A hugely significant region steeped in rich Hindu-Tamil history and culture, the city of Jaffna is bursting with tradition and colour. Jaffna is the main city of Jaffna District which is situated in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Multicoloured temples, lusciously green palms, friendly Tamil people, welcome travellers and tourists into their lives with positivity and curiosity. The distance between Colombo to Jaffna is 363.2 km. Arriving in Jaffna can come as a culture to the naive, and it is impossible to miss the profound Indian influence notable by the gradual switch from the intoned accents of Sinhala to the quick-fire tones of Tamil. Yet the town has its own unique and complex identity shaped by a wide cross-section of ethnicities, including Muslim, Portuguese, Dutch, British and Sinhalese, with colourful temples set next to huge churches, and streets dotted with ancient Dutch and British residences.
Due to a 30 year long civil war, it was a closed destination to many and since then it has risen from the ashes to be an exceptional city with a uniqueness that sets it apart from the rest of the island. Jaffna is certainly the hub of the vibrant Tamil culture in Sri Lanka yet blended with the colonial charm from a bygone era.
The Jaffna Dutch Fort is the second largest fort in Sri Lanka. The Nallur Kovil, Jaffna Fort, Jaffna Library, Archaeological Museum, Point Pedro, Keerimalai Hot Springs, Casuarina Beach are some of the top places to see. Sail out to Delft Island and see the wild horses left by the Portuguese in the 16th century and other little islands left with historical heritage.
Sri Lanka’s historical records reveal that there had been several invasions by the South Indians. The best known victory was by the Sinhalese King Dutugemunu of Anuradhapura who had defeated the Tamil leader Elara in the 2nd century BC. From 1200 BC the Tamils had built inroads into the northern part of the island and by 1400 they were self sufficient to form a kingdom in Jaffna. Therefore for many centuries, the city of Jaffna was Sri Lanka’s Hindu-Tamil cultural and religious pride until Jaffna was destabilised and fell to the Portuguese colonists in 1619. The Portuguese had captured King Sangli of Jaffna Kingdom and destroyed all the Hindu temples in the city. Many Christian conversions had taken place hence the presence of all the beautiful churches. Most of the temples were not rebuilt until the 19th century. Jaffna was taken over by the Dutch in 1658 after a tedious and bitter siege of three months. There are several Portuguese and Dutch fortifications which are in ruins today that remain stippled across the city. Eventually the British took over Jaffna in 1795.
In the early 1980’s there was ethnic unrest and a civil war broke out in 1983 which went on for 30 long years and during that period the city became a no-go war zone. As a result of the war, the city lost most of its population since most of the people had migrated overseas. Through the years, Jaffna somehow survived the endless bombings and disaster and sprang back to life when peace prevailed as the war ended in 2009.
How to get there
There are alternative ways to get to Jaffna which are by road, rail and air.
Here are the routes by road travel from 4 popular destinations to Jaffna.
Colombo to Jaffna – The quickest route is getting on the Kandy road (A28) to Anuradhapura and then via the Kandy-Jaffna highway (A9) to Jaffna. This route would take approximately 8 hours.
Anuradhapura to Jaffna – Take the A9 Kandy/Jaffna highway from Anuradhapura to Jaffna. This would take approximately 4 hours.
Trincomalee to Jaffna – the fastest route would be via A29 through Puttalam-Anuradhapura-Trincomalee highway and then A9 on Kandy-Jaffna highway. This would take approximately 4 hours.
Kandy to Jaffna – proceed on A9 Kandy-Jaffna highway. This would take a maximum of 7 hours.
Colombo to Jaffna – There are 4 daily trains from Colombo Fort to Jaffna. Three of which are in the morning and the other is at night. The most recommended option would be the AC intercity train which leaves at 05:45am and reaches Jaffna at 11:51am. This is the quickest journey and this train has 1st Class. The other option is the night mail train which leaves Colombo Fort at 8:30pm and reaches Jaffna at 05:10am. This train has only the 2nd and 3rd classes.
Anuradhapura to Jaffna – The daily AC Intercity Train leaves Anuradhapura at 09:17am and reaches Jaffna at 11:51am. The Night Mail train leaves at 12:55am and reaches Jaffna at 05:10am.
There are charter flights from Colombo on Cinnamon Air in which Epic Sri Lanka Holidays can make arrangements for you.
Heli Tours, a private domestic airline has flights from Ratmalana, Colombo to Jaffna three times a week which are on Monday, Wednesday & Friday that leave Ratmalana at 07:30am and the flight duration is an hour. This flight leaves Jaffna at 3:30pm for Colombo on the same days.
Borne with a tropical savanna climate, Jaffna has a dry season between February and August, and a wet season between September and January. The temperature is at its highest during the months of April – May and August – September. The temperature is coolest in December – January. The annual rainfall is brought in by the North East monsoon that fall between October and January. However the best time to visit Jaffna is towards the end of year since it’s during that period that the lagoons are full with water which attract the migrant birds and the vegetation becomes more luscious and green.
Food and Drink
Jaffna is home to traditional Tamil food, solely influenced by the cuisines of South India and it consists of distinctive flavours that give Jaffna its own identity from the rest of the country. The food of the North, much like in the rest of the island, is a delightful mix of spices that will melt in your mouth and leave you craving for more.
The signature crab curry is the most revered and celebrated dish of Jaffna which has become a speciality dish served all over the island as Jaffna Crab Curry. However, popular mention is of the mutton or lamb curry. A delectable dish made with heavy spices that would leave you mouth-watering. Another signature delicacy is kool, a mixed seafood and spicy soup. Other popular dishes are pittu, vadai, idly, thosai, bone rasam, brinjal and drumstick curry and hoppers. Although hoppers are popular island wide, it is the variation of the hopper which is identified by the addition of ghee symbolising a Hindu tradition leaving a different aroma. Food in eateries, are mostly served on a banana leaf.
Restaurants recommended by tourists are:
Green Grass Hotel & Restaurant – this restaurant is a 15 minute drive from the city and it serves Indian, Chinese and traditional Jaffna Cuisine..
Mangos – A pure and atmospheric vegetarian North & South Indian restaurant, cafe and bakery. It is very popular for their dosas, paratas and string hoppers.
Malayan Cafe – This is one of the quintessential Jaffna eatery that strictly serves vegetarian food. The food gets served straight on a banana leaf (no plates), and is an experience in itself for the uninitiated Jaffna traveller
The Rio ice cream parlour – a popular joint amongst tourists for their variety of ice creams and sundaes.
Jaffna is famous for their abundance in stock of mangoes, a delight for every tourist.
Elephant Pass – A causeway spanning the shallow lagoon separating the Jaffna peninsula from the rest of the island. Elephants found all over the island was taken to the Jaffna peninsula, across this lagoon, which was later bridged and given the name Elephant Pass. Although elephants do not come through this point, the unique name still remains.
Royal Palace Jaffna – The ruins of the Royal Palace of Jaffna refer to the remains of the Royal abode of the ruling Arya Cakravartti Dynasty of the Kingdom of Jaffna, Nallur, Jaffna. A spectacular and beautiful palace used by the King for public appearances during festivals and on special occasions.
Nallur Kandasamy Kovil – One of Jaffna’s main landmarks, dedicated to Lord Murugan. This temple is intricately woven with the history of the kingdom of Jaffna and reflects great cultural and social significance to the identity of the Hindu Tamils of North Sri Lanka and for the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora.
Jaffna Fort – Jaffna fort is a large ruin of the prestigious structure that it used to be. A piece of colonial history spanning the 17th and 18th centuries, the Portuguese, Dutch and British have all woven its elaborate past. It was said to be the best and strongest in Asia. Jaffna Fort as a whole is definitely the grandest and best artillery fortification in Sri Lanka.
Jaffna Archaeological Museum – Located in Nallur, this building was surprisingly not affected by the civil war. The construction started in 1976 and was completed about 10 years later and it houses many collections from the Buddhist and Hindu religions. The collections range from the ancient era to the colonial era. You can also see some of the archaeological excavation findings of Kandarodai led by P.E. Pieris in 1917-1919.
Clock Tower – The Clock Tower, also one of the landmarks in the city of Jaffna, was built to commemorate the visit of His Royal Highness, Albert Edward, and Prince of Wales to Ceylon in 1875. After immense damage in the late 1980s by the civil war, Prince Charles, the current Prince of Wales, offered British assistance in restoring the tower. The clock tower currently gives the time to Jaffna.
Jaffna Library – this is also one of Jaffna’s most notable landmarks, a beautiful structure located close by the Fort and is a true example of British Colonial Architecture. It was one of the biggest libraries in Asia, containing over 97,000 books and manuscript. The library was restored and rehabilitated in 2001. It is Sri Lanka’s second main public library.
Point Pedro – Point Pedro lies near the most northerly point of the island facing Bay of Bengal. The name of the place is derived from the Portuguese Punta das Pedras which means Stony or Rocky Point. This point is marked by a concrete board on the edge of a coral with a Sri Lankan Flag painted on it.
Nainativu Island – Nainativu is a small but notable island off the coast of Jaffna Peninsula. The name of the island relates to the folklore inhabitants, the Naga people. It is home to the Hindu shrine of Nagapooshani Amman Temple and the Buddhist shrine Nagadeepa Vihara.
Keerimalai Springs – The Keerimalai Hot Springs is a natural spring lying on the northern coast of Jaffna, next to the west sea of Palaly. The water has curative properties, since it flows through the fissures of the carbonated rocks; it acquires chemical values that are of therapeutic benefit to the human body. From a visitor’s perspective, it’s an amazing sight to see a freshwater spring right next to the ocean.
Casuarina Beach – Favoured as the north’s best beach, the Casuarina Beach happens to be named so because of the abundance of Casuarina trees found at this place. This beach lies north of the Karativu islands, which is one of the largest islands in the peninsula. This beach is visited by almost everyone touring this country because of its soft sand, clear blue water and the relaxing atmosphere.
Nilavarai Bottomless Well – Famous for being bottomless, though it is not literally so but is so called because it has water throughout the year and it does not dry up even during droughts! It is a very popular attraction in Jaffna. An interesting thing to note is that the first 40 feet of the water in this well is fresh which turns saline thereafter.
Dambakola Patuna Sanghamitta Temple – The Dambakola Patuna, also called Jambukola Patuna is a very significant Buddhist religious destination tied to a legend as of Indian emperor, Ashoka’s daughter, Sanghamitta arriving at this place with the Bo tree sapling therefore this temple was built in commemoration of this event.
Kandarodai Viharaya – Nestled between the Palmyrah trees, this place was first discovered by Dr. Paul E. Pieris in 1916. The history of the pagodas and the items found during the excavation brings about curiosity since it is a town famous for its Hindu architecture. The Kantharodai Viharaya is one of the few places which show that Buddhism was older than almost all other religions in this area. It deserves a visit for its deep rooted history and the mysteriousness attached to this place.
St Mary’s Cathedral – St. Mary’s Cathedral, popularly known as the Jaffna Cathedral is a reflection of classical architecture. The construction of the cathedral in the beginning was led by Portuguese pastor Leonardo Rebeiro of the Oratory of Goa.
St James’ Church – St. James’ Church is a Church of Ceylon church located in Nallur, Jaffna. It is a renovated and reformed grand church built by the British missionaries in the early 19th century. A Church of England and it was declared an archaeological preserved monument in December 2011.
Jaffna Market – To really experience and know a city, one must visit its local markets. Markets are a great way to see local life in action and Jaffna market is bustling but full of life, colour and vibrancy with endless bazaars and vendors selling all kinds of goods.
Bird Watching in Jaffna – The Jaffna peninsula has inland ponds to shallow coastal saline lagoons which have been breeding grounds attracting resident and migrant birds. Indulge in an experience to watch the majestic birds in their natural habitats and give colour to the lagoons and causeways.
Jaffna City Tour – A full day guided tour covering all the major attractions of the vibrant and rising city of Jaffna.