Sri Lanka's blood-soaked northern capital.

We visited nine different places before arriving to the northern capital of Sri Lanka — Jaffna. Enough to discern the drastic differences between south and north. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one who sees his cup as half-empty and I don’t wish to throw shade on a country that has suffered for centuries. But I feel it’s more useful for the country to be criticised, instead of encouraged for what Sri Lanka has become, because although Jaffna is a part of Sri Lanka many don’t consider it so.

View over Ariya Kulam pond.

Plenty of stories are shared on blogs and in publications encouraging travel to areas once devastated by natural or man-made tragedies. Their authors know enough about the war to call the Tamil Tigers a terrorist group and Buddhist monks a peaceful bunch. They explore the south of the country and through inspiring videos and itineraries, advise people to visit beaches and hill stations, to take certain train journeys and to see the waterfalls. However, in contrast to the familiar pictures of coconut cocktails under the palm trees, picture-perfect forts, lux-hotels, colourful auto-rickshaws and happy elephants, the reality in Jaffna is pretty saddening.

A woman sending a child away from a pink church near the Beach Road slum.
Golden statue of King Pararasasekaran in front of Jaffna Clock Tower.

After the British vacated Sri Lanka their departure, as is had elsewhere too, caused insurgencies, partitions, mass–migration and civil wars. Independence in Sri Lanka brought political discrimination against the island’s Tamil population, with certain policies causing resentment amongst minority groups. Due to some of the policies enforced, 700,000 Tamils were made stateless, mass deportations of Tamils occurred, discrimination in recruitment and at universities was rife, Sinhala replaced English as the (only) official language and Buddhism became the country’s main religion. These actions antagonised the country’s Tamils, leading to the formation of the radical Tamil separatist group — the Tamil Tigers.

Despite being one of the cleanest countries in South Asia, people here still burn rubbish to dispose of it and Jaffna is much dirtier than other parts of the country. In picture: Men burning waste.

The ethnic division was pretty easy to achieve since Jaffna is geographically closer to India than to the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. There is only one road from Colombo to Jaffna taking nine hours by bus, or six hours by train. Either way it’s a long journey putting off many tourists from visiting.

When I travelled in Sri Lanka a phrase my girlfriend had used to describe Lombok in Indonesia kept coming to my mind — “The perfect balance of blue and green”, which could also be said of Sri Lanka. Except for Jaffna, where dull, brown, muddy land covers the landscape.

From the moment we got off the bus from Trincomalee we prepared ourself for hassle from tuk-tuk drivers or porters offering their services or their relative’s services. But no one came. I was surprised by how easy going everybody was. Nobody tried to get us to hire their tuk-tuk, no-one tried to sell us anything. A sign that tourists are still a relative novelty, despite the fact that the railway connecting south and north is now open.

The landscape of Jaffna's outskirts is covered in brown soil and has an abundance of factory plants.
A smiley local Muslim man cutting onions to accompany curry and rotis.

The contrast between south and north is pretty dramatic, from culture to language and from people to religion. Before the war repression of the Tamils by the Sri Lankan government caused a separatist group to establish a fully functioning, parallel government system, television network and banking system which later led led to appeals for a separate state.

The Library was destroyed during the war but fully restored in 2001.

In reaction against the independence movement Sinhalese police burned down Jaffna’s Public Library, one of the largest in Asia, destroying its precious collection of 97,000 books and artefacts.

A super narrow green mosque tucked in-between two houses.

During the war another minority group, the Sri Lankan Moors, were forced by the Tamil Tigers to migrate from north to south, cutting the population of Muslims in the area.

An important landmark for Jaffna’s Hindus is the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple. Originally built in the 15th century it was later destroyed by the Portuguese and then rebuilt several times. This magnificent Tamil temple, a symbol of Sri Lankan Tamil identity, has survived both destruction and war and its ancient rituals are still practised behind the candy striped walls.

Flame burning in front of Nallur Kandaswamy Hindu Temple.

The war left its mark in the shape of the bullet holes in the walls of destroyed houses, which I saw only in Jaffna. While houses devastated by the Tsunami had been repaired in many other parts of Sri Lanka, in Jaffna many ruined buildings are still visible.

Man on a bike rides by an abandonned Art Deco house in central Jaffna.

Having spent a day walking on Jaffna’s endlessly depressing streets we finally found some two-wheeled transport to help us discover more of the city. Its colourful markets, Tamil snack shops, fishermens slums and bustling main commercial streets.

Fishermen's boats lined up in slums on outskirts of Jaffna.
Bags of chillies and spices in bags near Jaffna market.

We quickly learned that women in this part of Sri Lanka are much less visible on the streets than in other parts of the island, and that the main human attraction was a moustached Tamil man in shirt and plaid lungi, staring and smiling.

Tamil scrap man in traditional clothing showing off a British era car from his collection.

Taking a rickshaw in the city one afternoon there was an explosion of students onto the streets. In their bright white and blue coloured uniforms (similar to those in Haputale) they occupied the streets with their bikes and scooters trying to get past. Students are the most prominent object in Jaffna, they walk in packs and roars of excitement can be heard emanating from the schools. Now that the war is finished the schools are back to their normal regime and all students, no matter their background, are allowed to study there.

Going to Jaffna can be quite eye-opening and sobering. It helps you to understand that travel isn’t always meant to allow you to escape the boredom of your daily routine, or as a holiday. Sometimes it teaches us to analyse our lives and be grateful for what we have and what’s considered a normal livelihood back home — peace.