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The Enigmatic Stupas of Kadurugoda

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A collection of small stupas found a mile east of Chunnakam, Kadurugoda is a rare island of Buddhism in the Hindu-dominated peninsula of Jaffna. We hired a tuk-tuk to the site, shortly after visiting the Keerimalai water temple.

Stupas-of-Kadurugoda

Around twenty mini-stupas made of coral are scattered about Kadurugoda. They’re thought to have been built around 2000 years ago, and were rediscovered and excavated by an English judge in 1917. Valuables buried around the site, and protected inside the stupas, included coins from pre-Christian Rome and early Indian kingdoms, indicating Jaffna’s status as an international maritime port way back in the day.

Unsurprisingly for a Buddhist site in the heart of Hindu-land, there’s a lot of contention surrounding the purpose and meaning of the stupas, and everyone seems to have a different theory. The most likely explanation we heard is that the stupas, which originally numbered 61, are the burial sites of 61 holy men who had died in a plague. And the presence of Buddhist architecture in the north of Sri Lanka is no real shocker — back then, the religions intermingled more liberally, borrowing ideas and even gods from each other. It’s likely that Hindus even used this site to worship.

Regardless of their meaning, the stupas of Kadurugoda are an amazing relic of the past, and well worth the short trip to Chunnakam, just ten kilometers north of Jaffna.

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March 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm Comments (2)

Inquisitive, Curious Sri Lanka

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Want to quickly gather together a massive group of Sri Lankans? Get into a car wreck. Want to play Twenty Questions with a Sri Lankan? Walk down the street. There isn’t a culture on Earth more nosy or curious than Sri Lanka’s. At least, I hope not!

Sri Lankan Spectators

This really only applies to Sri Lankan men. Women basically leave you alone… but the guys! They want to know everything about you, and they’re not afraid to ask. “Where are you from? What is your name? Why are you here? You like Sri Lanka? How long you stay? What is your hotel? You want a banana? Why not? Why don’t you want a banana? What are you looking for? Where are you going?”

The questions come rapid fire, one after the other, and I’ve gotten so used to the drill that I spurt out my answers without even thinking. USA. Mike. Vacation. Yes. Three Months. A guesthouse. No. I just don’t. I don’t know I just don’t. Nothing. Just walking.

Sometimes, when I’ve been forced to run the Sri Lankan Interrogation Gauntlet multiple times within a span of minutes, I’ll protect my sanity by getting surreal: Japan. Hiroshi. Spying. Meh. Forever. Your House. No. I’m allergic. All us Japanese are allergic to bananas. A pot of gold. Probably hell.

Often, these questions are the prelude to a scam, but you can never be sure until you’ve completed the course and the final question is “You have foreign coins?” or, “You want a massage?” Most of the time, your inquisitor is just genuinely curious about you, so you keep shining your toothiest Western smile and respond as cheerfully as possible. Until he starts talking about a “special price for jeep safari”.

The curiosity extends to all aspects of Sri Lankan life. If there’s been a car accident, or an argument has broken out between a shop owner and a policeman, the neighborhood comes a-runnin’. Action! Within minutes, a gossiping gaggle of gawkers has bunched together on the sidewalk. Frustrating, since it prevents our own rubbernecking. We’ll kind of stand around on the outside of the group, trying to figure out what’s going on, until one of the guys notices us and starts in with the questions… “Where are you from?”

The curiosity of the people was off-putting at first, but we’re becoming used to it. I’ve even started to feel a little hurt when I meet a Sri Lankan who doesn’t pepper me with questions. What, I’m not interesting enough for you? Aren’t you dying to know why I don’t want your bananas?!

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March 31, 2012 at 8:40 am Comments (3)

Fun in the Sun at Keerimalai

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Set on the northern coast of the Jaffna Peninsula is one of the more entertaining places of worship we’ve ever visited. The Keerimalai Kovil, which overlooks the Palk Strait separating Sri Lanka from India, doubles as a popular pool and hang-out zone for people taking a break from their regular lives. My church’s attempts to combine fun and worship were like, Amy Grant Dance Party. Hindus have us beat.

Keerimalai-Tank-Pool

The large sacred pool is a part of the temple grounds, and the faithful can either tranquilly submerge themselves in its blessed water, or (more likely), get their friends to hoist them into the air for an attempted back flip. Or, sneak up on some unsuspecting victim and body slam him into the water. Or, jump into the water from the walls. Cannonballs, diving, splashing and a lot of laughing. And a total disregard of signs reminding people to remain quiet and respectful.

We were just spectators at the pool, much to the dismay of the kids urging us to jump in. After talking to a few people eager to show off their English, we walked down along the coast and sat for awhile looking out over the ocean. Keerimalai has an incredible setting, and we could have stayed here for hours.

Inland, across the road, the main temple of Keermalai was lying in wait. Like approximately 99.4% of the buildings in Jaffna, the temple was under construction, but it was open for business. A ceremony was already underway when we ventured inside and we watched the proceedings for awhile, underneath the curious, distrustful gaze of a little girl.

The temple and pool, let alone the spectacular seaside setting, provide more than enough reason to venture the extreme northern coast of the peninsula. A bus connects Keerimalai to Jaffna, albeit on a round-about route which makes no sense on the map and requires at least an hour each way.

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March 31, 2012 at 6:44 am Comments (2)

Casuarina Beach on Karaitivu Island

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You’d think that, for a long, narrow strip of land which juts out into the Indian Ocean, finding a beach on the Jaffna Peninsula wouldn’t be a big hassle. But reaching the two beaches we visited during our time in the north required a degree of planning and force of will normally required for tasks like composing a symphony, or cooking a seven-course meal. To arrive at Chatty Beach, we had to rent bikes, ask seventy guards for directions and battle through an unbelievable headwind for miles. And getting to Casuarina Beach was no easier.

Darmatic Beach

Karaitivu was the second of three western islands we visited during our stay in Jaffna (the others being Kayts and Delft). We arrived at the bus station equipped with a map, and freshly educated in pronunciation by the owner of our guesthouse. “Ka-rye-tee-vah! Faster! No accents! Like it were one crazy syllable!” Alas, the guys working at the bus station still had no idea what I was saying. Giving up, I just pointed at the map. “Ah, Karaitivu!”

The two attendants helping us were soon joined by a curious cadre of four other bystanders, all discussing which bus we should take, and where we should really be going. One guy was convinced that we’d do better to visit Nanaitivu — another island which he considered more interesting. And amid all the discussion and confusion, we nearly followed him onto the wrong bus.

The twenty-kilometer ride took over an hour to complete, and we were dropped off in a dusty town with one store and three people. Now, just an easy mile-long hike separated us from the crystal blue water and white sand of Casuarina Beach. On arriving, we were overjoyed — exactly as we had hoped for! A gorgeous stretch of sand extending for kilometers along the northern coast of the island, bordered by the shrubby Casuarina trees which lend the beach its name. We decided to escape local bathers, and walk towards the lighthouse on the northwestern tip of the island before sitting down: a plan that would be our undoing.

A few minutes before reaching the spot we’d chosen to set up our towels, the skies suddenly darkened. This had been a sunny day! After the stressful journey to even arrive at the beach, the rain began almost the instant we sat down. Having fun, Jaffna?! We think you’re hilarious, too!

We swam for a bit under the rain, but soon packed it up and started back home. Sigh. It wasn’t the most successful of our day trips, but despite the trouble, it was nice to see such a pristine bit of nature. With a bit better luck and (especially) our own transport, it would have been a great day out.

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March 30, 2012 at 10:18 am Comment (1)

Bow to King Coconut

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In every city, town or village of Sri Lanka, and alongside country roads, you’ll find stands hawking golden coconuts. These are thambili, or King Coconuts, and we’ve made it a habit to grab one every day.

CocoNut Girl

The seller takes a machete and starts hacking away at the coconut, until a small opening can be carved from the top. You drink the sweet water found inside, usually with a straw, though I prefer chugging it straight from the shell. It’s delicious, especially on a hot day, and has incredible health properties better than any energy drink.

Jürgen loves researching the health benefits of whatever food he’s consuming, and hasn’t shut up about coconuts for weeks. I’ll ask him (as though I forgot) what the beneficial properties of coconuts are.

[His eyes just lit up! I’ll have to type quick] “It totally re-hydrates you, so it’s good against diarrhea, and has loads of protein and carbohydrates. Supplies tons of energy, good against hangovers, and it has tons of antioxidants! Ummm… Vitamin E! I think that’s it.” Nothing else? “The diarrhea thing is pretty good. Ah, also against aging, and purifying blood. Wait, why are you typing? Is this a quiz?!”

Coconut water really is one of the healthiest things you can drink, and since you can watch the coconut be split open, it’s guaranteed safe and clean — even better than possibly contaminated bottled water. Some are sweeter than others, which I think depends on the age of the coconut, and they’re more refreshing when they’ve been cooled, or resting in the shade. Once you’re done, the seller will usually split the coconut in half, and carve a spoon-shaped piece from the shell which you can use to scrape the sweet, white flesh from the inside.

I look forward to our coconut break every day. Maybe it’s just my mind playing tricks, but I do feel instantly refreshed and energized after chugging one down. In fact, I think I’m going to stop typing and go find a coconut right now.

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March 29, 2012 at 10:43 am Comment (1)

Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil

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An enormous, 100-foot golden tower announces the presence of the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, on the northern end of Jaffna. This is the largest and most important place of worship on the peninsula, and holds multiple daily ceremonies. Jürgen and I removed our shoes and shirts (oh quiet down, all you squealing tweens!), and stepped inside for an afternoon observance.

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The original Nallur Kandaswamy was built in the 1400s, and destroyed when the city was conquered by the Portuguese, who rather rudely constructed a Catholic Church on the site. The current temple dates from the early 17th century, during the occupation of the more religiously-tolerant Dutch, and it’s been the center of Hindu religious life in Jaffna ever since.

The temple has an odd design. The massive golden tower faces south, and isn’t anywhere near the entrance, which is around to the east. In order to enter the temple, you have to walk around the building, painted in circus-like red and white stripes. This provides the opportunity to appreciate its size. Inside, there’s even room for a large pool.

Once inside, we joined a group of locals watching the ceremony. I won’t pretend to have any idea what was going on — it involved incense, fire and ear-splitting music produced by a horn. We followed the horn player and a drummer on a long, clockwise lap, stopping at each of the many shrines set around the temple (to Ganesh, Subrahmanyan and others).

Every year in August, Nallur Kandaswamy is home to a 25-day long festival, whose importance to the people of Jaffna is underlined by the fact that it was even held during the years of war. The biggest event is the Chariot Festival, when thousands of people converge to help pull a giant temple car around. A shame we wouldn’t make it to that, but we still had an interesting time at Nallur Kandaswamy.

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March 29, 2012 at 8:03 am Comment (1)

Jaffna Causeway and Chatty Beach

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A string of small islands stretch out to the west of Jaffna, pointing the way to India, mostly connected to the mainland by roads built up out of the shallow water. One day, we rented rickety old bikes and rode out on the causeway which begins near the fort to the first of the islands.

Chatty Beach

The road to Kayts is a lot longer than it first appears, but the scenery is so gorgeous that we didn’t mind too much. Along the way, fishermen worked on their nets in the shallow waters and graceful white storks provided constant company.

Once we arrived at Kayts, we began asking about Chatty Beach. “Oh, not far” the soldiers stationed along the road would say (the islands, like the rest of Jaffna, maintain a heavy military presence). “Just keep straight”. So straight, we went. And went, and went. Eight kilometers later, we finally saw a sign, and soon afterward came upon a beautiful beach facing the south sea. We were the only people around, and had the beach to ourselves. The water, we had to share with an unsettling number of jellyfish.

So, thirteen kilometers to reach a lovely, secluded beach. Not bad; nothing to complain about… But on the ride back, we had to push against an unbelievable headwind. Suddenly, the rickety charm of our bikes wasn’t so charming at all. By the time we finally made it back to Jaffna, we were exhausted, sunburned and dehydrated, and any sort of relaxation we’d stored up at the beach was long gone.

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March 28, 2012 at 8:02 am Comment (1)

The Besieged Fort of Jaffna

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In 1618, the Portuguese built an enormous fort in Jaffna, to help protect their hard-won property. Colonial-era forts are fairly common across the world, but Jaffna’s must be one of the very few which continued to see action until the late 20th century. Recently re-opened to visitors, it was one of the first things we checked out in Jaffna.

Jaffna Fort

The Portuguese ruled Jaffna until 1658, when the Dutch sailed into town and took over. De Nederlanders expanded the fort and, after a century and half of dominance in northern Sri Lanka, ceded control to the British in 1795. Years after the tumultuous colonial years, the fort was the scene of major battles during the Sri Lankan Civil War. The LTTE controlled it until 1995, when a 50-day siege by the army finally uprooted them. Walking around the fort today, it’s immediately obvious how incredible the fight must have been. Almost everything is in ruins.

We were far from alone during our visit to the fort, which has apparently become a popular spot for a Saturday stroll. I’m unsure, though, whether the people visiting were from Jaffna or further afield. Now that the war is over, the peninsula has become a hot tourist zone for Sri Lankans, who hadn’t been able to visit the northern section of their country for decades. Perhaps even more than the fort itself, Jürgen and I were big attractions among the visiting families, asked to pose for picture after picture. It was a surreal, humorous touch to what had been a rather sobering day out.

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March 27, 2012 at 1:34 pm Comments (2)

The Modern Ruins of Jaffna Town

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We’ve never visited a city with a vibe like Jaffna’s. The only town of any appreciable size in the whole of northern Sri Lanka, Jaffna is the vibrant de facto capital of the country’s Tamil population. But it’s also a tragic showpiece for the horrors of modern war. A walk through the streets of modern Jaffna offers both a heartbreaking look at the darkness of humanity, and an inspiring example of our stubborn perseverance.

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Life in Jaffna is centered around the bus station, which is where we arrived with broken bums and twisted spinal columns after the journey from Anuradhapura. The first thing we noticed on stepping out of the bus was… nothing. No touts. Nobody directing us to “their friend’s” guesthouse. No tuk-tuks clamoring for our business. Nobody asking “what is your country?” There were people all over, but they were leaving us alone. Jaffna doesn’t get that many tourists and, apparently, hasn’t yet learned that there’s money to be made by harassing us. Immediate plus points.

During the ten days we’d spend in Jaffna, we were often downtown. There aren’t a lot of specific sights, but the city is fascinating all by itself. We’d walk along the Kasturiya Road, where hundreds of vendors sell gold and jewelry, or Main Street which is home to cavernous Catholic churches and colonial mansions. We’d visit the stately public library, which looks more like a courthouse, and find fishing boats coming to shore down Beach Road. Everyone, everywhere, smiled and waved at us. This was a lively town, with happy people going cheerfully about their lives!

Along those same streets though, in another mood or light, you could reach a very different conclusion. In the city center, half the stores are shuttered up or destroyed. Down Main Street, every other house was in ruins, only the barest foundations having survived whatever bomb or fire had wrought the devastation. The library, once one of the largest in Asia, has only recently re-opened after having been burnt to the ground by malicious policemen in the 80s. Streets are pockmarked with potholes. A lot of people are missing limbs. Eyes. There’s an excessive number of hospitals and funeral parlors. The ravages of war are everywhere; unmistakable, and impossible to avert your eyes from.

Between the dead ruins and the living city, you can easily imagine how beautiful Jaffna must once have been. I would love to hop in a Delorean, and travel back to see it during its prime, before the war. But perhaps I should just remain patient — hostilities just ended, after all, and I have a feeling that it won’t be long before Jaffna recovers.

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March 27, 2012 at 11:47 am Comments (2)

The Sri Lankan Civil War

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Between 1983 and 2009, a brutal civil war threatened to tear Sri Lanka apart at the seams. Waged primarily between the island’s Sinhalese majority government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the conflict claimed over 100,000 lives. The war only came to an end when the army killed the LTTE’s charismatic leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, after a bloody campaign in the north.

As might be imagined, tensions are still high on the island. It will take decades for the wounds of war to heal and, even if peace proves sustainable, there will always be scars. Just look at the USA, where the ghosts of our Civil War remain discernible. For now, though, it’s enough for most Sri Lankans that the guns have been laid to the side.

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Although no one is eager to discuss the war with us, and we’re careful to never bring it up, not a day goes by when it’s not referenced in some oblique way. “You like Sri Lanka?” someone will ask us. “Is very peaceful, yes? Now is peace”. Or, we’ll pass another heavily-guarded checkpoint. Or see some awful relic of the war, such as a sign warning about landmines, or a makeshift museum dedicated to a particularly brutal bomb blast. There’s no escaping the legacy of the war, and on any trip to Sri Lanka, its presence will be (and should be) ever-present.

We’re not going to wade into the murky waters of the war’s origins. Suffice to say that there have always been tensions between the island’s different ethnic groups. The feelings of distrust were mostly held in check when the island was administered by the British, but came to the fore in the years following independence. The war officially began after a 1983 pogrom, known as Black July, during which Sinhalese mobs killed thousands of Tamil civilians. The pogrom itself was in retaliation for a deadly ambush by the Tigers, which was in retaliation for something else — and so on, and so on; the blame game could (and does) go back centuries.

The main goal of the LTTE was an independent state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil population, in the north and east of Sri Lanka. A guerrilla organization, the LTTE’s fighting techniques included suicide bomb attacks, often in heavily populated or religiously significant places, like Colombo’s Fort or Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth. Government responses were brutal and indiscriminate, and the attacks by both sides only encouraged more ruthlessness and anger in the other.

The war was a tragedy for Sri Lankans of all stripes, and during our time here, we’ve found it hard to believe that such a conflict was even possible. The Sri Lankans we’ve met — Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Rich, Poor — have been almost entirely wonderful, happy and friendly people. We can only hope that the peace, though fragile as ever, endures. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country whose diverse population only enriches it, and it deserves better.

We all do.

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March 26, 2012 at 11:02 am Comments (2)

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The Enigmatic Stupas of Kadurugoda A collection of small stupas found a mile east of Chunnakam, Kadurugoda is a rare island of Buddhism in the Hindu-dominated peninsula of Jaffna. We hired a tuk-tuk to the site, shortly after visiting the Keerimalai water temple.
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