Situated at the northern tip of Sri Lanka, the Jaffna peninsula is steeped in history. Explore Jaffna town and surrounding areas, or visit one of seven inhabited remote islands. The landscape is dotted with Palmyra Palms and lagoons where flamingos flock after the rains. Jaffna has undergone much hardship due to terrorism and, ultimately, a full-scale war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces which ended a 26-year conflict. The trauma will remain for years, but since 2009, the people of Jaffna are rebuilding their lives with renewed hope. An enriching experience for the adventurous traveller.
The temperature is at its highest during April/May and August/September. The North East monsoon rains are between October to January. Best time to visit is towards end of the year when the lagoons are filled with water, the paddy fields and vegetation are lush green, the air is cooler and the migrant birds including Flamingos, ducks and other waterbirds line the lagoons in their thousands. Birding season in the Jaffna peninsula is from about September to March.
From Colombo, the fastest route is along the North West coast to Anuradhapura (the midway point) and then on the A9 to Jaffna which will take about eight hours. Direct flights from Colombo airport are also available. Once in Jaffna town, the roads are well signposted and routes to the North and West are in good condition for the most part. Getting about is best done in a pre-arranged vehicle. Public transport is limited. The islands of Kayts, Punkudutivu and Karainagar can be accessed by causeway, Delft and Nainativu by boat or ferry.
Explore Jaffna market where villages sell everything from homegrown fruits and vegetables to hand-woven baskets made of Palmyra palm leaves. Wade through the narrow walkways and you’ll come across stalls filled with Jaffna sweets, juggery, treacle, Jaffna spices, fruit cordials, and even wine made by the Rosarian nuns using locally-grown grapes. The small shops surrounding the market sell colourful saris, sarongs, kurtas, and textiles from south India. There is also the jeweller’s street nearby with glass cabinets filled with glistening gold bangles and necklaces.
Many larger Hindu kovils hold pageants from July to December. During these colourful festivals, the temple deity is paraded in an elaborate chariot. The festival conducted by the Nallur Kandasamy Kovil goes on for 26 days in August. Devotees in their thousands from all over Sri Lanka attend this festival. The Buddhist sites come alive especially during Vesak on full-moon day in May in veneration of the life of Lord Buddha – his birth, enlightenment and passing away; and in June (Poson) when the introduction of Buddhism 2,500 years ago is commemorated. Bird watching in Jaffna from September to March is a highlight for nature lovers. Migrant birds along with other waders flock to the lagoons.
Jaffna town, with its maze of narrow roadways, is easy to get about with a good map in hand. The ancient Nalllur Kandasamy kovil, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Jaffna Fort and Jaffna’s Archeological Museum are some of the more interesting sites. Drop by Jaffna market for souvenirs and handicrafts.
Head North on the Kankesanturai (KKS) road to Point Pedro with its lighthouse staring out to the Bay of Bengal. The ancient Naguleswaram Shiva kovil, Keerimalai hot springs and ruins of the Kanthrodai Buddhist temple are all. The more adventurous head North East – a remote area where the sand dunes of Manalkadu are scattered with Casuarina trees. The ruins of the Portuguese-period St Anthony’s church and burial grounds rise up from the sands creating a unique landscape.
West of Jaffna town can be accessed via the Karainaragar causeway. Birding during the migrant season can be utterly rewarding. Spend a morning’s excursion exploring the Vaddukoddai Portuguese church; Punnalai Varatharaje Perumal Kovil, and the sandy beaches of Casuarina north of Karainagar. Stop by for lunch at Fort Hammenhiel – a Portuguese-period fort built in the sea.
The Jaffna islands are also fascinating. Spend a day out at Delft Island with its small village homes, wild horses that roam the plains, and ruins of a Portuguese Fort. Nainativu Island is easier to access and is home to the ancient Nagadeepa Buddhist temple and the Naga Pooshani Ambal Hindu temple.