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Delft Island

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The large, windswept island of Delft sits twenty miles off the mainland; about as far away from a city as you can get in densely-packed Sri Lanka. After an 80-minute bus ride to Kurikadduwan, we took a ferry to the island, and almost immediately upon disembarking from the ship, Jürgen realized with a cry that his camera battery was out of juice. I instinctively started backing away from him. A Jürgen who can’t take pictures at a wild, remote island is a dangerous, unpredictable Jürgen.

Pigeon House Delft Island
“Oooh… retro filter makes anything cool!”

What could we do, but push forward with our day?! The next ferry home didn’t leave for four hours, so we hired a tuk-tuk to take us on a tour of the island’s highlights. Jürgen was forced to make peace with the only backup camera we had: a four-year-old iPhone. The rest of the day, I’d be listening to sarcastic gripes like, “I’m going to win Photographer of the Year with this photo! National Geographic, here I come!”

Anyway. Delft was gorgeous despite our inability to properly photograph it. The dry, windswept landscape is home to a group of wild ponies, a strong military presence, and a human population of about 5000. Our tour started at the Old Portuguese Fort, built entirely from corals fished out of the ocean. To get there, we followed our driver into the back yard of the island’s hospital, and were free to climb to the top of the ancient ruins.

Next up was an old, ruined stupa. Not too exciting, but the long drive required to reach it impressed upon us the size of the island. Then, we visited the Pigeon House which… was a pigeon house, built by the Portuguese; pigeons were apparently the main method of communication back then. Luckily, the next stop on our tour was more interesting. An immense baobab tree in the middle of the island. Delft is the only spot in Sri Lanka where you can find these trees, which the Portuguese brought over from Africa. Amazing, and probably the highlight of our tour.

No, the highlight was the beach. We spent about an hour on a lonely patch of sand, taking in the sun and bathing in the lukewarm water of the Indian Ocean. It was so relaxing that Jürgen even forgot about the empty battery. Refreshed, we headed back to the ferry (which was free, by the way) and made our way home. Delft Island is one of the more difficult spots in Sri Lanka to reach, but there are plenty of reasons to make the trip. Just please, charge your camera battery.

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April 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm Comments (6)

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)

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)

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)
Delft Island The large, windswept island of Delft sits twenty miles off the mainland; about as far away from a city as you can get in densely-packed Sri Lanka. After an 80-minute bus ride to Kurikadduwan, we took a ferry to the island, and almost immediately upon disembarking from the ship, Jürgen realized with a cry that his camera battery was out of juice. I instinctively started backing away from him. A Jürgen who can't take pictures at a wild, remote island is a dangerous, unpredictable Jürgen.
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