled with plastic flowers was a feast of beef, potato and fennel curry with steamed long beans, prepared by his wife and daughters.

Anthony spoke of life on the island. “Neduntivu is still pure and pristine. We have all the fish and firewood we need so life is good but it is not perfect. We have no fresh water, so I have to go six miles to the well every three days.”

We chatted about other issues – namely the problem of large Indian trawlers straying into Sri Lankan waters – as we finished our meal. Afterwards, I asked for a napkin. Anthony’s wife rushed off, returning with a page of their son’s English homework. I wiped my fingers on the inky paper, noting that his grammar was coming along rather nicely.

Home from home

Jaffna had revealed a dark past but also a bright future, a mix of sorrow and hope that I contemplated as we headed south on the A9 highway – once the only land route through Tiger-controlled land. Our destination was the sand island of Mannar, 150km away on the north-west coast.

Barricades flanked by surly army officials brought us to a stop. We pulled in at the checkpoint for my passport to be processed. “I remember when everyone needed a special permit to visit the north. Passing through the checkpoints took hours,” recalled Sid.

On the quieter stretches of our journey we passed through small villages scented with sweet coconut oil, swerved to avoid tortoises and peacocks, and kept watch for the elephant herds that often appeared without warning.

Mannar was under darkness when we arrived, though the lights of the Hibernation Homestay shone brightly. Inside, the Perera family sat huddled around the TV, flicking between Titanic and wrestling.

Homestays are a new concept in Mannar. Tamil widow Shanti made the decision to open up her home in 2011 after returning from years as a refugee in India. It’s the family home where she and her ten siblings grew up, now painted in cosy shades of baby-pink and sky-blue, and set among a garden of frangipani trees and chilli plants.

“It was a happy childhood,” she told me. “I remember watching the tourists coming off the boat from India. It was always very exciting.” Ferry services connecting Sri Lanka to its super-power neighbour ended in the 1980s but there are plans to re-start them – another sign that tourism is on the up.

After a restful night in the spare room it was time for breakfast. Sat in the garden – on the very spot where Shanti and her family once sheltered from mortar attacks – we tucked into curried sardines and freshly baked bread washed down with milky chai.

“We always stayed together so we would die together if anything happened. We slept outside and would run to the jungle at the first sound of gunfire,” Shanti told me. “The Tigers destroyed the causeway so India was our only option. I persuaded a fisherman to take us in his boat. I had no money so I gave him my jewellery. The crossing took two hours and there was a hole in the boat so water kept flooding in. I felt so angry. I thought of Mannar constantly,” she added, wiping away a tear.

Shanti, and many like her, have reason to smile now. “I’m happy to be back home and meet new people. Before now the only foreigners we met were from Non-Government Organisations,” Shanti said.

I wondered how many others, particularly Tamils, were also capitalising on this new wave of tourism. “Most Tamils aspire to be doctors or accountants. Being a tour guide is deemed a lowly profession by some,” answered Sid.

Pistols & paradise

One person revelling in their change of lifestyle is Suneth Ranaraja. A naval officer for the past 17 years, his current assignment is taking tourists on day trips to Adam’s Bridge, the chain of islands and sandbanks lying between Sri Lanka and India. “I was stationed here during the war,” he told me. “I was shot in the leg. To see tourists here is quite unbelievable.”

Further along the coast, at Akkarapanaha, was a beach lifted straight from the holiday brochures. We didn’t have it to ourselves though. A group of 18 men were busy hauling in fishing nets. Stood in a long line that stretched all the way back to a grove of palm trees, they pulled on the frayed lines, chanting and laughing with each heave.

There was just one thing that seemed out of place in this picture of paradise. Tucked away in a clearing was a small shack surrounded by rusting barbed wire, manned by two bored-looking cadets clutching automatic weapons. “Old habits die hard,” laughed Sid, as the fishermen continued their melodic work.

The author travelled with Experience Travel

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