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Sunday, 17 November 2002  
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Sojourn in Jaffna : A traveller's paradise

by Asiff Hussein

Jaffna is truly a charming and enchanting land as we found out in a recent visit to this memorable place. Ours was of course a first time visit and first time impressions are always lasting in one's mind's eye. Nevertheless, Jaffna has it all. Friendly people, a rich culture, salubrious climate and a picturesque environment go to make it a veritable traveller's paradise. Now that the guns have fallen silent and peace is in sight, domestic tourism in this long forgotten northern retreat is gradually catching on.

A view of the Jaffna lagoon

Curious tourists, pilgrims, businessmen and those visiting their loved ones form the greater part of the visitors here. Transport facilities have improved and buses now fearlessly ply the road to Jaffna. Airline services have also rushed to meet the demand and offer a fairly reasonable package.Indeed, air travel is swift and pleasant as we found out in our Lionair flight from Ratmalana to Palaly which took a mere 1 hour and 15 minutes. Landing at Palaly we board a bus to Jaffna town and are shortly there. Life in Jaffna town is very much normal and bustling with activity.

Nagadipa Buddhist temple

Boutiques of various descriptions cater to the needs of both the towns folk and visitors from the south and enjoy brisk business. Here one finds an array of items ranging from food and medicine to dress and ornament. Colourful salwar kamizes displayed in rows of mannequins, jewellery of various kinds and all manner of items designed to catch the eye of the Jaffna woman are a common sight.

Our visit to Jaffna University also proves to be an eventful one. The university established in 1974 during the tenure of Premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike is today a full-fledged campus. Student life here is evidently a happy one as we observe from the cheerful countenances of these young men and women in the bloom of youth. Girls on bicycles rarely seen in the south are a common sight here.

Another spot worth a visit is the Jaffna library established in 1954 which formerly housed one of the best collections in Asia. This beautiful domed building burnt down in 1981 is on its way to being restored. A large number of books have been donated and it may only be a matter of time when the library is restored to its former glory. Nearby lies the Duraippah stadium and an 80 foot memorial to one of Jaffna's greatest sons,S.J.V.Chelvanayagam.

Nallur kovil with its elaborate gopuram

We also visit Jaffna's premier place of Hindu worship, the Nallur Kandasamy Kovil. This famous Hindu temple characterised by a golden arch and elaborate gopuram attracts hundreds of pilgrims and worshippers. Shops in the vicinity cater to the needs of the devotees by selling coconuts, plantains and camphor. The present building of the kovil goes back to the eighteenth century. The original temple said to go back to the times of the Tamil kings was destroyed by the Portuguese and stood on the site presently occupied by St.James Church about a quarter mile from the present temple.

We then proceed to the northern coast where we visit the famous freshwater spring at Keerimalai and collect some beautiful corals from the seashore nearby. In the vicinity lies the Naguleshvaram Kovil complex where we come across an old gopuram now in ruins decorated with some very unusual themes.

We next proceed to Kuvil where we pass by thousands of palmyra palms lying in gay abandon.It is here that a famous toddy from the palmyra known as Kuvilgal used to be produced, but not anymore. In Nilavarai, we visit a large square well of unknown depth said by tradition to have been formed from an arrow shot by Hanumant to satisfy the thirst of Sita. On the way to the town we notice some very lush green paddy fields like moss dotting the countryside. Water here is in plenty as it is the rainy season in Jaffna. The rains here begin in October when the North East monsoon ushers in the showers. The widespread belief among southerners that Jaffna's climate is unbearably hot is a myth, at least during this part of the year.

Bicycles are a popular mode of transport

The next day is as eventful for we proceed by ferry to the island of Nainativu better known to Buddhists as Nagadipa. Buddhist tradition has it that the Buddha visited this spot to settle a dispute between the two Naga kings Mahodara and Culodara over a gem-set throne. Although thousands of Buddhist pilgrims formerly visited this site to pay homage to the Buddha, their numbers declined as a result of the war. It is only now with the recent ceasefire that the pilgrims are returning. In fact, we noticed a large group of Buddhist pilgrims during our visit to Nagadipa Raja Maha Viharaya where a solitary monk named Navadagala Padumakitta tends to the needs of the devotees.

On our way back to the ferry, we notice a boutique selling the purplish palmyra fruit and some fine tal hakuru, a course brownish sugar made from the sap of the palmyra spathe. Further down the road are to be met hawkers selling pinat, a flat brownish cake made from the pulp of the palmyra fruit. Proceeding further, we reach a small boutique on the wayside where we enjoy a cup of tea with vaippan, a soft roundish cake made of flour, sugar and plantains, all ground together and fried in oil. Returning to the mainland, we board a flight from Palaly and are back in Ratmalana within a little more than an hour. sojourn in Jaffna is truly an unforgettable experience.

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