Jaffna in my mind stood for a war-torn region of Sri Lanka. Growing up in the 1980s this is a name I heard more than any other place in Sri Lanka. Even before I heard about the city, I share my name with – Anuradhapura or about Colombo, I knew the name of the region. Newspapers used to be full of news from the city, of the civil war going on there.
When I first visited Sri Lanka in 2005, we could go only till Kandy. North Sri Lanka was still out of bound. In 2017, I managed to see Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. This region was still North. This time, however, I ended up covering the north from east to west, starting with Mannar and going till Trincomalee.
The city right at the Northern tip of the Jaffna peninsula was a pleasant surprise. I knew of some ancient temples in the city, for this has been dominated by Tamil Shaivites. However, the scale of temples, the beautiful lagoons, its islands scattered in the blue waters of the Indian ocean was a pleasant surprise. It is also a buzzing city of reasonable size.
So, come with me to explore this ancient city of Sri Lanka.
Temples of Jaffna
The city skyline is dominated by the tall and opulent gopurams of its temples. Even the distant islands in the sea have tall temples that announce their presence. It is not possible to cover all the temples of the city in a couple of days, but here are some I visited, a curious mix of old and new ones.
Naguleswaram Temple at Keerimalai
This is the northernmost temple of the 5 Panch Ishawar temples in Sri Lanka. This temple is also ancient like Koneswara in Trincomalee or Thiruketeswara in Mannar. The temple gets its name from Nagula Muni who used to meditate here. We can easily date it back to at least 600 BCE.
You enter the temple through an old gopuram that still depicts the Shiv Parvati Vivah. Then you meet the tall Gopuram in beige color with golden murtis. Walk through it and you find yourself surrounded by a small but colorful temple. The blue arches framing the stories on walls look beautiful. A huge Shivalinga outside is for the Abhishek while the one in the sanctum is behind many doors.
There are 108 poses of Tandava dance carved on the walls.
PM Narendra Modi visited this temple during his Sri Lanka visit. The priest showed me his pictures as soon as I told them I am from India.
Keerimalai Hot Springs
Right behind the Naguleswaram Temple are natural springs, located right on the beach. They are called hot springs, but actually, they have a normal temperature. They may have been hot at some point in time. As of now, there is an open pool for men and an enclosed part for women to take a bath.
The waters are supposedly therapeutic. Beach here is beautiful with a narrow strip jetting into the sea.
Nallur Kandaswamy Temple
This place Nallur is now a suburb of the city, but it was once the capital of Jaffna. Nallur Kandaswamy temple is the most popular, most opulent and grandest temple in the region. Its golden gopurams can be seen from a distance. Historical records point to temple being built in 10th CE. There is probably a church on top of it now. The present temple was built in the 18th CE.
Inside the temple, the golden arches standing on the pillars made of 6 smaller pillars with mirrors on them that reflect your images as you walk past can easily put anyone in awe. On top of it, it is a huge temple in size. When I walked through those arches I felt like I have traveled back in time and I am walking through some huge palace. There is a temple tank within the four walls of the temple.
The temple is dedicated to Murugan or Karthikeyan.
If you have time to see just one thing in the city, visit Nallur Kandaswamy temple.
Nagapooshani Amman temple
This temple is one of the two Shakti Peethas in Sri Lanka. I wrote about the Shankari Shakti Peeth in my post on Trincomalee. This is the second one. This temple is located good 45 drive and 20-minute boat ride from the city. A ferry boat leaves every half an hour from either side to the island of Nainativu.
The 108 feet tall gopuram of the Nagapooshani Amman temple is visible from a long distance. On the boat ride, you can see it getting bigger as you get closer. After landing the roads straight leads to this very gopuram.
Naga or the serpent motif can be seen everywhere in the temple. A big Nandi sits in front of the temple and you meet it as soon as you enter the temple. The temple is big and attracts a huge number of devotees.
The main sanctum has the Vigrah of Nagapooshani Amman. On one side is the Utsav Murti in bronze and on the other side there is a huge Sri Chakra like creation where people offer flowers. I was there on a Friday, so I got to see the procession of the Devi in its full glory.
Like Koneswara temple at Trincomalee, here also there were small cradles tied to the trees around the temple.
Read more about this temple on Wikipedia.
Nagadeepa Purana Vihara
This is a beautiful Buddhist Vihara located right next to the Nagapooshani Amman temple. Even here the Naga or the serpent element is dominant. It has Buddha images with the naga hood. There is a beautiful arch looking at the ocean that can also be seen from a distance.
There is a white-colored stupa, a small temple with a Chandrashila at the steps like you see in Polonnaruwa and other Buddhist places in Sri Lanka.
I could spend little time at the Vihara as I needed to take the ferry back to the mainland. I would remember it as a serene and peaceful place with a lot of grace.
Palace of Thiruvasagam
Even before you enter the city, you can visit this latest landmark in the city – the Palace of Thiruvasagam. Located in Nevatkuli, it is a tribute to the Tamil poetry of 9th CE poet Manickavasagar dedicated to Shiva. His poems are regularly sung at the Shiva temples of Tamil region in India and Sri Lanka.
This palace has all of his 615 poems written on the walls. His most famous poem Shiv Puran is sung first thing in the temples. This Shiv Puran is translated in multiple languages from across the world on the walls of Thiruvasagam palace.
In the courtyard is a temple dedicated to Shiva as Dakshinamurty. Between the temple and the walls with poetry on them are 108 Shivalingas, all of same size and shape. Even the Shikhara of the temple is full of Shivalingas, instead of regular murtis of Devi devatas. In the front, a temple has the Murti of Manickvasagar in a chariot shaped temple located in a tank. Murti of Agastya Muni was waiting for the installation. All this has been done in less than 18 months by one man – Dr. Aru Thirumurugan.
This is fast becoming a popular place in the city. On a regular day, I saw many people visiting it before going to work. People have started believing that if you do Abhishek of the 108 Shivalingas, your wishes will come true.
Do visit this unique place celebrating the ancient poetry of Tamil land.
There is a huge Hanuman Murti outside one of the temples in the city. It appears as if he is standing on top of the city to protect it.
Jaffna lagoon is what I would remember for a long time. The islands are connected by causeways connecting them. When you drive on them, all you see is water all around you. If you can ignore the road in the front, you get a feeling of driving on the water.
I was visiting Nainativu island for the Nagapooshani Amman temple mentioned above. It was a pleasure to be surrounded by water all around and hardly any people or cars. A perfect place to spend a quiet day.
The narrow long fishing nets dotted the water. At places, the net was in a narrow funnel-like shape and one can only imagine it full of fish by the evening. Small boats were parked here and there, a few fishermen were laying the net in their boats.
In the distance, you can make out the island only by the tall Gopurams of the temples and what ornate gopurams, the temples have.
Cultural Places to visit
This fort is a mid-sized fort spread across 62 acres. Strategically placed to keep an eye on the ocean. With a wide moat going around it, when you stand at one of its watchtowers, it appears that you are standing on a structure in the water.
This fort was originally built by the Portuguese in 1619 CE but later in 1658 CE taken over by the Dutch, who used Jaffna as a major trading port. Though in a dilapidated state, it is still well maintained. There are boards explaining the various parts of the fort.
A small souvenir shop at the entrance is a good place to buy posters and books on Sri Lanka. Entry is free.
There are not too many heritage buildings that have survived in the city. The only one that I could find is Mantri Manai – a heritage house that once belonged to a minister. It is a delicate shape but you can still see it standing with grace.
It is a colonial structure but with many elements of native homes like the kitchen and the well.
Located on Navalar Road, this is a small but very interesting museum. It has excavated artifacts from North Sri Lanka. A big stone pot from Thiruketeswarar temple in Mannar welcomes you at the entrance along with the spire of a Buddhist dome.
Some of interesting displays include:
- A clay pot with 7 openings or mouths – a musical instrument
- Coins with Lakshmi motif on it
- Sieves for pearl sorting
- Fish-shaped board games
- Palm leaf manuscript of Tamil Ramayana
Kadurugoda Viharaya at Kandarodai
This is a fascinating archaeological site with 40-50 Stupa remains huddles together. Some stupas are intact, some are without the Harmika on top and some have just the base left. Even in their ruins, they look beautiful. The age shows and it seems they are proud to show it off.
It is a protected site and close to the army establishment, so you need to take permission to visit it. You can do the same at the site.
Jaffna Public Library
The city public library is a lovely building in pristine white color. From a distance, it resembles Taj Mahal. When you visit it, the first thing you see is the Murti of Saraswati.
This was supposed to be one of the biggest libraries in Asia. During the civil war, it was burnt and a lot of books were lost. Locals told me that the collection is being rebuilt by asking the people to donate and contribute.
Jaffna Clock Tower
The Clock tower, close to the library is also in pristine white. It is a reminder of the British colonial days of the city, erected to mark the visit of Prince Albert in 1875. It looks too well maintained for an old structure. I later learned that it was recently restored after it was damaged during the civil war.
Around it, there are statues of different kings of the region riding horses, both in golden color.
You get typical Tamil food in the city, which is great for a vegetarian like me. Couple of things you must try here are:
Kund Dosai – Small Idli like Dosai
Rio Ice cream
You can also walk around the market to get a feel of life in the city.
How to reach Jaffna?
Colombo international airport is the closest airport.
It is well connected by trains and road to Colombo and other major cities in the country.
You can see most of the things I have mentioned in this post in about 2 days comfortably. If you skip the trip to the island, everything can be done in one day easily.
There are many hotels in the city. I believe it gets a lot of business travelers.