Jaffna

Snapshot
Situated at the northern tip of the island of Sri Lanka, the Jaffna peninsula is steeped in history It is scattered with ancient Hindu kovils with colourful statues; colonial period churches that date back to the 17C; and ruins of ancient Buddhist temples. Explore Jaffna town and its surrounding areas within the mainland, or hop on board a ferry and cross over to the remote islands. The landscape is dotted with Palmyra Palms and picturesque lagoons where flamingos flock after the rains. Jaffna has undergone much hardship due to terrorism and, ultimately, a full-scale war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces which ended a 26-year conflict. The effects of this destructive and traumatic period will understandably remain for many years. Since 2009, the people of Jaffna are gradually rebuilding their lives with much courage and renewed hope. A majority of Jaffna’s population are Tamil Hindus with some who follow Christianity. Jaffna is an enriching holiday experience for the more adventurous.
Don’t Miss
Attend a puja (religious service) with chanting and drumming at the Nallur Kandasamy kovil
Visit Colonial period churches in Jaffna town
Watch graceful wild horses on Delft island
Take a dip in the sea at Casuarina beach in Karainagar
Observe pink flocks of Greater Flamingoes on the causeways during the birding season
Eat fiery Jaffna crab curry or Thosai with Rasam on a banana leaf
Indulge in a Rio Ice crème topped with jelly and mangos
Shop in bustling Jaffna market
Sri Lanka Map
Photo Gallery

Location & climate
The district of Jaffna is a peninsula in the northern most region of Sri Lanka with several small islandsof which seven are inhabited (Kayts, Punkudutivu, Delft, Karaitivu also known as Karainagar, Nainativu, Analaitivu, and Eluvaitivu), and can be reached by road via the causeways or by boat. The capital, Jaffna, is situated towards the south of the peninsula bordering the Jaffna Lagoon. The north and west of Jaffna are more remote and consist of several interesting heritage sites. Point Pedro (1.5 hours north of Jaffna town), is the northern most point of Sri Lanka and is 435 kms north of Dondra Head which is the southern tip of the island. Jaffna is 363 kms away from the capital city of Colombo. The Jaffna peninsula consists of flat terrain and has the highest temperatures on the island that varies from about 26C - 34C. The temperature is at its highest during April/May and August/September. The North East monsoon rains are between October – January. Best time to visit is towards end of the year when the lagoons are filled with water, the paddy fields and vegetation are lush green, the air is cooler and the migrant birds including Flamingos, ducks and other waterbirds line the lagoons in their thousands. Birding season in the Jaffna peninsula is from about September - March.

Getting There
A four hour journey on the A9 route takes you directly from Anuradhapura in the Cultural Triangle to Jaffna town. This route goes through the villages of Medawachchiya, Vavuniya, Mankulam and Elephant Pass. This is a newly-constructed roadway in good condition. If travelling directly from Colombo, the fastest route is along the North West coast to Puttalam, Anuradhapura and then on the A9 to Jaffna which will take about eight hours (travelling at dawn is best to beat traffic). Those who wish to avoid road travel can catch a Fits Air flight from Colombo directly to Jaffna which lands at the Palaly airport located north of Jaffna town.

Once in Jaffna town, the roads are well signposted and routes to the North and West are in good condition for the most part. Getting about is best done in a pre-arranged vehicle. Public transport is limited to the occasional bus or trishaw that goes by on the main roads. School children to the elderly all travel by bicycle, motor bikes or trishaws.

Getting across from the mainland to the islands of Kayts, Punkudutivu and Karainagar is possible by car via the causeways. The islands of Delft and Nainativu can be accessed by boat or ferry. The Sri Lankan Navy runs a daily ferry free-of-charge to Delft which leaves at 0900 from the pier in Punkudutivu (which is an hour south of Jaffna town) and arrives at Delft by about 1000. The return ferry from Delft is daily at 1430. Get to the pier early as only a 100 passengers are taken on board. Be prepared for an adventurous and at times choppy, ferry ride packed with villagers. It is not for the fainthearted.The island of Nainativu which is home to an ancient Buddhist temple and Hindu kovil, can be accessed by a privately-run boat service which also docks at the Punkuditivu pier. This half an hour boat ride costs Rs. 20/- per head and is usually full of pilgrims heading to Nainativu.

Approximate Drive times: Colombo to Puttalam - 2.5 Hours; Puttalam to Anuradhapura - 1.5 Hours; Anuradhapura to Jaffna - 4 Hours; Jaffna town to Point Pedro – 1.5 hours.

Travel Advice
  • Foreign passport holders entering the northern peninsula must carry at least two copies of their passport as they need to register at a couple of military check points enroute in Omanthai and Elephant Pass.

  • A reliable English-speaking tour guide who has a thorough knowledge of the heritage sites and is able to translate, is useful especially when visiting sites away from Jaffna town. The language spoken here is Tamil with English spoken mainly in town. 

  • Only cash payments are accepted in most shops, Jaffna market, eateries and cafes.  There are several banks including Bank of Ceylon and HSBC in Jaffna town.    

  • Dress is conservative in Jaffna and it is respectful to wear loose, long and lightweight clothing. Be especially careful about modest dress when visiting religious sites.  Footwear and hats should be removed prior to entering a Hindu Kovil or a Buddhist temple.  Men are required to also remove their shirts when entering most Hindu kovils. 

Sights
Jaffna town, with its maze of narrow roadways lined with homes, kovils, and churches, is easy to get about with a good map in hand. The ancient Nalllur Kandasamy kovil, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Jaffna Fort and Jaffna’s Archeological Museum are some of the more interesting sites to visit in town. Time permitting, there are several other kovils and Colonial period churches that can be visited. Drop by the Jaffna market to buy souvenirs and locally made handicrafts. Breakfast at one of the local eateries where Thosai, idly and string hoppers are served on a banana leaf is a must. Go early to avoid crowds.

Head North on the Kankesanturai (KKS) road to Point Pedro with its lighthouse staring out to the Bay of Bengal. The ancient Naguleswaram Shiva kovil, Keerimalai hot springs and ruins of the Kanthrodai Buddhist temple are all interesting sites to visit in the North. The more adventurous might wish to head North East – a remote area where the sand dunes of Manalkadu scattered with Casuarina trees extend over a vast area. The ruins of the Portuguese-period St Anthony’s church and burial grounds rise up from the sands creating a unique landscape.

West of Jaffna town is another picturesque area that can be accessed via the Karainaragar causeway. Birding during the migrant season on this stretch can be utterly rewarding. Spend a morning’s excursion exploring the Vaddukoddai Portuguese church; Punnalai Varatharaje Perumal Kovil, and the sandy beaches of Casuarina north of Karainagar. Stop by for lunch at Fort Hammenhiel – an interesting Portuguese-period fort built in the sea.

The Jaffna islands are also fascinating to explore. Spend a day out at Delft Island with its small village homes, wild horses that roam the plains, and ruins of a Portuguese Fort. Nainativu Island is easier to access and is home to the ancient Nagadeepa Buddhist temple and the Naga Pooshani Ambal Hindu temple.

With much to see and experience in the Jaffna peninsula, a minimum of two to three nights stay is recommended.

Accommodation
There are a handful of small guesthouses and hotels in Jaffna town. The Delft and Nainativu islands do not have accommodation. Red Dot recommends the Jaffna Heritage Hotel on Temple Road close to the Nallur Kandasamy Kovil. Opened at the end of 2012, this hotel offers 10 well appointed rooms with a/c and being within one mile radius of the sacred Nallur temple, serves only vegetarian cuisine. Located on Victoria Road is Hotel Subash, which opened in early 2013 following a complete refurbishment. This is a larger hotel with comfortable a/c rooms and serves vegetarian as well as non-veg cuisine. Located 10 km north of town in Chunnakam on the Kankasanturai (KKS) road is Fits Margosa – a peaceful holiday retreat set in a century old Jaffna home. This six-bedroom property offers an authentic local experience set amidst three acres of gardens. Fits Margosa is situated close to the Palaly airport. The sister Property – Fits Pavilion which is located on the A9 route as you enter Jaffna town, is also a reliable accommodation option.

Food & Drink
Traditional Jaffna cuisine has a distinct flavour that is different to the rest of the Sri Lanka and is closer to south Indian cuisine in taste. Thosai, idly, vades, rice and curries including seafood and meats (mainly mutton) are cooked with local herbs and spices and are rich in flavour. The legendary Jaffna crab curry is a must-have, but watchout for the fiery spices. Breakfast served on a banana leaf with a hot cup of tea (best to request for less sugar) at a basic local eatery, is a perfect start to your day.  Go early to avoid crowds. There is a range of Jaffna sweets that are served at most cafes and restaurants. Desert at Rio Ice crème house near the Nallur Kandasamy kovil is a must for those with a sweet tooth. Three scoops of ice crème topped with jelly and mangos is a favourite amongst the young and the old.

Places to eat beyond Jaffna town are limited and best to take a picnic lunch from your hotel especially when visiting the North, West and the islands. There are a few places to eat on the A9 route from Anuradhapura to Jaffna which are also useful to know. [More]

Shopping
Explore Jaffna market where villages sell everything from homegrown fruits and vegetables to hand-woven baskets made of Palmyra palm leaves. Wade through the narrow walkways and you’ll come across stalls filled with Jaffna sweets, juggery, treacle, Jaffna spices, fruit cordials, and even wine made by the Rosarian nuns using locally-grown grapes. The small shops surrounding the market sell colourful saris, sarongs, kurtas, and textiles from south India. There is also the jeweller’s street nearby with glass cabinets filled with glistening gold bangles and necklaces. For essential items such as toiletries, bottled water and basic groceries, the Food City supermarket has branches in Vavuniya and in Jaffna town on the KKS road. The TCT supermarket on Nawalar Road also has a selection of biscuits, Jaffna spices, soft drinks, and other essentials.

Events
Many of the larger Hindu kovils have their own colourful festivals and pageants held mainly Form about July – December. During these colourful festivals, the temple deity is paraded in an elaborate chariot for all to venerate. The festival conducted by the Nallur Kandasamy Kovil is one of the largest and goes on for 26 days in the month of August. Devotees in their thousands from all over Sri Lanka attend this festival. The Buddhist sites come alive especially during Vesak which falls on the full-moon day in May in veneration of the life of Lord Buddha - his birth, enlightenment and passing away; and in June (Poson) when the introduction of Buddhism to the island 2,500 years ago is commemorated. Pilgrims from across the island flock to the Nagadeepa temple in Nainativu during these months.

Birding watching in Jaffna during the migrant season from September – March is a highlight for nature lovers. Migrant birds along with other waders in their thousands flock to the lagoons - a breathtaking sight not to be missed.

Media Reviews
The Essential guide for Jaffna and its Region: Fabry’s travelling notebook, by Phillippe Fabry, Lisa Fabry, Alexandra Fabry, and Emmanuel Fabry. Last edition published in 2012.
Activities
Nallur Kandasamy Kovil
Located on Temple Road about three kilometers away from town, the sacred Nallur Kandasamy Kovil is one of Jaffna’s main kovils and is dedicated to the Hindu God Murugan. This is an extensive kovil with a series of halls covered with murals depicting Lord Murugan, colourful statues, sacred shrines, and a central courtyard with a water tank for cleansing prior to worship. The original site of this ancient kovil was located further away and was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1625. In its place they built the St. James’ church which still stands. The Nallur Kovil holds its annual festival in August each year when the colourful temple chariot is paraded on the streets to the sound of temple music and drums.
St. Mary’s Cathedral
This Goanese style, large cathedral is located on Cathedral Road close to town. The interiors are simple with beautiful stainglass murals behind the altar. Large interior arches reach up to a high vaulted ceiling.
Colonial period churches
Time permitting, there are several colonial-period churches along Main Street in Jaffna town that can be visited including St Martin’s Seminary, St James’ Church, Holy Family convent, and St Johns Anglican church. Our Lady of Refuge Church and St John the Baptist is off Hospital Road.
Jaffna Fort
The Jaffna Fort stands at the edge of the Indian Ocean in Jaffna town. Built by the Portuguese in 1618 the Fort was subsequently captured by the Dutch and then the British. Jaffna Fort extends over an area of 22 hectares and was partly destroyed in recent years due to the war and now is in the process of restoration. A detailed history of the Fort and the restoration work is provided in one of the interior halls.
Jaffna Archeological Museum
Located on Nawalar Road this small, but interesting museum is difficult to find. This simple museum, which is in desperate need of upgrading, is housed in a building that was donated many years ago by the Nawalar family. The museum houses some interesting artifacts including ancient temple statues and pottery found in the Jaffna heritage sites; a torso of Lord Buddha made of stone and other artifacts excavated from the Kantharodai site; and artifacts from the colonial period including a large portrait of Queen Victoria. The in-house tour guide will give you a quick walk through. Museum is open daily except for Tuesdays from 0830 to 1700.
Jaffna market
Located in the heart of Jaffna town, this bustling market is best visited towards sundown when it is cooler. Villagers sell their home grown fruits and vegetables; dried fish to hand woven baskets made of Palmyra palm leaves. Wade through the narrow walkways and you’ll come across stalls filled with Jaffna sweets, juggery, treacle, Jaffna spices, fruit cordials, and even wine made by the Rosarian nuns using locally grown grapes. The small shops surrounding the market sell colourful saris, sarongs, kurtas, and textiles from south India. The jewellers’ street is also interesting to walk by with its glass cabinets filled with glistening gold bangles and necklaces.
Birding on the Jaffna Lagoon & Kayts causeway
During the migrant season from September - March each year, this region becomes a hotspot for birdwatchers interested in seeing waders, ducks and other rare migrant birds. Lesser Sand Plovers, Little Stints, Black-tailed Godwits, Mash Sandpipers, Little Ringed Plovers in large numbers can be seen feeding on the sides of the road. Thousands of Gargany, Northern Shoveller, Pintail & a few Common Teal can be seen feeding in the waters of these lagoons. The pink flocks of Greater Flamingoes will take your breath away for sure as you watch these graceful birds resting in large numbers on the causeways.
Kantharodai Viharaya
Located near Chunnakam and about half an hour from Jaffna town, this ancient Buddhist site consists of many miniature dagobas (dome shaped structures) made of stone. These structures vary in size with the largest being about 12 feet in diameter. There are also several dagobas with only the foundation. Stone Buddha statues and other artifacts that were excavated from this site are now housed at the Jaffna Archeological Museum. This site is said to date back to 2,000 years and is linked to Lord Buddha’s second visit to the island.
Naguleswaram Kovil
One of the oldest shrines on the Jaffna peninsular, the Naguleswaram Kovil is located in Keerimalai North of Jaffna town. The central shrine is surrounded by corridors filled with ornate murals and statues. This ancient kovil was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1620 and rebuilt in the 1800s. More recently, the kovil was affected by the war and is currently being restored to its previous glory. The chief priest here supervises the reconstruction personally and takes much pride in its heritage.
Hot springs of Keerimalai
A short stroll away from the Naguleswaram temple and edged by the sea, the healing waters from the Keerimalai hot springs are contained in a large pond that pilgrims bath in prior to worshipping at the Naguleswaram temple. The spring water flowing down from 10 metres above is said to flow through the crevices of carbonated rocks and is mixed with the sea water as it reaches Keeramalai.
Dambakola Patuna Viharaya, Madagal
This is an ancient sea port where the Buddhist nun Sangamitta arrived to the island with a sapling of the Bo tree under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. This Bo sapling was planted in Anuradhapura and recorded as one of the oldest trees in the world. Dambakola Patuna viharaya now consists of a newly constructed small stupa and statue of the Sangamitta Therani.
Point Pedro
This is the northern most point of Sri Lanka and faces the Bay of Bengal. A lighthouse stands tall to mark Point Pedro which is 435 kms north of the southern most point of the island - Dondra Head where there is also another lighthouse. Fishing is the main livelihood in this area and the beaches are lined with fishing boats and fisherman preparing their daily catch for drying under the scorching sun. Dried, salted fish prepared in the form of a curry is a delicacy island wide. As the fisherman go about their work, Brahmini kites and cormorants hover about swooping down to feast on the remains.
Vallipuram Kovil
One of the most ancient Hindu kovils in Jaffna, Vallipuram is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and attracts pilgrims from all over the peninsula. The annual festival is held at this sacred temple in August/September. The Vallipuram kovil is set amidst extensive sand dunes that are found in this area and is located about six kilometers east of Point Pedro.
Manalkadu dessert & ruins of St. Anthony’s church
This is a unique landscape on the tropical island of Sri Lanka. It is a desert landscape with picturesque, white sand dunes scattered with Casuarina trees and edged by the blue seas. The ruins of the 17C St. Anthony’s church and crosses from the burial grounds nearby emerges from the sand dunes. An amazing site. Village homes are few around here due to the harsh terrain. Manalkadu desert & ruins of the old church can be reached pass the Vallipuram Kovil.
Birding along Jaffna to Karainagar causeway
This 4 km causeway links the main land to the island of Karaitivu (also known as Karainagar), borders the Jaffna lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other. During September – March, migrant birds in their thousands flock to these lagoons - a spectacular sight not to be missed. Greater Flamingos would be a highlight here, along with many species of waders numbering in their thousands.
Vaddukoddai church
This large Portuguese church, built in 1678 is located 10 kms west of Jaffna town. The simple interiors consist of arches supported by thick, circular columns that reach up to a high ceiling. Behind the church are some tombstones from the Dutch and British period. The Vaddukoddai church is now used by the American Mission.
Punnalai Varatharaje Perumal Kovil, Punnalai
Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, this colourful kovil holds its annual festivals in July and December. Is located about one kilometer from the Vaddukoddai church.
Casuarina Beach, Karainagar
Located on the northern tip of Karainagar Island, this is a pleasant and picturesque beach with safe shallow waters for swimming. The beach here is fringed with Casuarina trees that grow in sandy soil. This is a remote area with no facilities for changing into your swim wear, having a snack or a cool drink on the beach. Best to take a picnic lunch from your hotel or go to Fort Hammenhiel nearby where there is a navy run restaurant serving food and drinks.
Fort Hammenhiel, Karainagar
A fascinating Portuguese Fort built in the 17C out of coral stone and stands on its own sand bank in the sea just a 10 mnt boat ride away from the island of Karainagar. This is the only Fort in Sri Lanka that has been built in the sea. The fort was subsequently captured by the Dutch and then the British. Fort Hammenhiel has been fully restored by the Sri Lakan Navy and now houses a four-bedroom guesthouse. The navy also runs a restaurant on the mainland just across from the Fort that serves Sri Lankan cuisine and snacks. Cool drinks, tea and coffee are also available.
Delft Island
Located about an hour’s ferry ride away from the Punkuditivu pier, the Delft Island is equal distance to southern India and Sri Lanka. It spans across 4,700 hectares and is home to about 1,800 families. The limestone terrain here is scattered with Palmyra palm, coconut trees, and extensive plains where wild horses graze. This charming island has narrow roadways lined with small village homes fenced with coral stones piled one on top of another; a couple of old churches, the Delft post office, a hospital, schools and a few wayside shops selling the bare essentials. Except for one bus that runs when the ferry lands at the pier, there are only a couple of other vehicles on the island. Villagers go about on their bicycles; all know each other well and live in harmony. Spend a morning exploring this charming island where time has stood still. Red Dot can make arrangements for guests to be met at the pier, taken on a conducted tour in a vehicle and have traditional rice and curry meal in a village home. Interesting sites to explore in Delft are the ruins of the 17C Portuguese Fort, the Baobab tree with its massive trunk (native to Ethiopia, this species was introduced to the island by Arab traders. The only other Baobab trees on the island are found in Mannar on the North West coast); and the old stables. Head to the grassy plains and watch herds of wild horses as they graze and even strut on the beach. A truly memorable site. These horses were originally introduced to the Delft Island by the Portuguese.
Nainativu Island
Located on this island is the ancient Nagadeepa Buddhist Vihara with a stupa, Bo tree and image house that commemorates Lord Buddha’s third visit to Sri Lanka. According to the ancient scriptures, Lord Buddha visited the island to resolve a dispute between warring Naga kings. Located at the other end of Nainativu Island is the ancient Naga Pooshani Ambal Kovil dedicated to the worship of the serpent god. Devotees come from all over the island, especially families with children or couples wanting to have children, to be blessed by the Naga Pooshani Amman – the patron goddess of the kovil. This colourful kovil with a tall and elaborate Gopuram (entrance tower), hold its annual festival in July.

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