My trip to Jaffna in 2003 May

Jaffna, the war torn city in northern Sri Lanka, has just begun to reopen to tourism after about 20 years of civil war. How long it will remain open is uncertain as the peace talks are grinding to an apparent deadlock. As the only major city in Lanka I had failed to visit, I did not want to miss the available opportunity to visit Jaffna when I went on vacation to Lanka in May 2003. I did not expect it to be an easy journey.

My initial plan was to travel by road to Jaffna using an overnight bus from Colombo. The cost would have been just Rs1000/- (US$10) each way. I thought it would be an adventure to travel on the recently opened A9, passing through the checkpoints in LTTE held territory. I also felt it would be safer than domestic aviation which as far as I had read was unreliable and consisted of a fleet of poorly maintained planes that had suffered far too many fatal crashes.

I sent E-mail to a number of academics in Jaffna University and also sort contacts via academic institutions in Colombo. This did not provide me with much success in arranging the trip. Since I do not speak Tamil, I did not want to travel without an English-speaking guide to show me around. Then at a Tourism Exhibition in Colombo, a travel agent suggested that I fly to Jaffna and stay at a place called the "Swiss Chalet". The trip suddenly became very feasible with just few days left before my return to the USA.

I phoned up Brig. Munesinghe for some contacts and found out that Anula Radalage, who runs that same guesthouse, was the former vice president of the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society. Being an active numismatist myself, I knew I could not ask for a better host and guide. Anula was in Colombo at the time, but agreed to fly back with me to Jaffna if I could only postpone my trip by one day. I am glad I did even though this required me to travel to Jaffna on the last two working days before leaving Lanka.

I charged the Airline ticket Rs 6250/- ($65) to my VISA directly at the Lion-Air office in Bambalapitiya. I was glad to find-out that they were now flying a 48 seat British Aerospace Hawker Siddley aircraft. A free Airline bus was scheduled to pick up and return passengers to and from the domestic Airport at Ratmalana.

I woke up early on May 22nd and remembered I needed more film. I purchased a few extra rolls from a 24-hour supermarket, a recent convenience in Colombo. Then just before 5:30 AM, after a coffee to wake me up at the Mayfair restaurant, I walked over to the Lion-Air office in Bambalapitiya. Anula who had arranged to take the same flight joined me soon after. We arrived in Ratmalana after the bus picked up more passengers on the way, mostly from Wellawatte.

While I was able to get a window seat, I was disappointed when I was told that since we would be flying to a high security zone (HSZ), I could not have my camera with me. The flight was almost full and left on time at 7:30 AM. Flying at 13,000 feet for one hour, one saw the lush green vegetation of the wet zone in south west Lanka turn brown as we moved into drier northern parts of the island. We flew over the causeway joining Jaffna to Kayts Island, which appeared to be under water for a small part. We landed at Palali Airport on schedule. An Air-force lorry brought in the checked bags from the flight. Anula's car and driver were waiting for us and we drove down to her guesthouse in Urelu, exactly halfway between the Airport and Jaffna town 18 km away.

The Swiss Chalet is the only air-conditioned guesthouse open to the public. Anula, who is now a Swiss citizen, flies the Swiss flag to show her neutrality. In her guest book I saw entries from of all the newsmakers that have visited Jaffna since it opened in September 2002. As a startup, she had converted four large bedrooms of an old Jaffna mansion. She had very cleverly attached open-air toilets to each and I found it nice to be able to shower under the stars that night.

We had meals in the Palm Beach restaurant, one of two that had so far reopened in Jaffna town to cater to the tourists needs. It had good food and was inexpensive. When we were having an evening meal a large group of Sinhala were also there. We found out that they were transporting produce into Jaffna from the south and would be returning south overnight.

The Palmyra palm tree replaces the coconut tree abundant in the south and less frequently seen in the Jaffna district. It thrives in a dry climate. Like the coconut tree, almost everything of it is used. The sap drunk unfermented as sweet toddy and also fermented and distilled into the strong alcoholic drink known as arrack. Production is too small for export even to the south of Lanka. It was an image of a Palmyra tree that was the primary symbol on Ceylon coins from 1870 to 1942

We first visited Jaffna University. I wanted to meet Dr Pushparatnam of the Dept of History who had published a book on Sri Lankan coins of Tamil rulers, but was told he had gone to Colombo. Happily, I was able to contact him and meet him on my return. I met Prof Mahesen of the Dept. of Computer Science, who I had contacted by E-mail. I was glad to find an usable Internet connection that was faster than what I had found at Colombo University. This was probably because it was vacation time with fewer users online. Later in the trip, I was able to withdraw cash from my US Bank account from the Commercial Bank ATM connected to both Cirus and Plus International ATM systems. Jaffna was clearly computer networked. I however found the phone system poor. Mobile phones had poor reception and it took many attempts to take a call to Colombo even from a communication shop. There is still a shortage of phone lines to meet the growing demand.

I then visited the Physics Dept and after discussions with Prof Kandaswamy, I spoke with the recently passed out batch about requirements for gaining admission for graduate study abroad. I found that the only student asking questions was the only one who had gained admission to an university in Boston. The language barrier was clearly their main obstacle.

Transportation in Jaffna looked like Havana in Cuba. Most of the few cars on the road were over 30 years old with many well-maintained Morris Minor and few Volkswagen Beetles. Transport was mainly by bicycle, a necessity during the fuel starved war era. There was strict usage of male and female cycles, although it was clear that female cycles would have better suited men in sarongs. Female LTTE cadre could be easily identified by the black belt they wore. This was non-typical of Jaffna female attire. Male LTTE could be easily identified proudly driving around Jaffna in new motorcycles without any helmets. They don't feel obliged to obey any of the recent government regulations. They also refuse to adopt the Time-zone change from 6:00 hour ahead of GMT and remain at the 5:30 hours same as all of India.

During my brief two-day visit Anula drove me around parts of the Jaffna peninsula under Sri-Lankan government jurisdiction. We packed in visits to many interesting sites. Some of the sites were within high security zones where an army security personnel accompanied us in our vehicle. No photography was allowed within those zones. Approaching such a zone one saw the diplomatic sign that read Unauthorized Intruders will be dealt with Minimum Force in Sinhala, Tamil and English. I got into a spot of trouble after trying to photograph this sign. The SL Army was not happy about us breaking the rules, but was willing to accept our explanation as a genuine mistake and not a threat to their security. This was clearly a reflection that the city was returning to normal.

Let me describe the Jaffna I saw just after 20-years of civil war. Most of Jaffna remained in ruin. A few key building like the Kachari had been rebuilt for administration. The bombed out remains of the old Kachari stood on the opposite side of the road. The new Jaffna Library was very impressive, but remained closed on the insistence of the LTTE. The historic old Library and its irreplaceable archives that were destroyed by arson in 1981, was one of the precipitating events that started the civil war.

The walls of the old Dutch fort in Jaffna was overgrown with weeds The Fort had been the site of a 107 day siege back in 1990 after the LTTE took control of Jaffna, which they held till 1995. The Army was in the process of moving back into it. The Fort was therefore not open to the public and looking in from the gate, I saw no building standing inside. It was a large vacant lot.

There were similar large tracts of empty land within the heart of Jaffna that had probably been cleared of buildings. The bombed out shell of the old Regal cinema was typical of many building which still remained as a stark reminder that rebuilding of war torn Jaffna had hardly started.

The Jaffna Archaeological Museum was open but badly neglected. We walked through crumbling exhibits and water damaged paintings like that of queen Victoria. The coin exhibit had been removed for safe keeping leaving just the broken cases.

Jaffna has very many Hindu, Buddhist and Christian sites. There are many articles written about the various interesting Hindu and Buddhist sites in Jaffna by persons far more knowledgeable than me. For example see the lead article Buddhist Jaffna in the 2002 July issue of the Buddhist Times (Vol 1 #3). The 2003 book with title The essential guide for Jaffna and its region by Fabry describes most of the Hindu and Christian sites. It was a pity not being able to photograph many of interesting Buddhist Vihara and Hindu Kovils within the HSZ, many of them being restored from the sever war damage.

The Naga Vihara in Jaffna was destroyed a few years ago and has been now fully repaired with much publicity. However it is a recent temple only a few decades old, unlike the many other Buddhist sites in Jaffna that date from the earliest historical records of 3rd century B.C. The most famous is Nagadipa claimed in Mahavamsa to be a site visited by the Buddha in the 6th century BC. Being a one-day trip, I unfortunately did not have time to visit.

The Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is an impressive site. The original Kovil believed to have been built by King Bhuvaneka Bahu VI (1450-1467) was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1620, and current kovil dates to 1807 after being rebuilt during the Dutch and early British Era.

Kadurugoda Viharaya (Kanthrodai) is one of the earliest archaeological sites in Jaffna that luckily seemed to have survived the ravages of war. It is a site with over 60 small stupas of about 10 feet in diameter and height that have been built very close to each other. Many coins have been found at the site by archaeological excavations.

The port of Jambukola (Sambilthurai) near Kankesanthurai is the site where Theri Sanghamitta, Emperor Asoka's daughter landed with the Bodhi Tree. King Devananpiya Tissa built the Jambukola Vihara and Vijayabahu I (1055-1110) restored the site. The remains of the Vihara, such as the Buddha footprint stone and Vatadage seen up to recent times no longer exist there. A commemorative Vihara and Bodhi Tree had been recently been built within the HSZ.

The Naguleswaram Shiva Kovil is very ancient and is worshiped as one of five divine residences of Shiva. Destroyed by the Portuguese the present kovil dates to 1859.

The nearby springs at Keerimalai are a historical site. The Tamil name Keeri-malai translates to mongoose-mound. According to legend when Indian Saadhu Nagulaswami bathed in the spring, his nagul (mongoose in Sanskrit) face turned into a human one. It is within the HSZ west of Palali Airport. There are separate Baths for males and females and are still used. The source of the spring is in the rocks of Tellipallai-Maviddapuram.

According to the Maha Bharata, Princess Jamathakiri whose face had been cursed to that of a horse was restored to her former beauty in the springs of Keerimalai. She erected Maviddapuram Kovil to god Skanda Kumaran. Destroyed by the Portuguese it was rebuilt in 1782. Not much of the original sculptures visible. The site is being restored using drawings and photographs of the temple before the destruction to recreate the same architecture. Craftsmen from southern India had done most of the sculpture and the local talent was no longer available. The poosari was upset that the restoration that had restarted in 1995 after the SL government took back control of Jaffna had stopped again in the last few years. He blamed the new government in power in the south.

The LTTE have renovated few sites of their sites.

The children's park named after Kittu the LTTE leader who died in a sea battle with the Indian Navy was kept neatly. A portrait of the fallen comrade was prominently displayed inside and I was told the obstacle courses in the park were designed to combat train kids from an early age.

The large LTTE war cemetery had been restored and reopened in late 2002. The Tiger flag was flying at full mast. Hundreds of graves stretched out to the horizon. A plaque placed in front told of the destruction of the cemetery in 1995.

The upper middle-class house in which Prabakaran grew up in Velvettiturai had not yet been restored. A painted plaque on the wall next to the gate announced its identity in English. HONOURED PRABAKARAN'S HOUSE PRESIDENT OF TAMIL EELAM. A small tiger flag with no emblem flew in front of the entrance that was open to walk in. The roof had caved in, probably caused by the few shells that cut through some of the walls. There was graffiti on all the walls in many languages and political views. Above some doors were nice Hindu images. One had Krishna with two bulls on either side and one was of Lakshmi having her ritual bath with two elephants pouring water on her head caught my numismatic eye. It is an image found frequently on ancient Lankan coins. I read recently that Prabakaran's parents were returning from India. Maybe they will restore their house and move in.

I had read many reports about a gold coin issued by the LTTE but had never seen even an image of one. All of my inquiries had produced nothing except that I would only have any hope of finding one in Jaffna. This was part of my motivation to travel to Jaffna.

On the first day of my visit, we visited the jewelry shops on Kasthura Road. This was like Sea Street in Colombo, a concentrated row of gold shops. We picked one at random and asked for gold sovereigns and then asked specifically for the LTTE issue. We were told that they had passed through there hands into the melting pot. It seemed that for security reasons they did not keep any in stock for sale. The owner sent a messenger out to the LTTE gold shop and we were informed they needed to be obtained from the LTTE headquarters in Kilinochchi. Since I did not have the time to visit, we asked that someone go out and get two coins for us. When we returned the next day at the appointed time we were first told there was a delay in the messenger returning from Kilinochchi and was later told that the LTTE would not sell to a middleman and we would need to go personally and justify our request from the LTTE.

We then visited the LTTE gold shop down the same road to directly negotiate with them. They were the only shop with the name not written in English in addition to Tamil but they seemed friendly. One of them spoke English and I explained that I had a Internet website on Lankan coins including those from the medieval Tamil rulers like Rajaraja Chola. They said they did not have any and maybe able to get some in a few days. This was too late for me since I would have by then left Lanka.

I expected that if they were available in any of the other shops down that row, the word of are enquiry would have passed along and we would have got word of availability. Disappointed we almost left when I decided to ask all of the shops and leave the guest house phone number for them to contact us if any turned up. We had about one hour to spare before needing to return to catch my flight to Colombo. The first few shops turned up only a few regular gold sovereigns each. The fourth shop was very small, hardly five feet across and with just enough room for a counter and room for customers to sit. They were however probably the largest gold dealers. I was shown a bag that may have had fifty regular sovereigns. When we asked for the LTTE coins the dealer remembered that he might have two, but said they were of lower grade gold. I contained my excitement, and when I had the two in hand even, bargained down the price in view of the 20-karat gold.

Happy that I had finally found an LTTE coin, it was time to fly back to Colombo at 5 PM. The one-hour flight back was smooth. It took longer for the bus to travel in from Ratmalana back to Bambalapitiya in the weekday Colombo evening rush hour.

In my two days in Jaffna I had seen more places than I could have expected on a brief visit. The trip excluding my purchases cost me US$200 which breaks down as $65 (return Airfare), $16 Airport pickup and drop, $54 for accommodation, $25 for meals, $40 for 160 kms (100 miles) of guided travel around Jaffna by private car.

The initial gust of tourism after Jaffna opened for travel has passed. The recent break in peace talks has not helped. Anula has told me that she would probably have to sell out in few months due to pure economic reasons. However, as long as Anula runs that guesthouse in Jaffna, it is an easy trip and strongly recommended. Don't miss the window of opportunity.

For 44 Photographs (Total size just under 1 MB) taken on this trip arranged in approximate order of text above please click


An edited this article Travelling through ruins of war By Kavan Ratnatunga which appeared in the SundayTimes of Sri Lanka on 2003 July 20th. The eEdition online doesn't have the illustrations of the printed copy, which have been included in copy linked.