Vavuniya is the sort of place you go on the way to somewhere else. Though it’s in the centre-north of Sri Lanka – a bindi on the country’s forehead – it has the hallmarks of a border town, with trucks churning dust and policemen multiplying like mosquitoes. Away to the south are Sri Lanka’s famous tea plantations and sun-kissed ruins, Anuradhapura and palm-fringed beaches such as Tangalle. Above Vavuniya, all the way to Jaffna on the country’s ravaged peninsula, is a great green terra incognita.
This bulk of Northern Province, also called the Vanni, makes for a fascinating road trip. One morning I board a bus at Vavuniya clutching an orange suitcase; 20 minutes later I’m off again, waving my passport at a military checkpoint. The Vanni is open scrubland and squat houses with their windows gouged out, and a bald ridge of dirt stretching off to the horizon – the once and future railroad. The Vanni is a vast, ominous nothing.
And yet, seen from another perspective, this land is also a great deal. During the 1970s several groups of young Tamils, some militant, responded to government laws that favoured the ethnic Sinhalese by agitating for an independent state called Tamil Eelam that would annex the Vanni and Jaffna Peninsula. Things escalated, at first slowly and then in a shocking, violent rush; civil war was born. This northern quarter of Sri Lanka is both a contested dream and, until recently, a battleground.
Our bus shudders along the A9 Highway, passing dust-choked roadworks that make women onboard wrap scarves around their faces. Sometimes I see President Mahinda Rajapaksa striding confidently across a billboard; most signs are blank though, or revealing in another way: “Welcome to Omaha Police Area” and “Paranyapa Police Area” and “Mankulam Police Station”, with scrap lying out front like a junkyard.
BE PATIENT AND DRIVE UNITY IS STRENGTH is stencilled across a small hill.
These signs become more pointed the further north you travel: “Mine Clearance”, “Danger: Mines” and “De-mining”, with people digging holes, disguised behind face coverings of a different sort. This is not far from Kilinochchi, the old administrative capital of the Tamil Tigers, the most famous separatist group in Sri Lankan history. The war was declared over on May 18, 2009, when the Tiger leadership was killed by the army on the north-eastern Mullaittivu coast.
Further on we reach Elephant Pass, a ligament of road joining Jaffna Peninsula to the rest of the country over a watery expanse. I spend a week on the peninsula, wandering its quiet streets, paying respects in technicolour temples, taking ferries, cycling beneath palmyrah trees. But of all the things I see there – disturbing, miraculous, confusing, and gorgeous things – the most remarkable begins right here, at the start of Elephant Pass, with a burnt-out bulldozer propped up like a war memorial and a Sri Lankan family posing together, taking photos on a holiday to the newly opened north.
The electricity fails on my second afternoon in the city. Nobody seems concerned, though: the cook tunes a radio on the verandah, searching for Hindi music; Manattrii’s man-of-all-trades, Balu, sweeps bare dirt with a wiry broom, his face swollen from a bee sting. The man who runs this guesthouse is T.A. Arulnayagam, and when I ask him what’s happening he explains that the power often goes out on public holidays. “They’re doing works on the roads,” he says. “Six, six-thirty tonight, it will come back on. Maybe seven.”
Things happen when they happen in Jaffna. It has a population of about 90,000 but the character of a country town, albeit one with a battered past. It’s a diurnal place, for example, with locals rising early and all but abandoning streets to stray dogs after nightfall – a self-imposed curfew, since the official one ended in 2009 (after 14 years). Though it sprawls through leafy neighbourhoods, Jaffna has almost no height except for temple gopurams, those terraced towers cluttered with vivid Hindu gods. Many of the roads are unsealed and there are very few cars – just buses, auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks) and the occasional Morris Minor. “In Colombo it is very noisy,” one local tells me. “In Jaffna, no noise.” Indeed, bikes are the most common form of transport. It’s not unusual to be walking down a street, note a rattle, and turn to see a young girl gliding past on her bicycle, sari dazzling in the sunlight.
Each morning I wake at Manattrii and take a cup of tea on the verandah. Then I simply stroll in random directions. “Serendipity” is derived from a Sri Lankan word and good inspiration for the traveller with the luxury of time.
Arulnayagam encourages me to roam widely. Originally from Kayts on the nearby island of Velanai, he moved to Jaffna in 1990 because of the conflict. “Now we are all OK in Jaffna,” he says, when I ask about safety. “Development is going on, buildings and construction. You’ll find a lot of intellectuals. The ethnic conflict still exists – there has yet to be a solution for that. But in Jaffna we don’t have any problems.”
It’s through strolling that I find the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, a lavish Hindu temple devoted to Murugan, brother of Ganesh. The exterior walls are striped in red and white; inside is a cool sanctum filled with incense and devotees waiting for the next puja ceremony. Just across the road are temples of another sort – “cream houses”, Rio and Rajah, where teenagers bow down over baroque sundaes studded with nuts. It’s 9am when I visit and the parlours are bustling with trade.
Heading in another direction, the centre of Jaffna unfurls as a grand bazaar seemingly grafted onto the bus station. One street is occupied by tailors and clothing shops: S. S. Fancy, Arul’s Fancy, Abiramy Fancy House. Another is filled with merchants selling spice from enormous sacks, or flayed fish hung along a line like tatty business shirts. In the vegetable market, banana stems look like stalactites and durians are the size of dinosaur eggs. To pass the stifling midday hours I visit Malayan Cafe, a vibrant eatery with marble tables and glass cabinets filled with portraits of yogis and bottles of Coca-Cola. The curry comes served on banana leaves and you eat with your fingers – delicious and liberating. “Ricky Ponting!” the waiter croons when I reveal my origin.
As the heart of Sri Lanka’s Tamil culture, Jaffna is different from anything south of Vavuniya, where Sinhalese dominates. It’s also more fraught, with the deep scars of a war veteran. Trapped between militant separatists and the government, Jaffna and its citizens spent decades amassing collateral damage. The UN estimates that more than 160,000 houses were damaged or destroyed in the north. It’s impossible to miss these urban ruins: mouldering Mughal houses, empty and fractured. The once-famous art deco railway station is an eerie wreck with bullet holes in the walls. Jaffna Fort was the setting of a 107-day siege between the army and Tamil Tigers in 1990; despite slow restoration, funded by the Dutch, evidence of the battle remains visible.
But things are growing back, too. More than once I notice a line of abandoned townhouses punctuated by a freshly painted one. “Modernity”, proclaims one rental advertisement; another sign reads, “Now in Jaffna: Civil Engineering”.
And then there is the Public Library, inaugurated in 1841, burnt in 1981 – 90,000 volumes lost – and resurrected a decade ago through international donations. As Arulnayagam says, Jaffna has always been a centre of intellectuals. The library is a symbol of Tamil learning. It’s a beautiful, neo-Mughal place, with stacks of National Geographic and students studying law in the airy reading rooms.
A statue of four-armed Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, sits out front cradling her stringed veena. Later I will read that Hindus believe it was with her wisdom that Brahman created the universe.
It’s easy to lose time in a seldom-visited city, eating new foods and discovering sites you’ve never read about. But Jaffna Peninsula is a thousand square kilometres – much more than the limits of its urban centre.
Ask around and everybody offers tips on places of interest. Visit Chatty Beach, says the proprietor at Cosy’s Vege, writing a list on a napkin. A British expat extols the virtues of Delft, a desolate island famed for its wild Dutch ponies and a rock that locals believe is growing by the year. Another island is Nainativu, worth visiting for the Naga Pooshani Amman Kovil – a temple that has never met a colour it didn’t like.
Arulnayagam speaks highly of Keerimalai Spring, recently opened after 20 years of military embargo; its waters are revered for having supposedly healed a Chola princess of facial deformities. To reach this spring, however, you take a bus through the High Security Zone of Palali, where more than 25,000 families lived as agriculturalists before being forcibly evicted. Most are waiting for permission to return – a stark reminder that, as Arulnayagam says, “full normalcy is not there”. Many believe that Tamils remain subject to discriminating policies in Sri Lanka (the news, when I visit, is filled with allegations by the International Crisis Group and questions concerning war crimes).
For a final excursion I choose Point Pedro on the north-eastern tip of the peninsula, a place that has suffered the double indignity of war and the 2004 tsunami, which washed fishing boats more than a kilometre inland. When I reach the beach, I find it cluttered with rudimentary shacks; men fuss over tangled nets in the sand. I walk alongside, searching for a place to settle down for lunch, and the nets are succeeded by barbed wire. Suddenly the beach is deserted and strange.
Perhaps I’ve gone too far. Perhaps the area is restricted. But as I turn around I notice a busload of Sri Lankans wearing floppy hats and sunglasses. They are gathered together near the lighthouse and some are taking photos of the soldiers there.
“Where from?” one soldier asks as I drift through the spectacle. “Why you come?”
“Just visiting,” I say, gesturing to the people and the lighthouse. “Just come to see the sights.” And then, holding up my camera as an alibi, I keep on walking, the traveller as witness.
(This article was originally featured in The Sydney Morning Herald, May 2013).