Exploring Jaffna peninsula’s picturesque islands
– an Australian’s awe-inspiring expedition


Story and pix by Jesse Neill

I awaken to the sharp, striking sound of firecrackers echoing down the street, marking the beginning of Diwali — the Hindu festival of lights. Struggling to sleep with the thunderous cacophony that surrounds me, I decide to get out of bed and prepare myself for the day ahead.

I hire a scooter from my guesthouse and map out my route with the friendly owner. I am about to explore Jaffna’s lesser known islands and peninsula in an attempt to understand and experience the unique culture found in Sri Lanka’s northern province.

After a quick breakfast, I begin the journey with a visit to the south side of Jaffna’s peninsula to Jaffna Fort, a harrowing reminder of the conflict that plagued the region for almost three decades. Originally built in 1619 by the Portuguese and later expanded by the Dutch, Jaffna Fort served as an important strategic complex for trading operations in Sri Lanka’s northern region.

Unfortunately, most of its buildings and fortifications were destroyed by artillery fire during the civil war and now all that is left of the original structure is a hollow shell. Parts of it seemingly crumble by the day and it appears as though a strong gush of wind could decimate the entire complex. However, it remains standing as a stark representation of the suffering experienced and scars left behind by Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Following this eye-opening visit, I take a short ride north of Jaffna’s main town to the Keeramalai Fresh Water springs. These springs are situated next to the sea, west of Palay, and are separated from the ocean by a cement wall. Despite its close proximity to the sea, the water is cool and comes from a fresh underground water spring in Tellipalli-Maviddapuram.

Keeramalai translates to Mongoose Mound in Tamil, which originates from the local story of an Indian priest who was cured of his mongoose face after swimming in the spring. This still serves as an important holy site for many of the locals and is a significant part of several religious ceremonies in the region.

Around 30 minutes from this stop is Casuarina beach, which is reached via the Ponnalai Causeway connecting the mainland with Karainagar Island. Its name originates from the many Casuarina trees that line the beach and is considered the nicest beach in the Jaffna area.

The beach was unusually quiet on the day I visited, and this meant I could enjoy the soothing ocean all to myself. After enjoying a sweet Jaffna mango and dipping my feet in the water, I decided to continue onwards.

Being used predominately for farmland, the only other highlight of Karainagar island was on the south coast at Fort Hammenhiel, which is actually located on an islet between Kayts and Karainagar.

The Portuguese built Fort Hammenhiel with quarried coral in the mid 17th century and it was used to detain prisoners and later made use of by the Sri Lankan Navy to detain sailors for misconduct. It is now a small tourist hotel and restaurant owned and operated by the Navy.

After riding through a navy checkpoint and being granted clearance, I have lunch at the fort. The wait before the meal provides me with the perfect opportunity to photograph some of the beautiful scenery around the area. The ocean curves into the bay, with lush trees and plants clustered around the fort’s interior.

The fort itself looks out to the calm sea; on a clear day, it’s possible to see right to the bottom of the water. I was lucky to observe a school of jumping fish glide past me as I stood on the jetty and admired the gorgeous surroundings.

Following lunch, I took the local ferry across from Karainagar to Kayts island and travelled down the main road back to Kayts Causeway. Along the way, I was as fascinated with the local life as they were with me. There are colourful churches and Hindu temples buzzing with activity, while the local villages are teeming with life.

School children finishing a day of study wave at me as I pass by, while other locals either give me the biggest smile or the most quizzical look I have seen in Sri Lanka. I am questioned along the way from inquisitive villagers as to where I have travelled from, as some of them explain they have never seen tourists and offer me the warmest of welcomes to Jaffna.

I take the causeway back to Jaffna’s main area and turn onto beach road, which overlooks the waterfront. I park my scooter and sit on a small mound, beginning to reflect on my time in Jaffna, while the sun begins to set over the water and traffic zooms by at breakneck speed.

Again, I hear the distant sounds of firecrackers from the Diwali, bringing the day back in a full circle. The noise shocks me, but it also fills me with a sense of awe. I think this is what so special about Jaffna.

It’s not necessarily what you see or do, but more so the feeling that you can’t describe with words that makes it an amazing place to visit. It has a unique quality to it, the people are some of the friendliest but also some of the most curious I have met.

It is unlike anywhere else in Sri Lanka and somewhere I implore people to travel.

Although the sun may be setting on this beautiful, culturally rich town, it is certain that the spotlight will continue to rise on Jaffna as locals and tourists alike begin to recognise its ineffable beauty despite its physical scars.

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