Moments at the Jaffna Market | Sunday Observer

Moments at the Jaffna Market

The market is a melting pot of human emotions, attitudes and bargaining prowess. It is also the culminating point for all village produce. On my recent visit to the busy town of Jaffna it took me an hour to walk round the main market and capture the moments with these vendors, who display business acumen and creative selling slogans. The sun was quite intense. The old market is located along the main road that also houses the new supermarket once painted yellow and now in shades of white! The entrance to the ‘santhai’ (Tamil word for market), is lined with many bicycles. The bicycle is a trusted companion of almost every northern citizen - from the student, the academic, vendor, clergy and policemen. It is a reliable and cost effective mode of transport - and for the vendor it is the ‘working horse’ that carries their fruits and vegetables to be sold at the market.

The first person I encountered was a tailor from the Muslim community. He greeted me with a smile. He has been here for years - a lovely blending of brotherhood with the Tamil vendors. Across this stall is a man selling betel leaves and arecunut. Using an old iron clipper he cuts the hard arecunut with dexterity. He asked me to try some betel, but I smiled and declined.

At the next turn was a stall selling Northern products based on the palmyrah leaves- trays to hold string hoppers, ladles to stir the mouthwatering crab curry and the winnow, a basic item in any Northern home. The palmyrah tree is a resilient resource for the Northerners, who make use of it to make many products. Finally its fronds end up as material for the fences.

Up next was a confectionery stall, and the man beckoned, “I am Ruben, come and try these natural products, and take some with you to Colombo”. As to how he identified me as a Colombo guy was interesting. Ruben has been here for 18 years. The shop is filled with rows of palmyrah based sweets – panangkatti (a form of jaggery), pinattu (a flat sticky chocolate like sweet) and various other items. New additions are the Jaffna cookies - infused with peanuts from Maankulam and Murugandy.

From here we entered the vegetable and fruit stalls - the air was filled with all kinds of natural fragrances. One of the first vendors who caught my eye was a bearded youth selling yams. He had in a large gunny bag the king of yam - karunaikilangu. This is an odd looking yam covered in sand, with no regular shape, resembling a rock. He explains, ‘Brother you have to be careful as you cook this. It contains a thick milk like substance which is somewhat poisonous. But you can cook this like a beef curry. You can use a portion of the yam and keep the other portion for days- it will not get spoilt.

Next door to him was a man selling jack fruit, papaya and mangoes. But these are not the famous karutha kolumban variety, which was rather disappointing, but a local hybrid variety. Grapes too are on sale. Vineyards are slowly taking root in the North, especially, in the Vasavillan- Palaly areas. The grapes are a bit sour, as they reflect the soil content of the region.

Talking of grapes I had a coincidence - I met Father Jeban from the Rosarian Monastery located in the serene village of Atchuvely. These dedicated monks use home grown grapes for cordial and wine production.

However, their best seller is the lush green liquid nelli crush, which has now positioned itself as the beverage of the Northern Province. A row of dried fish shops completed the tour, as the smell of dried fish permeated the afternoon air. The islands around Jaffna produce some of the best dried fish in the region. It was refreshing to see soldiers and policemen making their purchases, while engaging in conversation with the vendors. Peace is certainly yielding bonds of brotherhood. Tourists walked about taking photographs. The moments at the Jaffna Market were snapshots into the life of these people.