It was 5.30 a.m. and the streets were still draped in inky darkness when our group of four piled into the car. Anticipation had kept me up for much of the previous night, but I was still wide awake when my father-in-law, affectionately called Raj by his sons (and me), took the wheel. He was taking us on a cross-country road trip from Colombo, on the lush, palm-fringed western coast of Sri Lanka, all the way to Jaffna, situated in the northernmost tip of the teardrop-shaped island.
In a country that has no dearth of postcard-worthy destinations, Jaffna was an unusual choice for a holiday. Yet, ever since my husband Vishnu and I moved to Sri Lanka from Mumbai in July 2014, I had been nursing a growing desire to visit the city, which had remained cut off from the rest of the country—and the world at large—for most of the decades-long civil war that ended in 2009. I was partly driven by a journalist’s curiosity. Everything that I knew about northern Sri Lanka and its turbulent history was informed by news reports and books. Now that Jaffna was freely accessible to tourists, I felt compelled to see it for myself. But I was also motivated by something closer, and more personal. Having spent a small part of his teenage years at a boarding school in Jaffna, Raj held a special fondness for the city. Even though it was sure to have changed immeasurably in the decades since, I was keen to calibrate its evolution through his eyes. With Raj as guide, I wanted to hold this sliver of family history and view it through the prism of time and memory.
In Jaffna, buildings bearing battle scars (top left) are a reminder of the civil war that ended in 2009; Trucks (top right) advertise soft drinks; Tobacco leaves (bottom right) drying in the sun over a Tamil advertisement in Jaffna; Temples (bottom left) are a big part of life in Jaffna, the nerve centre of Hindu-Tamil Sri Lanka. Photos: John Fredricks/Nurphoto/Corbis (wall), Kevin Clogstoun/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images (truck), Maisant Ludovic/Hemis/Corbis (tobacco leaves), Kevin Clogstoun/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images (cycle)
The landscape changed almost imperceptibly as we crossed over from Anuradhapura, an ancient city of Buddhist stupas and relics (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site), into Vavuniya, the first point of entry into Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. The genteel orderliness of urban Sri Lanka gave way to colourful chaos and disorderly traffic on narrow roads. The squiggly letters of the Sinhalese script began to be replaced by the more defined scrawl of the Tamil alphabet on signboards. At Vavuniya, we had entered the Vanni, a large swathe of the Northern Province that was once the heart of Tamil Tiger territory. If you live in Sri Lanka, your eyes get used to effervescent greenery, but here in the Vanni, dull brown scrubland interjects pockets of dense jungle. Palmyra trees dot the arid landscape, their ridged trunks and thick fronds looming like sentinels.
Found abundantly in the region, palmyra is used to make baskets, mats and other products. Photo: Kevin Clogstoun/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images
The sun was blazing overhead when we reached Elephant Pass, a long, narrow neck of land that connects the Jaffna peninsula to the Sri Lankan mainland. Some of the most pitched battles between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government were fought over control of this strategic pass. Raj recollected a time when visitors needed to cross both Sri Lankan military and LTTE check posts at Elephant Pass before proceeding to Jaffna. Standing by the side of the now largely empty road, it was hard to believe that one of the most brutal clashes in modern history was waged here.
It brought me face to face with the fact that travel isn’t always a means to escape from the tedium of our everyday routine. Sometimes, it forces us to examine our lives and perhaps be grateful for the value of the normal and predictable. As a traveller to Jaffna, it is impossible to be oblivious to the abandoned houses with missing roofs and walls pockmarked with bullet holes that line the entrance to the city. A large signboard in Tamil, Sinhalese, and English, erected by the government outside the crumbling skeleton of what must have once been an imposing building complex, says, “Say no to destruction! Never again!” It is a complicated and sobering reality and it leaves me feeling deeply conflicted. But, at least in opening my eyes to it, I feel less like an impassive bystander.
Rather than cast a shadow over my visit, these remnants of the city’s chequered history only served to heighten my appreciation of the quotidian sights and sounds that I may have ordinarily overlooked. I noticed, for instance, the droves of school children who flocked to tuition classes even on a Sunday afternoon. I noticed the old-world ice cream trucks parked under the shade of trees and the temples acquiring bright coats of paint all over the city. I immediately felt drawn to the city’s main market, a narrow warren of alleys crowded with shops selling pots and pans, baskets woven out of palmyra leaves, golden diskettes of jaggery, and dried chillies marinated in yogurt and spices. In my eyes, the battle scars lent primacy to these familiar facets of everyday life, and I absorbed the sights, sounds, and flavours with a regard born from knowing how precious they are.
Before the war, Jaffna’s schools attracted students (left) from all over Sri Lanka. With the end of the war, people have finally been able to get back to normal lives in a region where education is highly valued; Old-world ice-cream trucks (right) are a common sight throughout Jaffna. Photos: Boaz Rottem/Dinodia (girls) Vidya Balachander (truck)
Being in Jaffna seemed to put a spring in Raj’s stride. His grey eyes sparkled with a happiness that I had rarely witnessed in the months since we moved to live near him. It had been a turbulent year for the family. After fighting an uphill battle with cancer, my remarkably feisty mother-in-law had succumbed to the disease just a couple months before our trip. After the emotional rollercoaster we had endured, the prospect of travel had lifted our collective spirits. But the opportunity to revisit a gentler, perhaps easier time had a heartening effect on Raj. He took special pleasure in being our guide to the city.
Not long after we arrived, we visited the bright blue building that houses the Jaffna Hindu College, one of the leading higher secondary schools in the city and Raj’s alma mater. “This is where our hostel used to be,” he said, pointing to a section that has now been converted into classrooms. A few other things had changed—the principal’s office had shifted location and a temple had come up in place of the canteen. But for the most part, the school was as Raj remembered it.
As we wandered around the quiet campus, devoid of students on a Sunday, I paused to consider how rare this moment was. How often do we get to revisit the forgotten parts of our parents’ lives—the schools where they forged lifelong friendships, the cinema halls where they watched movies as teenagers, the snack stalls where they had their first, tentative taste of adulthood? In an utterly intangible way, these memories were worth their weight in gold.
Pilgrims outside the gilded Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, Jaffna’s most significant Hindu temple. Photo: David Constantine/Design Pics/Corbis
Later that evening, we discovered other unexpected connections to the past. Raj found out that M. Tilakaraj, a successful local businessman and the owner of the hotel where we were staying, was also an alumnus of Jaffna Hindu College. Striking up an instant friendship born out of nostalgia, he accepted an invitation to visit Tilakaraj’s resort near Chatty Beach, a placid and relatively undiscovered beach near Jaffna. Over beers and barbecued crab, they swapped teenage stories, even as Tilakaraj, a gregarious man with a big laugh, broke into age-old Tamil songs. Earlier in the day, Raj had traced the route that he cycled to tuition classes. “That’s the route all of us boys took, because a girls’ school fell along the way,” guffawed Tilakaraj, as a shy smile crossed Raj’s face. In that moment, light with liquor and laughter, I felt connected to the past in just the way I had hoped to be.
I didn’t realise it at first, but there was something about Jaffna that made me feel immediately at home. It’s not like I had much difficulty getting used to Colombo, but here, in the north of the country, I felt a sense of belonging that I didn’t even know I had missed. Surrounded by the lyrical sounds of Sri Lankan Tamil, a purer version of the coarse dialect spoken on Chennai’s streets, I embraced my mother tongue with an enthusiasm that would make my parents proud. My self-consciousness fell away as I walked the streets, using my pidgin Tamil to bargain for saris at the crowded main bazaar or enquire about an unfamiliar food product I had spotted.
Jaffna’s karta kolomban mangoes (left) have earned a reputation as the Sri Lankan equivalent of the Indian alphonso; Dried chillies (top right) and other spices on sale at the local market; Fiercely spicy yet subtle in flavour, Jaffna crab curry (bottom right) is the poster child of the unique local cuisine in which chillies are generously used. Photos: Ingrid Rasmussen/ Design Pics/Dinodia (mango), Idris Ahmed/Dorling Kindersley Ltd./Corbis (chillies), Oliver Strewe/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images (crab)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I fostered a lingering bond over food. It was here that I had my first tryst with regional flavours which rarely feature on restaurant menus in Colombo. We demolished bowls of Jaffna crab curry, smothered in a complex curry powder with the sweetness of cinnamon and fennel, and a fierce heat that made tears stream down our faces. I fell headlong in love with kool, a glutinous seafood soup synonymous with the region, laden with fish, prawns, mussels, and other seafood. A thick, comforting stew strewn with murunga or drumstick leaves, kool left a lingering impression on me. The flavours seared themselves into my memory in a way that bland facts never could, and created a hankering to return for a taste of this unsung cuisine.
The narrow entrance to a mosque, which sits alongside shops on a cluttered street. Photo: John W Banagan/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images
I hadn’t come to Jaffna seeking it, but I felt a startling sense of belonging to the city. Perhaps, because it reminded me of my roots, which I had taken for granted all the years when I lived in India. For the first time in over a decade since I moved away from home to live on my own, I was forcefully reminded of my Tamil-ness. Over the course of 15 years in cosmopolitan Mumbai, I had happily imbibed other cultures—and never really felt the need to revel in my own. But in Jaffna, by embracing the cadences of the language that I had always spoken only haltingly, I had finally come full circle.
As we made our way back to Colombo, chasing a brilliant sunset that lit up the horizon, I felt a twinge of sadness. I was already looking forward to my next trip, to satiate my longing for kool and kartha kolomban mangoes, a local speciality that everyone seemed to be anticipating eagerly.
But perhaps I was really longing for something far less tangible.
For the first time in many years, I felt free of a conflict that had plagued me before we moved to Sri Lanka. In love with the life we had painstakingly built in Mumbai but loathe to call the city my permanent home, I had always felt a niggling restlessness as if there were chapters of my life that were meant to be lived elsewhere, perhaps in a place I hadn’t yet discovered. In many ways, Colombo’s lilting rhythm and gentle pace had been the perfect antidote for my existential searching. But for reasons I’m still discovering, Jaffna appealed to me in a way I had never anticipated. Our brief trip, suffused with the warmth of family ties, had opened a window into myself. Looking in, I realised I was no longer restless. After years of being unmoored, I had come home.
Map: Aashna Jhaveri
Jaffna is the capital of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, located at the tip of the teardrop-shaped island. It is 305 km (approximately 6 hrs by road or slightly longer by train) from the country’s capital Colombo. Separated from India by the Palk Strait, Jaffna is in fact closer to the Tamil Nadu coast than Colombo, and shares many similarities with South Indian cultures.
Sri Lankan Airlines offers daily connections to Colombo from Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Madurai, Trichy, and Trivandrum, and flies thrice a week from Kolkata. It also has several flights a day from Chennai to the Sri Lankan capital. From Colombo, the easiest way to get to Jaffna is to hire a taxi or book a train ticket on the Yal Devi or the Intercity Express. Tickets can be purchased by visiting the Colombo Fort railway station.
After decades of war, new cars have been slow to make inroads into Jaffna. Classic cars like this Morris can still be seen on the streets. Photo: Boaz Rottem/Alamy/Indiapicture
Temples are a central feature of Jaffna’s Tamil Hindu culture. The Nallur Kandasamy Kovil, an 18th-century temple with a gilded gopuram that towers over the city’s squat skyline, is revered by Sri Lankan Hindus as one of the holiest sites in the country. Although it’s worth visiting all year round, the temple really comes alive in August during a month-long festival. For a more old-world experience, drive 30 min out of town to the Keerimalai Naguleswaram Kovil, an ancient shrine that was destroyed during the war and rebuilt in 2012. The Keerimalai mineral water spring located nearby is said to have healing properties.
Don’t leave Jaffna without sampling the spicy local cuisine. Although the restaurants can be inconsistent, some safe bets include Green Grass and Lux Etoiles for crab curry and kool (you may need to order these in advance; kool is generally prepared in large quantities, but you can request a smaller portion). Far from fancy, Malayan Cafe is an excellent choice for breakfast with a side of people-watching. Watch the motley crew at this age-old restaurant while tucking into medu vadais, string hoppers, and dosas.
Indians can apply for a 30-day tourist visa to Sri Lanka online at www.eta.gov.lk. It takes two days to process and costs US$15/₹986. You can also apply for a visa on arrival at Colombo airport. The processing fee for a visa on arrival is US$20/₹1,315.
Jaffna is usually sunny all year round, with temperatures peaking to 30-34°C in Apr-May and Aug-Sep. Dec-Jan is the most pleasant time to visit the city (27-30°C), although the climate doesn’t veer much from the tropical standard.
Margosa Villa, an elegantly appointed boutique hotel, is set in a refurbished 19th-century mansion. The only rub: it is located 10 km from Jaffna (www.jaffna.travel/margosa.html; doubles from $100/₹6,500, including breakfast). Clean and centrally located, if a tad garish, TILKO Hotel is the most reliable option in the heart of Jaffna (www.cityhoteljaffna.com; doubles from LKR9,600/₹4,400, including breakfast). The hotel staff are friendly and can help arrange local transportation. For a slightly lower budget, the basic but tidy rooms at Green Grass (jaffnagreengrass. com; doubles from LKR6,900/₹3,200 including breakfast) are a good option.
Appeared in the November 2015 issue as “In A Tamil State Of Mind”.
is a food and travel writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Having called Mumbai home for several years, she recently decided to go on a real-life adventure. Colombo is the first pit stop of many she hopes to make in the years to come.
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