The historical city of Jaffna, in the Northern Province, has only recently experienced a revival as a tourist destination. For almost 30 years, this region remained untouched by travellers due to civil war and has been slow in its urbanization. However, Jaffna remains a fascinating destination to explore the religion and culture of the diverse communities that have long called it a home.
Historical records refer to this ancient region as Nagadipa, with its earliest reference in Mahavamsa, which chronicles he Lord Buddha’s second visit to the island, in the Sixth Century BC. At the time, it was a well-known sea port that served as an important hub for trade between the East and West. It was here that the Buddha is supposed to have resolved a conflict between two Naga kings. Throughout history, kingdoms have ruled and abandoned this city, but according to Portuguese records, it was populated again during the Kotte Period, under the reign of Prince Sapumal. During the Dutch colonial era, workers from South India were brought here to cultivate tobacco. A large fort was also built here in 1680, and is currently being reconstructed by the Department of Archaeology and Ministry of Cultural Affairs.
However, the most revered attraction is the magnificent Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil. It is of utmost significance to the Hindu community of Sri Lanka, and hosts the annual Nallur Festival - a spectacular celebration in its own right. The original temple at this location is said to have been built in 948 AD. The many battles and conquests that took place here over the following centuries saw this temple being rebuilt thrice more, with the one standing today being built in 1807, during the early years of the British colonial era. Today, its ornate structure is encrusted by figures of Hindu gods and gold gopuram and has beautifully decorated corridors within its enormous complex. It houses many shrines to Hindu deities within its large complex, although its most important deity is Lord Murugan. Poojas are held several times throughout the day here. During the annual festival, thousands of devotees flock to the kovil premises to celebrate, with kavadi dances and chariot processes also taking place to mark the occasion.
A lesser known historical site is the Cankili Thoppu Archway, which is a relic of an entrance to one of the magnificent palaces that once stood in the city. It is elaborately carved and includes an inscription to King Sangili, dating back to 1519. Mantiri Manai, another old building, has its origins often been contested, with some believing it was built for visiting ministers during the Jaffna Kingdom, and others crediting to Portuguese and Dutch settlers who arrived much later.
Although Hinduism heavily influences the art, culture and architecture of Jaffna, the city has also been home to other ethnic communities over the centuries. The ruins of the ancient Kadurugoda Temple in Kandarodai is a testament to the Buddhist population that once lived here during the Anuradhapura Period. Today, you can still see 20 stupas within this complex, including the Kadurugoda Raja Maha Vihara.
Other attractions that are close to the city centre at the Keerimali Hot Water Springs, which is considered to be healing and therapeutic for those who bathe in their refreshing water. During the new moon in July, it is custom for Hindus to gather here and pay tribute to their deceased ancestors. Another must-visit is Point Pedro, the northernmost tip of the island, which overlooks an uninterrupted stretch of the Indian Ocean. There’s also an old lighthouse here.
Jaffna can be visited throughout the year and can be reached via road, train or air. Keep in mind, however, that the weather can be quite harsh for some - so make sure to pack your hat, sunglasses and lots of sunscreen.