Only a few months ago, I was lamenting that I hadn’t visited the Northern province of Sri Lanka and now, I’ve been there twice with a possible third trip coming up soon. Why is it then, that everyone south of the province’s boundary considers it a huge achievement to travel ‘up north’? Aside from the fact that it was mostly inaccessible and a threat to one’s life to venture that way for the last three decades.
Explain it to a foreign friend and their eyes would go wide; ‘you went where the war happened?’ and as dramatic as that sounds, unless you’re someone who is genuinely returning there after a long spell away, that is what it is.
Travels to the North are accompanied with memories of tragic newspaper headlines, television news reports your parents didn’t let you watch, an archive of casualty statistics and images you saw when you snuck a peak at the tv come to mind, things you can’t un-know.
In truth, it is difficult to drive with your destination looming at the end of the A9 without thinking of a dark past. Rightfully so, because to try and erase that context from the places along the highway would be to deny people the chance to tell their stories, experiences that have shaped the citizens and places of the region into what they are today.
With these images in one’s head, it is no doubt then that the beauty of the cities in the North completely take you by surprise. The sun rising over a still harbour or setting below a line of palmyrah swaying in the breeze; places that have borne so much pain aren’t supposed to look this magnificent, we think, but the Northern province of Sri Lanka is the best place to prove you otherwise.
The sun is the kind that burns your skin; no humidity, just a tingling scorch and gentle breeze.
Calm in the middle of a semi-bustling town sits a lake, overgrown with water hyacinth yet stretching for miles under the same scorching sun, wind whipping at the flowers that dot the green leaves. I munch on a papadum snuck from a ‘hotel’s’ lunch buffet and look out over this vast expanse of water.
Bougainvillea of every shade grow in abundance by the side of the newly-carpeted highway and sounds erupt from across the road – school’s finished but a cricket match is just beginning. Children’s voices rise in a steady stream of cheers, boos and screams as two teams, a haphazard mix of both girls and boys, raise the dust in their spirited game.
I feel a small tap on my shoulder to find two giggling girls, hair in long plaits by their shoulders, watching me curiously. She asks me if I speak Tamil, and when I say no we switch to a mix of English and Sinhala; she wants a photo of her and her friends in the garden of a small temple by the main road. Crowding around me once the ‘photo shoot’ is done, they look at their faces on the screen, gleeful at the sight of the photograph.
‘Akka, put in on Facebook’, they ask me. And I do.
Once the paved A9 and the sounds of the town have faded away, red dust rises on unpaved roads, dry scrub growing wild on both sides. It’s been two hours since the last bell but two girls and a boy on their bikes are just returning from school, the dirt roads making their journey twice as long and tiring. They pretend not to see me as I take their photo.
Among the wild bushes and reeds, a playground hides. See-saw, matslide and swing, abandoned years ago and growing wild with the land around them. They have a certain character about them, telling a story quite different to the average playground, colourful and bustling, in a well-kept school garden. A blue streak paints the dystopian image a shade brighter as a little boy and his brother rush towards the swing, seemingly shy at the strange girl watching them with a small smile on her face, but the rush of flying with the air beneath their feet washes that doubt away.
The dirt road continues, and right at it junction is a mud house sitting next to a hole in the ground; someone spent months digging the ground with their bare hands to shelter their family and the home looks beautiful. Dogs come sniffing at our feet as we look closer at the carefully moulded walls and a voice calls them off. Only then do we see a cradle hanging from the large tree that shelters the home, a baby rocking to sleep in the gentle breeze while her siblings sit in around her; watching, protecting.
The voice was her father’s, they’ve got a small teashop and he serves us each a cup. He tells us the story of his house and is surprised to hear that people – both local and foreign – are willing to shell out a fortune to stay in ‘authentic’ places like this. It’s laughable, to him.
When we leave, he refuses to charge us for the tea. ‘No need sir, madam – what’s a cup of tea? A small blessing from us to you.
When people who have so little are still so willing to give, it makes you wonder why you don’t give more.
The sun is slowly sinking as we stop for hoppers at the junction. A spontaneous decision puts us on the long road from the grand entrance arch to the shrine itself, winding and lonely through a dense forest.
Trees clear as we get closer and the grounds are deserted. I walk inside, a few older men and women are kneeling around inside on cool tiled floors, hands clasped in fervent prayer. A woman who looked old enough to be my grandmother was making her way up the aisle on her knees.
Dusk set in over the iconic façade of the church, made famous by its reopening after years of sitting in destruction and the recent visit of the Pope.
I have to run – we’re getting late.
My friend asks me to explain why the inside of the Madhu church is different to that of the usual church, no pews as one would normally see, and I have to describe that it is a shrine. How persecuted Christians once found solace here in the jungles and built a church there.
‘Sad, they escape persecution only to be attacked and have their church bombed a few years later.’ Night is falling as we drive off.
Mornings are quiet here. Crows take the liberty of lining the streets and little donkeys are waiting patiently at the station for their bus.
We’re really here for the sunrise; awake at 6 am to the dismay of our friends, we know that it’ll be worth the lost sleep.
And it is.
The water is calm for miles till the first fishing boats take off into the distance, cutting across the glassy surface and casting golden ripples across the harbour.
Lunch time in the town is quiet too. Sri Lanka have just been kicked out of the World Cup runnings and a solemn mood prevails. Probably also because half the town seems to be crowded around the stadium watching a football match to take their minds off the cricket defeat. Youngsters have stopped here on their way home from school and the crowd is engrossed in the game.
Voices at a fishing village, crows swarming above, mix with the sounds of the waves on our drive to the South Bar. The ocean strip is untainted, soft sand and waves that are seen and appreciated by very few. Exquisite conches sit in the sand, polished white by the salt water, and with a childlike reflex, we lift them to our ears, the sounds of the sea echoing magnified in the small space.
The interior landscape is quite different to the endless waters of the sea. Abandoned plains, growing wild in the hot sun give way to endless growth of palmyrah. A skeleton of a house haunts the main road in Pesalai, posters from the last election peel off its already-peeling walls. The character in the shell of this house seeps out of every crack in its floor, the story it tells with every empty window frame.
Even with the land stretching for miles, the sea is always closeby. As we traipse to the coast, the land is so deserted that my friend says ‘I wonder if there are battas around’ with a nervous laugh. He soon goes quiet, remembering that there was a time when that was a very real thing to be worried about.
Dusk is setting in, someone has lit a bonfire and children are going home for the night, their energy for the day just fizzling out. We’re wandering by a lonely strip of ocean when they pass us; ‘here, here, take my photo, like a superhero!’ one calls and they stop for a moment to watch the last of the sunset with us.
A garish monument sits by the main road. Garish because the first thing it brings to mind is death; take that pomp and place it in the middle of a town that has seen too much of death already and garish seems too good a word. For the army man acting as monument guide, it’s a proud victory. For the old school principal, an everyday reminder of the many students he lost in the violence.
The children’s screams are as loud as the plains bordering the dirt road are quiet. In a field covered in thorny nidhikumba, they run barefoot in a spirited game of cricket, umpired by a brown cow having his lunch, occasionally taking a break to moo his decision.
Rain is starting to fall on the Iranamadu reservoir as we walk along the top of the sluice gate. Drops break the otherwise flat surface and what would have been a long time spent in the breeze over the water has us running for shelter soon.
In a small house, surrounded by coconut and banana trees, a flurry of animals run about. Chickens pecking at my feet and a friendly dog sniffing about, it feels like a home you never had. More so when the old grandmother, bent over in her age and wrapped up in a bright saree, brings you one of the best cups of tea you’ve ever had. Her smile is wide and my gratitude is endless.
Her granddaughter’s smile is as bright, little one in a purple dress dotted with flowers, who is too shy to talk to us but seems to be very good friends with the little calf, who is as sweet as she is. Their home is humble but their hearts are full; they wish us a safe journey.
Sunrise is really something on the way up; rising through mist in a fireball that would be more appropriate for sunset over a sleeping nation, it marks north and guides our path.
Crossing the Sangupiddy bridge onto the peninsula is a magical drive. At this hour of the morning, the vehicles are few and the panoramic views of the bay are breathtaking. Passing the green ‘Jaffna’ roadside gets ones heart pumping; here we are, northernmost area of the country.
The thosai and vadai are the best I’ve had in the country, just exquisite and I will gladly eat just that for all three meals. But there are places to go, things to see.
The Nallur kovil experience is overwhelming, in a good way. The University speaks of years of history being made around and in its walls. The ruins of the old Naguleswaram kovil sit by the ruins of the newly-built counterpart and the swami paints a red tilak on my forehead as he chants a prayer for my health-safety-prosperity.
In the midst of a rough history, Jaffna is a magical place. King Ravana’s escape paths from the legends of the Ramayana lead here, hiding in plain sight as the bottomless Nilavara Well and the Keerimalai tank is said to be able to cure any ailment.
And then there is the sea at Kankesanthurai. The light blue waters are deceiving in that their colour betrays their depth; not depth in feet but the gravity of the fact that you are standing on the northernmost coast off the country.
Go too far and you’ll fall off.
Obviously not but standing there, the calmness of the bay creating an other-worldly ambience definitely makes you feel like these border waters could very easily carry you off somewhere far, far away.
But Jaffna is more than the sites and tourist spots you need to have a picture at. It is the smiles of the children who are innocent and curious, not scared away by strange grownups but come running up to them boldly, demanding we identify ourselves and eventually letting us in on their games. We made friends with me speaking a few words of their language and them knowing none of mine. Their smiles and the little boy’s antics had us all in happy laughter and that was enough.
The library struck a chord with me because the only photos I’ve seen of it are those of a ruin, burned black with all its valuable literary treasures reduced to ashes. Knowledge destroyed by ignorance. ‘There were documents in there that told the real history of our country, too far back for us to even trace, and they were all lost’, my friend rages, using a stream of colourful words at the people responsible for the destruction.
Atop the ramparts of the old fort, past the large gaping holes in its walls and the mounds of rubble that sit forgotten in the corridors of the ruin, is a glorious view. We’re at one corner of the peninsula but the country doesn’t end there. Islands dot the sea off the coast of Jaffna, each almost a different world, the way they differ from one another. From one religious melting pot to a quiet expanse inhabited only along the coast; in a perfect world, I’d have visited all.
The boat takes us there right in time for the morning puja at the Nagadeepa, where you can walk from temple to kovil down a short strip of road. Somewhere on the tiny island is also a church and mosque, which makes the whole place a spiritual haven of the coexistence of all four faiths. This side of the island is loud, with the voices of the devotees and the clanging bells from the houses of prayer. On its opposite coast is a landscape that is lonely and quiet, waters lapping against rock formations along the edge of the sea, the waves quiet, and everything is still. We’re closer to India than we are to home now.
Kayts is the other end of the spectrum. You can drive for hours a coastal road that is bound by still waters, cut right across the island through palmyrah and brush forests onto a spectacular white-sand beach and still be completely alone. The sunset is not the dramatic ones that people usually rush to; it’s a slow descent of the bright ball of fire in a cloudless sky into an unmarked horizon, the distinction between sea and sky almost non-existent.
The night must end with a bag of vadai from a street vendor and shopping at the market The crowds have all gone home and it’s mostly the out-of-towners wandering at this time. Buy a grape wine bottle and walk around; as most markets are it’s an overload for the senses, the shine of gold jewellery sitting alongside all the murukku you could ever want. Also be prepared to have a cow follow you around for a large part of the exercise.
Ideally, Jaffna would have been last on this list, top of the map and such but I have reasons for ending here. Most places do evoke bittersweet feelings, both on exploration and departure. Here, however, it’s hard to shake the weight of the sadness and anger from your mind once you’ve put a face to a name; connecting all the stories and news features that you once read to the land unfolding in front of you.
‘Yet who comes to Mullaitivu? All the important people rush down the A9 to Jaffna, forgetting that the worst of it happened here.’ asks a man bearing the scars of battle.
Nanthikadal lagoon; you’ve heard that name, I know you have. Everything you and I have heard about this place flashes across my vision as it comes into view. Now, it has started to become more real. What happened is more than a few headlines and controversial videos, it is a real place and my feet are standing on it right now. I’ve never felt this way at a destination before and it scares me.
Vadduvakkal bridge; I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have this picture. Security forces all around, leaning through the rain-splattered windscreen, I took it because as grim a place as it is, it has many levels of meaning that flooded me as we made the crossing. Freedom, peace, death, rebel, defence. They all come together on this single strip of concrete running through still waters.
Mullivaikkal; the darkness Mullaitivu carries with it today extends all the way here, to its very shores. One would think the ocean would relieve it of its burden as it washes it away with each wave but then, as the ocean does, it always brings something back. The beach is dotted with intelligence men calling the place beautiful would be falling short. Soft white sand on a half-moon bay, waves crashing against the now-debris shipwreck on the coast. The sun has started to set and the cold winds are setting in, the storm rising isn’t helping to lift the mood in the area. As the rays started to light the top of the palmyrah on fire, we drove away.
And we keep going, stopping only for one ‘security check’ and after that, driving while the barricades of the Omanthai checkpoint sit staunchly behind us, kept there by the powers that be to highlight that the Northern province on the other side of the barrier is a ‘different’ place. Do geographical boundaries need to be defined to aggressively? It’s all part of the same country.