Discover Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s forgotten city

Positioned at the northern tip of Sri Lanka, the Jaffna peninsula is often missed out by tourists visiting the island, despite its far-reaching historical background. Jaffna is scattered with ancient Hindu kovils adorned with colourful statues, stately colonial-period churches and ruins of ancient Buddhist temples, as well as swaying Palmyra Palms and picturesque lagoons where flamingos flock after the rains. For wildlife enthusiasts – particularly bird-watchers – and those intrigued by Sri Lankan history and culture, Jaffna is a must-see.

In recent history, Jaffna has undergone much hardship due to terrorism and, ultimately, a full-scale war between the LTTE and Sri Lankan armed forces which ended a 26-year conflict. The effects of this destructive and traumatic period will understandably remain for many years, but since 2009 the people of Jaffna have gradually been rebuilding their lives with renewed hope.

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Over the last couple of years, Jaffna has had an influx of visitors eager to explore this once inaccessible area which boasts a culture markedly different to that of the rest of the island. Jaffna is a cultural microcosm, significantly influenced by southern Indian traditions which affect everything from the language and religion to the spices used in their curries. Most people in Jaffna speak Tamil (rather than Sinhalese, which is prevalent in Sri Lanka) and practise Hinduism, although there are some Christians in this area. Sri Lanka’s startling cultural diversity can only be fully appreciated after experiencing life in the north of the country.

In response to this renewed interest, Jaffna is reviving itself as one of the island’s must-visit locations, and will no doubt soon join the ranks of places deemed essential for a full island tour, such as Kandy and Galle. The next few years will be a fantastic time to visit Jaffna, as it is still relatively untouched by the tourist footprint but will be becoming gradually more geared towards visitors. An enriching experience for the more adventurous.

Don’t Miss…

Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil

Arguably the most important Hindu temple in Sri Lanka, Nallur Kandaswamy kovil dates back to the 10th century and is astonishing in its size, décor and popularity. The kovil that stands today was originally built in 1734 AD but has been continually renovated since the early 20th century and now boasts four iconic Gopurams (tower of monuments), six Bell Towers and fortified walls. To see it at its best, visit during a Pooja ceremony – held several times per day – and listen to the hypnotically complex chanting and drumming.

Jaffna Fort

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First built by the Portuguese in 1618, the fort was captured by the Dutch in 1658 and expanded to its current structure. It was a key strategical defence point for each colonial power, and remained under the control of a British garrison until 1948. Despite being damaged during the civil war and vandalised by those seeking to rebuild their homes once the conflict ended, the original Portuguese entrance gate still stands, and the fort is still worth visiting, if only for the old buildings housed inside, such as colonial-period churches. Why not take our city cycling tour and explore these fascinating streets by bike? Much the easiest and quickest way to get around.

Bird-watching

Few places in Sri Lanka are more rewarding or spectacular for bird-watching than the Jaffna district. During September – March, migrant birds along with other waders flock in their thousands to the many lagoons which are dotted around this area. You can also see a myriad of Greater Flamingos on the causeways at this time of year – their vivid pink colour makes this a breath-taking sight that is not to be missed.

Delft Island
Delft, Sri Lanka’s Forgotten Island

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Delft Island is about as remote as it gets in Sri Lanka. Located in the Palk Strait – the area between India’s state of Tamil Nadu and the Northern part of Sri Lanka – Delft is a small and isolated island perhaps best known for its population of wild horses, which were left on the island by the Portuguese and remain an iconic feature of the rural life here. Drive you along the causeway to board a boat which will take you to the island to meet Pastor, who originally hails from Sri Lanka’s tea country. Having made his home at Delft, he will show you around this remote space where wild ponies graze, taking you to sites including the old Delft Fort and an ancient Baobab tree, and will demonstrate how Palmyra toddy and crafts are made by local farmers. Finish with a simple lunch and a swim: the beach is deserted, utterly undeveloped and has a calm and gentle sea.

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