A changed landscape. Revisiting Jaffna.
Expo Air’s brand new 12-seater Cessna Grand Caravan takes off at 7 a.m. from the Ratmalana Airport. On this clear day, at 8000 feet, the sight of this lush, verdant land below is amazing. I am visiting Jaffna after almost ten years and I can’t wait to see what this historical city looks like, post war.
We land at 8:30 a.m. at the charmingly old fashioned Pallaly Airport, collect our bags and walk across the tarmac to the Expo Air luxury coach that then drives us to the Margosa Pavilion.
One of two charming Expo Air bungalows, the Margosa is beautifully restored with antiques and furniture capturing the old world charm of a typical latter 18th century home. The inner courtyard is surrounded by a verandah that is used for dining with five tastefully decorated, air-conditioned rooms that lead off the verandah. Each of these rooms has large en-suite open -air bathrooms. Staff, hired locally, greets us in true traditional form, palms together and wide welcoming smiles.
We sit down for breakfast… and what a feast! The table is laden with Jaffna- style pittu, fish curry, dhal, pol sambol, katta sambol and uppuma. This is one of the best things about Jaffna…the delicious food.
Soon after, we are off to explore this fascinating peninsula. This proud and dignified city that suffered untold consequences during an unforgiving conflict has come a long way post war.
Despite many homes and landmarks still pockmarked with bullet holes, there is a semblance of post colonial architecture. Jaffna was once under Portuguese occupation in 1619 before they lost it to the Dutch who then lost it to the British in 1796. Then, decades later, this beautiful land was disrupted and decimated by civil war and most of this peninsula remained under siege.
But today, far from what I experienced in 2003, is a city that is starting to stand tall and proud. A city being rebuilt by a generation that has suffered too much for too long.
Our first stop is the Keerimalai Tank, which is located in the suburbs of Jaffna and is reputed for its natural springs that supposedly contain curative properties. Two large separate tanks cater to females and males, many of whom are enjoying a refreshing bathe on this hot day. Tempting as it is, we leave to our next destination, the Jambukola Pattenam.
It was this ancient port that King Devanampiyatissa (250-210) used on his expedition to the court of Ashoka (273-236). It was also here that Theri Sanghamitta and her retinue disembarked when she brought the branch of the Bodhi tree from Buddhagaya in India. She was met by King Devanampiyatissa who went on to build three Buddhist shrines- the Jambukola Vihara, the Tissamaha Vihara and the Pacina Vihara. Today, a beautiful life-sized statue of Theri and a replica of the boat she traveled in is to be seen.
Having heard of the beautiful beaches hemming this Peninsula, we head off to Casuarina where the deep blue water is just perfect for a dip in the sea. Tourists along with locals are lolling about in this shallow expanse of water, oblivious to the scorching heat, yet obviously enjoying their afternoon dip.
Next stop is the archeological site of Kandarodai in Chunnakam where a cluster of dagobas is located. Built over burials and used by Tamil monks many centuries ago, these dagobas are proof that the Tamil population embraced Buddhism before the revivalism of Hinduism. Apparently, the only other such burial sites are in the Andhra Pradesh.
It is time for lunch and we head off to the Pavilion, also owned and managed by Expo Air. Again, we feast on Jaffna style seafood- prawns, crab and calamari accompanied with wet green leaf curry, chapatti and vegetables. We finish off with an ice cream sundae at Jaffna’s famous Rio ice cream parlour.
Back in the car, we drive to the Jaffna Fort. Ten years ago, the Army garrisoned this Fort and, today, it is under complete renovation. Built by the Portuguese in 1618 it was captured by the Dutch under Van Goins in 1658 only to be taken over by the British until 1948. Apart from the guillotine that stands as a testament of the harsh colonial rule, only remnants of the bygone Governor’s residence, and the Garrison Parade grounds, remain.
Leaving this ancient battlefield behind, we drive past the stately Jaffna Library that has been rebuilt. This library was once a repository of archival manuscripts published hundreds of years ago but was unfortunately burnt to the ground due to ethnic anarchy.
We stop for a quick walkabout at the local market. Bustling with business, the market is a hive of activity and we are accosted into buying traditional sweets, delicious fruit and fight temptation and walk away from some amazingly intricate woven ware.
The day is drawing to an end and we head back to Margosa. The winds have cooled down this city and there is a lull in activity. A couple of young lads join us for dinner. Twenty five- year old Anbujan has returned to his homeland after been ousted during the war. He has returned because he sees endless possibilities for developing the land his forefathers lived in. “We ask for nothing and blame no one,” he says referring to the war. “It is my duty to be a part of rebuilding this land. I am happy and here to stay,” he tells me.
Sunday morning is expected to be another scorcher but we have a quick breakfast and head over to Nagadeepa, one of Jaffna’s most popular landmarks. After jostling through throngs of pilgrims, we find ourselves on a Navy boat, which has obviously seen better days! About 20 minutes later, we cross the Palk Bay to Kayts and a short walk on to the Nagadeepa Vihara. It is here that Lord Buddha, on his second visit to Lanka, preached his sermon on reconciliation to appease two Naga kings, Mahodasa and Kulodasa who had been fighting for the throne. In thanks for settling this longstanding dispute, the kings offered the throne to Lord Buddha and built a dagoba that is venerated to date.
There is a sense of peace and tranquility here despite the throngs of people. Flowers are being offered at the shrine and the dagoba. There is no religious dichotomy from what I can see as Tamils and Sinhalese mingle together in perfect harmony and I cannot imagine there ever was a war to separate the two. I say a prayer of thanks to the peace that prevails.
From here, we walk a kilometer on to the Naga Pooshani Ambal temple, which according to legend was built by a trader who received Ambal’s blessings. Today, pilgrims seek blessings of the Goddess Ambal Devi for the well being of their children.
We get back on to another Navy boat and return to the peninsula and head off to the Nallur Kandaswamy kovil. Nallur was once the capital of ancient Jaffna during the Aryacakravarti dynasty. This beautiful kovil is designed with intricate Dravidian architecture, replete with rich ornate jewelery. A pooja is being conducted and we walk with the worshipers. Thick ash is smeared on our foreheads and a priest blesses us as we bow in obeisance.
One thing is certain…the dignity of the people in Jaffna has not been broken. The people remain positive and bear no enmity towards their visitors from the South. Either they are too busy getting on with their own lives or only too happy to share plans of their future.
We leave Jaffna with a sense of humbleness. To quote Ralph Blum, Jaffna has taught me that ‘nothing is predestined. The obstacles of your past can become the gateways that lead to new beginnings.’