All too often articles about Sri Lanka tend to focus on the bottom half of the country, where the pretty beaches and tea gardens are, but that’s only one side of the story. To truly get under the skin of the country you need to head north too.
I started my journey through Sri Lanka from the southern half of the country, exploring the temples and beaches around Matara, the pretty cobbled streets of Galle and the rolling hills of Ella. So far, so standard, but the North and North-East of the country is a little more neglected. It can be harder to reach as trains and buses heading here are less frequent and it’s also seen a fair amount of turbulence and unrest in recent years: from the devastating effects of the 2004 Tsunami to the brutal culmination of the long-running civil war in 2009. Trincomalee (Trinco) and Jaffna, still bear the marks of these past troubles and despite soaring visitor numbers to Sri Lanka, not so many of those make it up North. While some commentators maintain that the country is newly unified and moving forward, from what I saw the story’s not so simple.
Trinco, and the surrounding area, has a lot going for it, in fact I would go so far as to say the area is home to my favourite patch of sand in all Sri Lanka, the gloriously tranquil Nilaveli beach. The town was caught up in some of the fiercest fighting of the civil war and was heavily militarised in the aftermath. Today, the checkpoints might be gone but the military’s influence stands strong. Trinco is located in a natural harbour, one of the finest natural harbours in the world according to Lonely Planet (I have no idea what that actually means). But the harbour’s not the only thing to see.
My first stop in Trinco was Fort Frederick, an important defensive site originally constructed in 1624 by the Portuguese, later rebuilt by the Dutch and then taken over by the British. A story repeated all over Lanka. The Fort is now home to a Sri Lankan army barracks, the first of many signs that despite the war being over, the military is here to stay. We roamed around the crumbling walls and admired views of the town’s fine natural harbour.
Koneswaram Temple, is also within the Fort and perches atop the dramatic cliff of Swami Rock, the first temple to grace this spot dates all the way back to 205 BC. When I visited it happened to be Puja (the full moon), a monthly public holiday across Sri Lanka when devotees (both Hindus and Buddhists) flock to temples to observe the auspicious day. The Koneswaram Temple compound was buzzing with worshippers clutching fruit baskets and flowers for offerings. As no shoes are allowed, we hot-footed it (literally) up the path to the temple, weaving our way through the hundreds of worshippers and dozens of stalls selling trinkets, temple offerings and refreshments. A giant blue statue of the Hindu god Lord Shiva, to whom the temple is dedicated, dominates the entrance, looming large over all who enter.
In amidst the crush of people stood the colourful temple, it was impossible to stop in one place and take in the scene as worshippers jostled to get into the temple or to one of the shrines. Just outside the main temple people queued up to smash coconuts, not just for fun (although it did look pretty therapeutic), but because the coconut holds great significance for Hindus. The hard outer shell represents the devotee’s ego and all her/his negative qualities, by smashing this shell the softer inner coconut is released, and this part represents all of the devotee’s positive qualities and their intention to let these shine through. The coconut remains had been laid out to dry in the baking sun, no doubt to be later repurposed for one of the many uses Sri Lankans have for them.
My eye was drawn away from the coconut smashing station to a frangipani tree nearby, festooned with bright ribbons and tiny wooden cradles. It was only later that I discovered the reason behind the decorations: devotees who want to have a baby tie a cradle onto the tree in the hope this will help bring their wish to fruition.
This being Sri Lanka, there are of course some delightful beaches here, like the one I mentioned earlier: Nilaveli. We visited twice and both times it was pretty much deserted, apart from a few hotels. The white sandy beach is clean of any rubbish, the warm turquoise water is calm and clear and it’s completely free to enter. Behind the beach a row of trees partially conceals some derelict buildings, perhaps remnants of the damage wreaked by the tsunami. This was another spot where the local military presence reared it’s head; a stretch of Nilaveli Beach is home to a Naval training area and off limits to the public.
I also visited Marble Beach, not realising beforehand that it’s actually owned by the Sri Lankan army, visitors are charged an entrance fee and they also own the resort next door. This isn’t an unusual state of affairs, the military has a whole host of tourism related interests, from hotels to restaurants to airlines. But the army doesn’t just own these, their personnel actually work in them too, perhaps in part because now that the war is over Sri Lanka has more troops than it knows what to do with. There is also the worrying fact that stationing the Sinhalese military here and creating business interests for them further isolates the other ethnic groups who call this area home.
There’s no conflict of interest at Trinco’s is vibrant fish market, which we visited after an early morning swim (rude not to in this part of the world). We stopped off here to watch the locals negotiating fish prices and selecting the freshest catch. The fish glistening in the light and slick with sea water having been plucked from the ocean only moments before.
From Trinco we headed north-west to Jaffna. The city used to have the second largest population in the country, but the civil war led many locals to emigrate, while some others were expelled, drastically decreasing the population. Jaffna is a majority Tamil city and the centre of Sri Lankan Tamil culture, it feels noticeably different to the rest of the country. Usually in Sri Lanka, when you exit a train or bus station you’re swooped upon by tuk tuk drivers, touts and vendors, but in Jaffna that didn’t happen. No one approached us, no one really cared that we had arrived in the town. The streets here are a little grubbier and more run down than the rest of the country and derelict, pockmarked buildings still dot some parts of town. It feels neglected, slightly forgotten, like the post-war regeneration hasn’t quite reached this part of the island yet.
One of the most symbolic landmarks in Jaffna is the Public Library, the building was razed to the ground by a Sinhalese mob in 1981 and its precious collection of 97,000 books and artefacts destroyed, including some one of a kind Tamil volumes. The Library was restored, but soon after took centre stage in the civil war fighting as Tamil insurgents camped out there. Restoration began yet again from 2000, and today the gleaming white, domed building with polished gardens is back to its former glory, a symbol of Jaffna’s resilience.
Another important Jaffna landmark is the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil (temple), one of Sri Lanka’s most important Hindu temples. It was originally built in the 15th century but destroyed by the Portuguese and then rebuilt numerous times. The current (fourth) incarnation was constructed in the 18th century and houses huge murals and pillared hallways. The temple is tucked behind red and white candy-striped walls and the Gopuram (tower) ornately decorated with golden carvings is reminiscent of the intricate temples of southern India.
We drove our sputtering scooter on towards Point Pedro, one of the northern most points in the country, with a few places marked to visit along the way. The further we went the worse the roads got, and the more quiet the countryside became. We passed another Hindu temple, less spectacular and more run-down than Nallur Kandaswamy, the surrounding roads were fairly deserted and abandoned houses just empty shells, gradually being reclaimed by nature. Whether the owners will ever return is anyone’s guess.
We passed a large area, a demilitarised zone as the government here likes to call it, where construction was being carried out by military personnel. We couldn’t tell exactly what was being constructed but there is speculation that a large tract of land given to the army is not just being used as a secure zone, as claimed. Instead army housing and private business interests are being set up, despite the fact that the land is claimed by Tamil families who were forced out of the area by the civil war. Reports of army land grabs abound in this part of Sri Lanka and it was saddening to see whole areas having been abandoned. There were some positive signs too though as we passed housing estates which had been built by charities or private companies, providing new homes for returning families to the area.
We visited a few sights along the road to Point Pedro, including a bottomless well, sacred pools and an eerie church ruin and cemetery, which are gradually being swallowed up by sand dunes. Point Pedro was the end of the line before heading back along the bone-shaking road to Jaffna.
Back in Jaffna we went towards Beach Road and wandered through the villages where fishing still provides the main livelihood for locals. The shabby huts with tin roofs that lined the beachfront gradually gave way to newly constructed blocks of flats at the end of the road. This was one of my favourite places in Jaffna, watching people going about their daily business and chatting to some of the kids that wanted to try out their English. Jaffna is anything but boring.
Check out this resource:
If you are heading to northern Sri Lanka check out this resource from the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice to find out which hotels, restaurants, shops etc are owned by those implicated in war crimes and human rights abuses and avoid them, and what seems to me a continued attempt to dilute Tamil culture and push a Sinhalese nationalist agenda. Instead find local businesses, use their services, and boost the local economy.