Sri Lanka, as It Heals from War
Clockwise from upper left, the Keerimalai spring, thought to have healing powers, used to require an armed guard for a visit; an island-bound ferry; the edge of the city of Jaffna; a detail from the Naguleswaram Shiva Temple, recently restored.
As soon as I arrived at the temple, an old man caught my eye and directed me to the inner sanctum. It was hot outside, and the sun was strong. But it was even hotter in the temple, where hundreds of festivalgoers had gathered.
Amy Karafin for The New York Times, Naguleswaram Shiva Temple.
Once I walked beyond the crowds and entered the dark, smoky chamber, the air was cooler, though, with scents of burning ghee and faded coconut. The Hindu god Murugan, popular among the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, was in his alcove, garlanded in flowers and lighted by dozens of tiny oil lamps. I’m not a Hindu and tend toward agnostic, but my mother was sick, and the vibes here were strong. So I prayed.
My two-week trip here last June was my second visit to the Jaffna Peninsula, a 400-square-mile expanse of Technicolor temples and arid, surreally beautiful landscapes in northern Sri Lanka that have only recently opened to tourists after a 26-year civil war. I had traveled there in 2011 to research a guidebook, but that trip had been packed with activity; this time I wanted to explore the area at my own pace. So, basing myself in a guesthouse in the capital of Jaffna on the peninsula’s southwest coast, I returned to linger in the region’s temples and visit the tiny islands offshore.
One of the first things I did was hire a car and driver and travel 10 miles to the Maviddapuram Kandaswamy Temple, where I had received a warm welcome from the priest’s family on my previous visit. Reminders of the war were all around. As we drove through the village of Maviddapuram, we passed abandoned houses; vegetation grew in former living rooms and banyan trees spilled over walls.
The temple itself had been hit hard during the war and is still being reconstructed. Much of the 17th-century structure that once stood there is gone, though its ornate 108-foot gopuram (tower), covered in sculptured gods, has been rebuilt. Over and over again I would see evidence of the civil war, which began in 1983 and continued until 2009. During that time, militants seeking a separate Tamil state in the north and east (an area including the largely Tamil Jaffna peninsula) were pitted against the government, which had, since independence from the British in 1948, become dominated by pro-Sinhalese policies.
Because the Maviddapuram temple had been part of a “high security zone” occupied by the military, its priests, along with thousands of families, had been evicted, and the structure was bombed and looted. Now things were finally returning to normal: the priests and worshipers were returning, and a reconstructed temple was rising from the rubble.
Two miles down the road, Maviddapuram’s sister temple, the ancient Naguleswaram Shiva Temple, has also been renewed: its interior now gleams with a thousand colors, and its sacred Keerimalai Spring is full of bathers seeking the mineral water’s healing powers. Guidebooks from 10 years ago mention that visitors may, if they are lucky, visit the spring after military searches and with an armed escort. But now travelers can go, as I did, escort-free, and, float in the pools (there is one just for women), thinking about the Tamil princess who discovered the sacred spring in the seventh century.
Elsewhere on the peninsula, damage from the war is also obvious, including in Jaffna, the largest city in the region, with a population of around 90,000. During the war, the capital, which is the spiritual and intellectual heart of Sri Lanka’s Tamil people, was caught in the cross-fire between the separatists and the government, neither of which fully represented its aspirations. Many believe that even though the fighting has ended, the disenfranchisement of Tamils from the political process continues.
Still, the town is peaceful now, and danger to travelers is minimal. During my visits, I avoided walking Jaffna’s quiet streets alone at night, but I never felt unsafe; on the contrary, the residents I encountered were happy to see travelers returning.
Even in the few months between my visits, Jaffna seemed transformed. The market had more shops, painted in brighter colors, and soldiers no longer kept watch on every street corner.
The streets are leafy, with majestic gopurams and church steeples (a legacy of the Portuguese) rising from almost every block. Old-fashioned cafes like the Malayan, in the market area, serve “rice and curry” (rice with lentil stew and several vegetable dishes) on banana leaves, along with South Indian snacks like vadai (savory doughnuts made from gram flour, potato and spices) with hot coconut chutney.
Bullet-pocked homes in the fishing neighborhood by the lagoon are still there, but there are also new ones, painted bright pink with green trim. The public library, a symbol of the city’s ancient intellectual tradition that was burned down in 1981, has been rebuilt and is now full of studious teenagers. Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, Jaffna’s most important religious edifice, unveiled a new carved golden gopuram at its annual festival in August 2011.
Outside of town, Jaffna’s shady lanes give way to a series of rugged causeways, one-lane bridges and sandy roads that traverse a network of islands, peninsulas and bits of land in the Palk Strait. Here, salt flats and open fields are peppered with palmyra palms and magnolia trees, hardy shrubs with purple flowers, and serene cows munching the ground cover down to a pale fuzz. The water is never far away. It is a completely different country from the tropical coasts and hilly forests of Sri Lanka’s south.
The isolation and quiet of the islands (there are eight main ones and several little ones off Jaffna’s southwest coast) lend them a wild air. They’re sparsely populated, if at all, a legacy of the war, when boat crossings were restricted and electricity was cut. The island of Analaitivu, for instance, has just 1,000 residents who fish or raise livestock, or work in Jaffna.
Over the course of a week, I explored the islands, which are thick with palm groves where brilliant turquoise and lime-green birds thrive. Neduntivu, also known as Delft, is one of the larger islands at about 20 square miles. It has the most surreal landscape, with a ground of white coral rock and sand, an ancient baobab tree, palms and radiant aquamarine water. On one tranquil white-sand beach, I watched as two teenagers bathed their horses in the ocean; not far away, wild ponies (supposedly descendants of Dutch mounts) roamed alongside cows on sunny fields.
All the islands can be reached by a combination of buses, which ply causeways between some of the islands, and boats that depart from ports on Velanai and Punkudutivu, two populated islands southwest of Jaffna. And while most of the islands themselves are walkable, larger ones are best seen by auto-rickshaw or, as I did on Neduntivu, by pickup truck.
As we drove, my driver, the friendly Shiva, explained Neduntivu’s local legends: a cluster of wells that were built by the devil, a footprint-shape imprint on the ground left by the original 40-foot-tall inhabitants, and a living rock, which grows a bit every year.
Shiva also talked about living here during the war — staying home after the 6 p.m. curfew, and hearing battles at night. Neduntivu’s raw beauty is matched by the explosion of color and devotion at the Nagapooshani Amman Temple on the nearby island of Nainativu. On my last trip, a Hindu astrologer had informed me that special prayers at temples on Nainativu and Analaitivu, to the north, would heal my mother’s illness.
On this visit, the Nainativu temple was mid-festival when I arrived: gods were being paraded on elaborate palanquins and showered with flowers, while musicians played. Devotees followed, some with magnolia and bougainvillea blossoms in their hair. I joined them, asking the goddess Nagapooshani for her blessings.
The temple on Analaitivu, which I visited the next day, couldn’t have been more different. Travelers don’t tend to venture here; the island is tiny, with a single bus and a quiet beauty. A rickshaw took me down sandy roads that wind through lush greenery to Puliyantivu Nageswaram Temple, home of the serpent god Nagathambiran. The temple is set dramatically in a clearing at the southern tip of the island and faces the sea. The elderly caretakers there spoke no English, but smiled and opened the doors to the gods’ sanctums for me.
Sri Lankan temples are friendly places. Priests always welcomed me, giving me small cloths to tie onto prayer trees or guiding me through prayers. Women put kumkum powder on my forehead and showed me when to take holy water and when to put 10 rupees in the tray. But I had arrived at the Puliyantivu temple at an off hour, and although it was peaceful, I wasn’t quite sure how to approach the god.
Then I remembered what the priest at Maviddapuram told me when I asked how a non-Hindu should pray to Murugan for her mother. “Close your eyes and talk to the god, ask for his help, that’s all. He will help you,” he told me. So, with the sun streaming into the temple compound and the beating of the ocean in the distance, that is exactly what I did.
If You Go
Americans can obtain a 30-day visa ($20) online at .eta.gov.lk. In November 2012 the State Department (travel.state.gov/travel) advised travelers to Sri Lanka to stay on main roads, as mine removal is still in process, and to “avoid political rallies, military bases, military or police convoys, and closed areas of high security zones.”
Although Jaffna has seen an explosion in guesthouses, most are small operations with basic amenities.
Manattrii (250 Palaly Road, Kandarmadam; 94-21-320-7665;manattrii.com), a restored 19th-century Jaffna home, has four rooms with antique furniture (from 3,500 rupees, about $28 at 123 rupees to the dollar) as well as some of the best traditional cuisine in the area.
The most well-equipped place is the colonial-era Expo Pavilion (40 Kandy Road, Chundikulli; 94-21-222-3790;). Doubles cost 9,200 rupeess.
Jaffna is known for its Karuthakolamban mangoes; the market has piles of them in season, in July and August, as well as raw palmyra sugar that you can take home. (While you’re there, look for suruthus, traditional Jaffna cigars.)
Rental cars with driver cost 5,000 to 6,000 rupees a day and can be hired through guesthouses.