It is 7PM in the morning when we leave Colombo for a long road journey to Northern Sri Lanka. Six years ago it wasn’t possible to take this 250-mile road trip. Long stretches of the road were closed during the war between the Sinhalese ethnic majority from the South and the Tamil Tigers in the North. Our Sinhalese driver has only been once in the North since the war ended in 2009. It struck me that he is almost as foreign as we are. He struggles to communicate with the Tamil-speaking people. They don’t speak Sinhalese and he doesn’t speak Tamil either. This part of Sri Lanka that has been isolated over twenty years is a world apart from the rest of the country.
We make a first stop in Anuradhapura, the capital city of Central Sri Lanka. Driving through the city we pass ruins of temples, monasteries and monuments that revert to the ancient Sri Lankan kingdom. The sacred place is calm, still only a few tourists visit this part of Sri Lanka. Monks walk in line on their way to the big white Thuparama Stupa. Although there are many old beautiful trees protecting us from the sun, it is super warm. I am trying not to burn my feet running barefoot from shade to shade as it is not allowed to wear shoes. We walk our way up to the sacred fig tree Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. It is said to be grown from a branch from the Bodhi tree located in India under which Buddha attained enlightenment.
When we arrive at Margosa Lake Resort we are rewarded with a refreshing jump in the pool. Set in a peaceful area next to the lake with great sunset views this is a great place to make a stop either to stay or enjoy a delicious spicy curry on the terrace.
From Anuradhapura we follow the road northwards. We drive for six hours on bumpy roads that are still not recovered since the war. When we enter the dry zone we see the flora and fauna change into scrub forest and many Jaffna palmyrah palm. The environment is perfect for bird watching. Several times we make a stop in the hope to see flamingo’s. We don’t get to see them but instead we see many other varieties of duck such as stork, heron, and egrets around the large lakes we pass. I always thought I had to go to Africa to see baobab trees but Sri Lanka keeps surprising me. Driving around on Manner Island we make a stop at a beautiful baobab tree. I am amazed by its massive shape with a circumference of 19,5 m. It is believed to be 700 years old.
The closer we get to Jaffna the more colourful Hindu temples and traditional woman dressed in sari cycling the streets we see. The smell of incense is overwhelming when we enter the Nallur Kandaswamy temple. A huge Hindu temple crowned by a golden ochre. I quickly protect my bare shoulders with a scarf before I enter. Next to me a man takes of his t-shirt, he can only enter with a naked upper body. I hear the sacred sound of mantras and people around me, all have holy powder on parts of their body. It is like I set foot in India. People stand in line and pray with folded hands in front of a mysterious small wooden temple-like room. I try to understand what happens but all I see is a colourful statue with flowers moving from side to side on a swing pushed by a priest. We are witness of a holy ceremony. When the bell rings everyone walks up to the priest with open hand palms. I join them and the he hands me a ball of sweet rice.
Ruins of Jaffna town
The war has deeply damaged Jaffna. We pass ruined homes, and bombed churches, colonial buildings and an ancient library overgrown by trees and plants. Every time I pass people of my age it crosses my mind that they have all experienced a horrible war. Before 2009 Jaffna wasn’t open for tourists but the city is looking to rise again. They are rebuilding the historical sights like the Dutch fort, which was originally built by the Portuguese and renovated by the Dutch in the seventeenth century to maintain trading activities. Nowadays locals play football on the courtyard and couples view over the ocean during their afternoon walk on parts of the walls.
By tuk-tuk we drive to the most Northern tip of Jaffna to the Keerimalai spring. The mineral water sacred pool is a popular hang out for locals to carry out rituals for their forefathers and take a dip in the fresh water. It’s an entertaining setting with a lot of laughter and water splashing around us while we watch the kids back flip into the holy water.
It entails a long journey to reach Jaffna but you get to see a yet undiscovered part of the island and experience the rich traditions of northern Ceylon.