Another look at Jaffna

Last year, when all his friends were journeying to more exotic places, Philippe Fabry decided to visit Jaffna. The ceasefire was on, the A9 had been reopened and the Fabry family of four, husband, wife and two children thought the best way to get there was by car. Daughter Alexandra, 14, wanted to see the Delft ponies while Emmanuel aged 10, like most boys his age was fascinated by the relics of war, the guns, the mines and the ruins.

At that point there was no thought of a book, confesses Fabry. They travelled quite bumpily to Jaffna, met a whole heap of people (academics, scholars, expats) and began visiting the 'must-see' places... temples, churches, cultural sites, etc.

Finding their way around proved difficult, despite the Jaffna people themselves being warm and hospitable. "Remember I speak only English in French," Fabry grins.

Yet the trip was a memorable one, even though they didn't visit all the historical and cultural sites they had on their list.

Back home came the idea of Fabry's Essential guide to Jaffna which would give the traveller the information he most needed; the best places to visit, how to get there, the English, Sinhala and Tamil name to use when asking for directions, a sketch of the place, a GPS position to pinpoint the location and of course, the all-important map to every site.

And so Philippe Fabry went back to Jaffna many times over. The result is Fabry's travelling notebook; "The Essential guide to Jaffna and its region".

It has more than 50 sites listed, but as he admits a trifle ruefully, "there were more". Still, he's delighted that he made a start and that the book, launched in Colombo in May at the Barefoot Gallery and in Jaffna last month, has had an enthusiastic reception.

So who is Phillippe Fabry? "A traveller," he says laughing and perhaps in his case, one could add an adventurer. Sri Lanka apart, he's seen much of the world on his own terms. Leaving his home in France at a young age, he discovered Africa on a motorbike, journeying across the Sahara, then travelling to Asia, covering Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, before traversing Australia. Then he went to the US, later trekking through Nepal and Pakistan where he worked for a humanitarian organization coordinating a major aid effort for Afghan refugees.

His years there saw him produce a documentary film on the Indus and a book 'Les derniers Seigneurs de l' Indus'. In 1991 he published another book of photographs; 'Balouchistan, le desert insoumis' and then spent the next few years sailing the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the China Sea in a yacht. In 1995 came another book, ‘Wandering with the Indus'.

In Sri Lanka, the genial Fabry has worked as a consultant to the Photo Archives Department of the Central Cultural Fund in Anuradhapura for the past six years.

Fabry recently launched his own publishing house Viator Publications which put out the Essential guide and also markets the work of contemporary Sri Lankan writers.

The idea behind the Essential guide, he says, was to make it easy for the single traveller to find his way around. It's not about restaurants or places to stay but simply what to look out for.

Each site has a little sketch (drawings, maps and documentation are credited to Fabry) while his wife Lisa Fabry-Bewley did the text. The book also has some photos on its back and inside cover, which incidentally were by daughter Alexandra, perhaps beginning to show indications of her father's talent.

The book encompasses Jaffna and the region and so the readers' tour starts on the road to Jaffna with the Gajaba War Memorial. Then it's on to the Vavuniya Museum, Madukanda Vihare, where the Sacred Tooth Relic was kept on its way to Anuradhapura, the Murikandy Pillayar Shrine and then Mahavire Memorial, a war memorial of the Tamil Tigers. "You can't ignore the war," Fabry comments, "it's part of history now."

Many descriptions, though purposely kept brief, make fascinating reading. Take the extract on the Kruys Kerk: "The Groote Kerk or Kruys or Dutch Church which stood inside the fort (not to be mistaken with the Portuguese church which was in the opposite corner of the fort) was destroyed during the recent war. It was built around 1730 and the ground plan was in the shape of a Maltese cross. On its floor were tombstones as old as 1666 of Dutch dignitaries, each with an escutcheon and inscription, which were in jeopardy of disappearing during the civil war. They were rescued by Mr. Bavink of the Theological Seminary who brought them to the church of Vadukkodai (Batticaloa) for safekeeping.”

Equally absorbing is the extract on the Jaffna Archaeological Museum of recent origin which Fabry recounts has been amazingly undamaged by the war. “Many pieces and artefacts are found on the dusty shelves and in the dark galleries of this small but charming museum.

“The findings of the excavation at Kantharodai led by P.E. Peiris in 1917-1919 were kept here and are probably still here. There is a fragment of a torso, which could be the same one that Peiris describes in his papers. There is also a standing Buddha statue in good condition, which was discovered in 1969 at Puttur, east of Jaffna......... Walking around you will probably notice a large portrait of Queen Victoria which is said to smile at you from any angle."

On to Kantharodai, which Sir Paul Peiris described as "a miniature Anuradhapura buried in Tamil country" and some famous Jaffna landmarks such as the springs of Keerimalai and the Manalkadu desert.

Churches, museums, archaeological sites, natural attractions, they're all there. The idea is to encourage people to visit Jaffna, says Fabry.

What next? Another guide to a Lankan city. Which one, though, he will not reveal.

-Renuka Sadanandan

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