A bombed house in Jaffna
Palm trees in the sunset
As the only major city in Lanka I had failed to visit, I did not want to miss the opportunity to see Jaffna when I holidayed in Sri Lanka in May this year. I did not expect it to be an easy journey.
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". I found out that Anula Meier, who runs the 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.
I was glad to find out from the Lion-Air office in Bambalapitiya that they were now flying a 48-seat British Aerospace Hawker Siddley aircraft. 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 a.m. from Ratmalana. 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 Palaly Airport on schedule. An Air Force lorry brought in the 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 one of few air-conditioned guesthouses 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 all the newsmakers who have visited Jaffna since it opened in September 2002. She has converted four large bedrooms of an old Jaffna mansion and very cleverly attached open-air toilets to each and I found it nice to be able to shower under the stars that night. The large garden had the traditional trees for protection. The Kohomba for disinfection, the Tamarind as a diuretic, and the Jak tree with so many uses, including that incredible fruit.
We had meals in the Palm Beach restaurant, one of two that had so far reopened in Jaffna town to cater to tourists' needs. It had good food and was inexpensive. The palmyrah 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. It was an image of a Palmyrah tree that was the primary symbol on Ceylon coins from 1870 to 1942
We first visited Jaffna University. In the Physics Dept. 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.
We also met Prof. Mahesen of the Dept. of Computer Science, whom I had contacted by e-mail. I was glad to find a 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 Cirrus and Plus International ATM systems. Jaffna was clearly computer networked.
The phone system, however, was poor. Mobile phones had poor reception and it took many attempts to get through to Colombo even from a communication shop. There is still a shortage of phone lines to meet the growing demand.
The Jaffna peninsula has not adopted the SriLanka time-zone change to 6.00 hours ahead of GMT and remains at the old time of 5.30 hours, same as all of India.
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 Minors 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 cadres were proudly driving around Jaffna in new motorcycles wearing LTTE caps.
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 within high security zones where an army security personnel accompanied us in our vehicle. No photography was allowed within those zones.
The kachcheri: The old (above) and the New
The Jaffna causeway
Let me describe the Jaffna I saw just after 20 years of civil war. Most of Jaffna was in ruin. A few key buildings like the Kachcheri had been rebuilt for administration. The bombed- out remains of the old Kachcheri 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 of the civil war.
The walls of the old Dutch fort in Jaffna were 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. A notice said it had been now cleared of personnel mines.
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 buildings which still remained as a stark reminder that rebuilding of war- torn Jaffna has hardly started.
The Jaffna Archaeological Museum was open but badly neglected. We walked past 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.
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 it.
The Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is impressive. The original Kovil believed to have been built by King Bhuvaneka Bahu VI (1450-1467) was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1620 and the 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 Devanampiya 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 have been recently been built within the HSZ.
The Naguleswaram Shiva Kovil is very ancient and is worshipped 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 Palaly Airport. There are separate baths for males and females and these are still used. The source of the spring is in the rocks of Tellipallai-Maviddapuram.
According to the Mahabharatha, 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 sculpture is 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.
The LTTE has renovated few sites. The children's park named after Kittu, the LTTE leader who died in a sea battle with the Indian Navy was neatly kept. 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 LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran grew up in Velvettiturai has 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 Krishna with two bulls on either side and another 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.
The LTTE gold coin
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 until with just about one hour to spare before my flight we found a very small shop, 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 British sovereigns. When we asked for the LTTE gold coins the dealer remembered that he might have two, but said they were of lower fineness. I contained my excitement,and when I had the two in hand even, bargained down the price in view of the 20-karat gold.
The one-hour flight back to Colombo was smooth. It took longer for the bus to travel from Ratmalana back to my home Bambalapitiya in the Colombo weekday evening rush hour.