Travelling through ruins of war
By Kavan Ratnatunga
A bombed house in Jaffna
As the only
major city in Lanka I had failed to visit, I did not want to miss
the opportunity to see Jaffna when I holidayed in Sri Lanka in May
this year. I did not expect it to be an easy journey.
Since I do
not speak Tamil, I did not want to travel without an English-speaking
guide to show me around. Then at a tourism exhibition in Colombo,
a travel agent suggested that I fly to Jaffna and stay at a place
called the "Swiss Chalet".
I found out
that Anula Meier, who runs the guesthouse, was the former vice president
of the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society. Being an active numismatist
myself, I knew I could not ask for a better host and guide. Anula
was in Colombo at the time, but agreed to fly back with me to Jaffna.
I was glad
to find out from the Lion-Air office in Bambalapitiya that they
were now flying a 48-seat British Aerospace Hawker Siddley aircraft.
While I was able to get a window seat, I was disappointed when I
was told that since we would be flying to a high security zone (HSZ),
I could not have my camera with me.
was almost full and left on time at 7.30 a.m. from Ratmalana. Flying
at 13,000 feet for one hour, one saw the lush green vegetation of
the wet zone in south west Lanka turn brown as we moved into drier
northern parts of the island. We flew over the causeway joining
Jaffna to Kayts Island, which appeared to be under water for a small
We landed at
Palaly Airport on schedule. An Air Force lorry brought in the bags
from the flight. Anula's car and driver were waiting for us and
we drove down to her guesthouse in Urelu, exactly halfway between
the airport and Jaffna town, 18 km away.
The Swiss Chalet
is one of few air-conditioned guesthouses open to the public. Anula,
who is now a Swiss citizen, flies the Swiss flag to show her neutrality.
In her guest book I saw entries from all the newsmakers who have
visited Jaffna since it opened in September 2002. She has converted
four large bedrooms of an old Jaffna mansion and very cleverly attached
open-air toilets to each and I found it nice to be able to shower
under the stars that night. The large garden had the traditional
trees for protection. The Kohomba for disinfection, the Tamarind
as a diuretic, and the Jak tree with so many uses, including that
We had meals in the Palm Beach restaurant, one of two that had so
far reopened in Jaffna town to cater to tourists' needs. It had
good food and was inexpensive.
The palmyrah tree replaces the coconut tree abundant in the south
and less frequently seen in the Jaffna district. It thrives in a
dry climate. Like the coconut tree, almost everything of it is used.
It was an image of a Palmyrah tree that was the primary symbol on
Ceylon coins from 1870 to 1942
We first visited Jaffna University. In the Physics Dept. after discussions
with Prof. Kandaswamy, I spoke with the recently passed out batch
about requirements for gaining admission for graduate study abroad.
I found that the only student asking questions was the only one
who had gained admission to an university in Boston. The language
barrier was clearly their main obstacle.
We also met Prof. Mahesen of the Dept. of Computer Science, whom
I had contacted by e-mail. I was glad to find a usable Internet
connection that was faster than what I had found at Colombo University.
This was probably because it was vacation time with fewer users
online. Later in the trip, I was able to withdraw cash from my US
Bank account from the Commercial Bank ATM connected to both Cirrus
and Plus International ATM systems. Jaffna was clearly computer
The phone system, however, was poor. Mobile phones had poor reception
and it took many attempts to get through to Colombo even from a
communication shop. There is still a shortage of phone lines to
meet the growing demand.
The Jaffna peninsula has not adopted the SriLanka time-zone change
to 6.00 hours ahead of GMT and remains at the old time of 5.30 hours,
same as all of India.
Transportation in Jaffna looked like Havana in Cuba. Most of the
few cars on the road were over 30 years old with many well-maintained
Morris Minors and few Volkswagen Beetles.
Transport was mainly by bicycle, a necessity during the fuel starved
war era. There was strict usage of male and female cycles, although
it was clear that female cycles would have better suited men in
sarongs. Female LTTE cadre could be easily identified by the black
belt they wore. This was non-typical of Jaffna female attire. Male
LTTE cadres were proudly driving around Jaffna in new motorcycles
wearing LTTE caps.
During my brief two-day visit Anula drove me around parts of the
Jaffna peninsula under Sri-Lankan government jurisdiction. We packed
in visits to many interesting sites, some within high security zones
where an army security personnel accompanied us in our vehicle.
No photography was allowed within those zones.
Let me describe the Jaffna I saw just after 20 years of civil war.
Most of Jaffna was in ruin. A few key buildings like the Kachcheri
had been rebuilt for administration. The bombed- out remains of
the old Kachcheri stood on the opposite side of the road. The new
Jaffna Library was very impressive, but remained closed on the insistence
of the LTTE. The historic old Library and its irreplaceable archives
that were destroyed by arson in 1981, was one of the precipitating
events of the civil war.
The walls of the old Dutch fort in Jaffna were overgrown with weeds.
The Fort had been the site of a 107-day siege back in 1990 after
the LTTE took control of Jaffna, which they held till 1995. The
Army was in the process of moving back into it. The Fort was therefore
not open to the public and looking in from the gate, I saw no building
standing inside. It was a large vacant lot. A notice said it had
been now cleared of personnel mines.
There were similar large tracts of empty land within the heart of
Jaffna that had probably been cleared of buildings. The bombed out
shell of the old Regal cinema was typical of many buildings which
still remained as a stark reminder that rebuilding of war- torn
Jaffna has hardly started.
The Jaffna Archaeological Museum was open but badly neglected. We
walked past crumbling exhibits and water damaged paintings like
that of Queen Victoria. The coin exhibit had been removed for safe
keeping leaving just the broken cases.
The Naga Vihara in Jaffna was destroyed a few years ago and has
been now fully repaired with much publicity. However it is a recent
temple, only a few decades old, unlike the many other Buddhist sites
in Jaffna that date from the earliest historical records of 3rd
century B.C. The most famous is Nagadipa claimed in Mahavamsa to
be a site visited by the Buddha in the 6th century BC. Being a one-day
trip, I unfortunately did not have time to visit it.
The Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is impressive. The original Kovil believed
to have been built by King Bhuvaneka Bahu VI (1450-1467) was destroyed
by the Portuguese in 1620 and the current kovil dates to 1807 after
being rebuilt during the Dutch and early British era.
Kadurugoda Viharaya (Kanthrodai) is one of the earliest archaeological
sites in Jaffna that luckily seemed to have survived the ravages
of war. It is a site with over 60 small stupas of about 10 feet
in diameter and height that have been built very close to each other.
Many coins have been found at the site by archaeological excavations.
The port of Jambukola (Sambilthurai) near Kankesanthurai is the
site where Theri Sanghamitta, Emperor Asoka's daughter landed with
the Bodhi Tree. King Devanampiya Tissa built the Jambukola Vihara
and Vijayabahu I (1055-1110) restored the site. The remains of the
Vihara, such as the Buddha footprint stone and Vatadage seen up
to recent times no longer exist there. A commemorative Vihara and
Bodhi Tree have been recently been built within the HSZ.
The Naguleswaram Shiva Kovil is very ancient and is worshipped as
one of five divine residences of Shiva. Destroyed by the Portuguese
the present kovil dates to 1859.
The nearby springs at Keerimalai are a historical site. The Tamil
name Keeri-malai translates to mongoose-mound. According to legend
when Indian Saadhu Nagulaswami bathed in the spring, his nagul (mongoose
in Sanskrit) face turned into a human one. It is within the HSZ
west of Palaly Airport. There are separate baths for males and females
and these are still used. The source of the spring is in the rocks
According to the Mahabharatha, Princess Jamathakiri whose face had
been cursed to that of a horse was restored to her former beauty
in the springs of Keerimalai.
She erected Maviddapuram Kovil to god Skanda Kumaran. Destroyed
by the Portuguese, it was rebuilt in 1782. Not much of the original
sculpture is visible. The site is being restored, using drawings
and photographs of the temple before the destruction to recreate
the same architecture. Craftsmen from southern India had done most
of the sculpture and the local talent was no longer available. The
poosari was upset that the restoration that had restarted in 1995
after the SL government took back control of Jaffna had stopped
again in the last few years.
The LTTE has renovated few sites. The children's park named after
Kittu, the LTTE leader who died in a sea battle with the Indian
Navy was neatly kept. A portrait of the fallen comrade was prominently
displayed inside and I was told the obstacle courses in the park
were designed to combat train kids from an early age.
The large LTTE war cemetery had been restored and reopened in late
2002. The Tiger flag was flying at full mast. Hundreds of graves
stretched out to the horizon. A plaque placed in front told of the
destruction of the cemetery in 1995.
The upper middle-class house in which LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran
grew up in Velvettiturai has not yet been restored. A painted plaque
on the wall next to the gate announced its identity in English.
HONOURED PRABAKARAN'S HOUSE PRESIDENT OF TAMIL EELAM. A small tiger
flag with no emblem flew in front of the entrance that was open
to walk in. The roof had caved in, probably caused by the few shells
that cut through some of the walls. There was graffiti on all the
walls in many languages and political views.
Above some doors were nice Hindu images. One Krishna with two bulls
on either side and another of Lakshmi having her ritual bath with
two elephants pouring water on her head caught my numismatic eye.
It is an image found frequently on ancient Lankan coins. I read
recently that Prabakaran's parents were returning from India. Maybe
they will restore their house and move in.
I had read many reports about a gold coin issued by the LTTE but
had never seen even an image of one. All of my inquiries had produced
nothing until with just about one hour to spare before my flight
we found a very small shop, hardly five feet across and with just
enough room for a counter and room for customers to sit.
They were however probably the largest gold dealers. I was shown
a bag that may have had fifty British sovereigns. When we asked
for the LTTE gold coins the dealer remembered that he might have
two, but said they were of lower fineness. I contained my excitement,and
when I had the two in hand even, bargained down the price in view
of the 20-karat gold.
The one-hour flight back to Colombo was smooth. It took longer for
the bus to travel from Ratmalana back to my home Bambalapitiya in
the Colombo weekday evening rush hour.