Jaffna, a district in the northern peninsula of Sri Lanka is adorned with a unique and complex identity. Influenced by a multiplicity of traditions, Jaffna is an expression of the Portuguese, Dutch and British histories in the country with the Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim identities with gopurams rising to the skies next to quaint churches along streets that flaunt the splendour of Dutch and British residences.
Always known to be a prosperous region, which has hewn the yarn of affluence through sheer hard work, this arched land of palm groves and beaches is garnished with town houses and country roads, with the centre of Jaffna being sprinkled with a plethora of shops, snack bars and restaurants with ample music to boot amidst a packed town of commuters, cyclists and tuk tuks. The Jaffna Peninsula and the surrounding islands offer a number of ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples, beaches and more off-beat attractions.
Jaffna is a town replete with remnants of the country’s colonial legacy. British architecture being a conspicuous presence, three kilometres from Jaffna town is the Old Park, which was once celebrated for its immensity and beauty. Established in 1829 by Percival Acland Dyke, the British Government Agent of North, the park was known as ‘the Rajah of the North’, where Dyke’s residence was also built, the only remnant to be clearly seen of the glory days is the pond, surrounded by manicured lawns, trees and benches.
The Old Kachcheri or the Jaffna Secretariat was also built during the time of Dyke, a perfect example of British Architecture in Jaffna. The entrance is adorned with countless Roman arches, round and semi circular, depicting features of Neo Renaissance architecture. A typical feature of the Victorian Era architecture being the blending of different types of stones together to provide a patterned exterior, the Jaffna Secretariat is built with coral stones running along the corners and bases of the structure with plastered brick in fills.
Most of the existing churches in Jaffna were built or extensively renovated during the British colonial era and embrace many of their architectural features. The church of St John the Baptist, with its Neo Renaissance architectural style has Roman arches at the entrances and windows. The front of the building resembles a typical Renaissance façade. Rose windows and the tower that rises above the altar, towards the back of the church, also reinforce the Neo Renaissance architectural approach.
An example of Neo Gothic architecture is the church of Our Lady of Refuge with pointed arches in doorways and windows, a Latin cross, and a long centre nave with extending wings on either side.
The building landscape
The Clock Tower situated in the centre of the Jaffna town is a famed landmark built during the British era that could be best described as belonging to a Neo Colonial cum Oriental style of architecture. It was built to commemorate the visit of the Prince of Wales to Sri Lanka in 1875.
The legacy of British presence in Jaffna is attested to by the large number of houses built during the occupation. Most of the houses have been built by creating a fusion of styles. Neo Renaissance architecture has been blended with elements of Gothic architecture, with Roman pillars and pilasters ornamented with Corinthian capitals, while Baroque architecture has also been borrowed to combine with decorations such as capitals on pillars.
The Jaffna Fort
A trip to Jaffna will not be complete without a tour of certain sites with interesting histories, and one such edifice is the famed Jaffna fort. The second largest Dutch fort built in the country it was first built by the Portuguese as a small garrison. The British occupied the fort from 1795 – 1948. Abounding with Dutch architectural identity, the fort had housed armouries and barracks, a Governor’s residence, Queen’s House of Jaffna, the Garrison Parade Ground, Police Quarters and several other buildings belonging to the Portuguese and Dutch occupations. Now restored after this mighty edifice took the fall of a protracted conflict, the fort is a testimony to its resilience as an indestructible fortress of defence.
The Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil
Nallur or the ‘good city’ was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Jaffna. And the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil dedicated to Murugan is inextricably entwined with the history of the ancient kingdom. First built in 948 CE, it was destroyed twice, first in 1450 by a Sinhala prince who invaded Jaffna and later in 1621 by the Portuguese. The Dutch granted permission to rebuild the temple in the 18th century. There is plenty to be discovered inside the temple influenced by Dravidian architecture. The annual 25 day festival in August and September is a colourful pageantry of chariots and holy music.
A visit to the temple is sure to leave the sightseer exhausted and thirsting. This definitely calls for an ice cream from Rio, an unmistakable landmark and icon of Jaffna. Those who have savoured the many flavours at Rio describe the range as delectable with the lusciousness of cream. There are many flavours with toppings served in cones or tubs, but it is a must to try the Mega Special and Rio Special sundaes, which are a delightful combination of rich creamy flavours.
The Jaffna Library
Reminiscent of majestic mogul architecture is the Jaffna library, yet another prominent building that reflects the culture and tradition of the people of Jaffna. Once gutted by a fire and subsequently restored, the library is a nucleus of knowledge with an extensive collection of books and reading material. But, what makes the structure so prominent is its architecture, which evokes a great sense of grandeur, shrouding the building with a sense of reverence.
Keeramalai is a beautiful pool of spring water located in the premises of the Naguleswaram temple. Hindus believe that the water contains miraculous powers of healing diseases. Situated 50 feet above sea level, the fresh water comes from an underground fresh water spring. Translated in English as Mongoose Mound, legend has it that a sage with a face resembling a mongoose had been transformed after bathing in the pool. It is said that the pool’s reputation for imparting therapeutic medicinal benefits comes from the fact that the spring waters whilst flowing through the fissures of the carbonated rocks acquire chemical values.
Nearly 900 metres from the Nallur temple is Sangili Toppu, a lone arch bearing the name of the last king of Jaffna (1519), believed to be the site of the palace of the last monarch. The ornamental arch may have been the entrance to the palace, built later in accordance with Portuguese tradition. Others believe it could have led to the palace gardens and the Yamunari pond, located nearby.
Nilavarai bottomless pond
A peculiar phenomenon that definitely demands a visit is the Nilavarai Bottomless Pond, a natural well believed to be bottomless with salt water in its depths indicating its connection with the sea. According to legend, Seetha, wife of Rama, while on the return journey to India was overcome with thirst and Rama had shot an arrow on to the earth creating the bottomless well. Two attempts by researchers to identify the bottom of this well and the source of water had failed.