Jaffna is a city of about 100,000 inhabitants in northern Sri Lanka. It suffered for decades from a civil war that only really came to an end about 10 years ago. It is therefore not very tourist developed, but it is definitely a particularly interesting city to visit. Not only will you discover the aftermath of this war, but it is also packed with colonial history and the Jaffna Kingdom, which ruled this region for over 400 years. Are you already convinced why a visit to Jaffna is a must during your trip to Sri Lanka? Then read all about this emerging city in the far north of Sri Lanka below….
*This Travel Guide is also available in Dutch (Jaffna Reisgids).
In this Travel Guide to Jaffna
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A brief history of Jaffna – Jaffna Kingdom, colonial influences and Tamil Tigers
For a visit to Jaffna, you only need to have 3 historical events in mind. The first is about Jaffna’s own Kingdom (1215-1624), which existed for more than 400 years. Then the Portuguese, Dutch, and British came and took over Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Finally, in northern Sri Lanka, a civil war takes place between the Tamils, a minority, and the Sinhalese majority. A conflict that more or less also took place about 2500 years ago.
The Jaffna Kingdom (1215-1624), a stronghold of the Tamils
After Anuradhapura and Polonnuwara, the Sinhalese Kingdom fell apart around 1200. This kingdom had suffered from the Tamils, who came from India. They settled in the north of Sri Lanka and kept it up for more than 400 years. It was mainly in the 15th century that the Jaffna Kingdom flourished. Many Hindu temples were built and also literary the kingdom flourished completely. But that changed around 1500 when the Portuguese came ashore.
Colonial past – Portuguese, Dutch and the British
The Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in the early 1500s. But they were constantly opposed by the various kings of Jaffna. In 1619 they built a small settlement on the site where the Jaffna fort now stands. And meanwhile, they had captured and killed the last king.
But there in 1658, those damned Dutch arrived. Together with the king of the Kingdom of Kandy, they had agreed to chase the Portuguese off the island. During a bloody attack, thousands of people lost their lives, but the Dutch had taken over the fort. The Dutch stayed in Sri Lanka for more than 100 years, until the King of Kandy along with the British decided to chase the Dutch out.
But many things changed under the British as well. They brought many Tamils from India to work on the plantations. In addition, they were responsible for the division that arose between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. In the process, the Tamils got a lot of support from the British and good jobs. And that was the main reason why there were tensions between the two groups.
The civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese government
Tensions had existed between the Tamils and the Sinhalese for over 2000 years. As you know now, many Tamils were brought to Ceylon to work on the plantations. But they also received a good education and the best jobs. When Sri Lanka’s independence was declared on February 4, 1948, the Sinhalese gained more and more power in politics. The Tamils felt disadvantaged and strived for an independent state. In 1976 they founded the Tamil Tigers and committed attacks on targets of Sinhalese (including temples). After a Tamil party was blocked in elections, the Sri Lankan War broke out in 1983. In the nearly 30 years that followed, attacks were carried out, over 70,000 people were killed, and in 2009 the Tamil Tigers surrendered after an offensive by the government army. Today Jaffna is safe, but between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority, things do not always go well.
8 Sightseeing in Jaffna – Temples, colonial past and the civil war
Grab a bike and head out to explore the city of Jaffna. At first, it may not be the bustling city you expect, but historically it has some interesting sites in store for you. The first three sights are located about 2 kilometers north of the center and have to do with the bygone Nallur Kingdom. The other four are in the center near the coast.
Below I have not included a day trip to Delft Island. I have not been there myself, but according to the few stories, I have heard it is a fun day trip. Check with your accommodation for more information, as the boat only leaves a few times a day.
1. The most famous temple of Hinduism in Jaffna, the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple
The Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, 2 kilometers north of the city is a beautiful temple that you should absolutely not miss. The original temple dates from the 17th century but was destroyed by the Portuguese. The Portuguese built the St. James Church on top of it, which is why this temple later ended up on this spot. The shrine is dedicated to the Skanda or Murugan, the Hindu god of war.
A visit to the temple is allowed for men only if they are not wearing a T-shirt. The temple is open from 4:30 am and if you plan it a little, you can witness a procession. Inside the temple, you are not allowed to take pictures, so posing with the bare body is done outside!
2. The St. James Church in Jaffna
It has just been briefly mentioned, the St. James Church. Located 50 meters away from the Nallur Kandaswamy temple, it looks like a normal church. Around 1820, four British missionaries came to Sri Lanka to convert the population to Christianity. They settled in a small abandoned Dutch church where before the Portuguese the Nallur Kandaswamy temple should have stood. In 1847 the church was consecrated, then in 1849, the church was extended with a tower 20 meters high.
Behind the church is another old ruin of the Nallur Kingdom. This is an old pond, probably from the thirteenth century. It was listed as a cultural heritage site by the Sri Lankan government in 1948. Unfortunately, there is very little to see of this pond.
3. Cankili Thopu, the gate to the palace
Sangili II was the last leader of the Jaffna Kingdom. He refused to hand over power to the Portuguese in 1619 and was therefore captured and hanged in Goa. This ended this kingdom that had existed for over 4 centuries. Right next to his ‘golden’ statue you will find a gateway called the Cankili Thopu. It is believed to be one of the entrance gates to his royal palace. But if you look closely you can also see typical Dutch architecture incorporated. Nevertheless, it is now assumed that this was built by the Nallur Kingdom and possibly adapted by the Dutch.
4. The abandoned house of one of the ministers of former King Sangiliyan of the Nallur Kingdom
Fancy discovering a haunted house in Jaffna? Beyond Cankili Thopu stands the ruin of an empty house that used to belong to the minister of King Sangiliyan. It is possible to visit inside the house, however, this comes with the caption: enter at your own risk. The style of the house looks like a mix of the typical Dravidian architecture that you often see in the south of India and European architecture. It is likely that the Dutch restored part of this property. The property also contains a small well.
Want to know more about Dravidian architecture? Then read the article Mahabalipuram – All about the special temples from the Pallava dynasty
5. Discover the cathedral of St. Mary
At the end of the 18th century, the Dutch built a church here. It is said to have been the place where King Cankili I (who died in 1565) killed his son for converting to Christianity. King Cankili I was one of the most important kings of the Jaffna Kingdom and offered much resistance to the Portuguese.
Now a large church with a wooden roof stands here. It is officially considered the center of the Roman Catholic Church in Jaffna and surrounding areas.
6. Go in search of the colonial past in Jaffna Fort
Along the coast of Jaffna is a fort that was owned by the Portuguese until 1658. Then the Dutch had captured it from the Portuguese and stayed there for more than 140 years. They built out the fort with thick walls and inside the fort was a church and several houses of high officials. Unfortunately, the church was lost during the Sri Lankan civil war and you see mostly rubble and remnants of this past. Nevertheless, Jaffna Fort, is an interesting place to discover the history of this city and its colonial past.
After visiting the fort, don’t forget to take a walk along the coast. It may not be the most beautiful coast, but it is wide and open and a wonderful place to take a breath of fresh air on the lawn.
7. The public library with a sad recent history
This beautiful white building of the Jaffna Public Library has an important significance in the history of Jaffna and the Tamils. A number of precious manuscripts and books were stored here, which went up in smoke after an arson attack by an anti-Tamil gang. A great loss to the city. When the new library reopened its doors in 2003, the whole world donated books to fill up the empty shelves again. It is possible to take a small tour of the new library.
8. The beautiful clock tower of Jaffna
Okay, maybe not the most spectacular ending to a list you might have expected. Still, this clock tower does have something very special. Around 1880, it was decided to build a clock tower here to commemorate the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1875. In the 1980s, the bell tower was severely damaged by the Civil War. A restoration took place and a bell dating back to 1882 still hangs in this special bell tower.
Practical information about your visit to Jaffna
Those who come to Jaffna just to see the city can be done in one day. But if you plan to explore the surrounding area then the peninsula for about 3 days is definitely recommended. Besides, you can also look for nice accommodation near this city with a nice view of the beach.
Accommodation – Where to stay in Jaffna?
More and more hotels have been added in recent years, as more and more tourists visit Jaffna. But unfortunately, it still remains one of the least popular destinations in Sri Lanka. And yet, there are plenty of wonderful things to discover.
However, the number of hostels is limited. At that time, I slept at Yaarl Hostels with a super friendly owner. The advantage of this hostel is that you can rent scooters and bikes. If you only want to explore the city then a bicycle is more than enough. Unfortunately, at the moment it is not possible to book Yaarl Hostel in Jaffna via the link below.
Transportation – How to get there?
Jaffna is located in the far north of Sri Lanka. There is a train that goes there and that is basically the best way to get there. This train takes about 3 hours from Anuradhapura and 6 hours from Colombo Fort. The station in Jaffna is close to the center and a cab will take you to your accommodation.
Another option is the bus. A recommended option would be to make a stopover in Anuradhapura and then travel on to Jaffna. From Colombo, you would spend more than 9 hours on the bus and this would be a waste.
Do you have any tips, comments, or ideas about Jaffna in Sri Lanka? If so, feel free to leave a comment below.