Nobody quite understands my unquenchable thirst in exploring the Jaffna Peninsula. And neither do I.
For the second time I took the Yaldevi train covering 360 km (and 7 hours) journey to the Yalpanam. Jaffna is the capital of the Northern region of Sri Lanka and this area along with the Eastern coastal strip was affected by war that withstood much ravage and carnage for nearly 3 decades. During the long ride I gently recollected some of the earlier impressions of Jaffna gained during my childhood years. Memories of trips taken back then when we were living in the North Central province, the warmth of the people, my father’s Tamil friends, the GA of North, doctors he knew while serving post in Maddawachchiya as an Irrigation Engineer. Especially the fragrance of their cooking of Uppuma, Wade and mouth watering sweets as they shared meals at their dinner table in their cosy homes. I don’t know how far we traveled (I was too small to say) but every where we traveled north or south bound there was nothing to beat the hospitality of the Tamil people.
They (my Dad’s friends) never pressed on with their religious and political view points – our family doctor at the Anuradhapura base hospital was Tamil and so many others like them touched our lives later.
When someone in Jaffna asked me if I was Tamil (diaspora) I felt I had managed well to explore Yalpanam traveling along with friends there, thus managing to lose my own identity and melt in with the rest. Of course I don’t speak a single word – other than Nadri (which is Thanks!) BTW Thanks for the compliment.
During a recent trip I manage to visit a handful of sites that needs exploring with my friends. While visitors from all parts of the country and from overseas are coming to witness important historical and cultural locations the people there, are too busy rebuilding their homes and broken family connections that they have not seen these places for themselves.
My friend pictured above said she was visiting the Dutch fort since her school days and for the first time after the war ended. The beautification of the Jaffna fort is on-going, much work has progressed with a generous donation from the government of Netherlands. As we walked along restored paved ways, stairs and ramparts the children played gaily losing themselves in abundance. They wouldn’t know of what took place within these premises in the recent past. As I gaze across the Guillotine I think of what we do not know of the ancient past – how the Dutch took over the fortress from the Portuguese and how the British may have overruled the control of the Dutch in 1800s. Perhaps these were very familiar battle grounds for the conquerors.
In the center of the Fort lays the remains of the old Dutch church and the Queens Palace. A small segment of barracks is occupied by the army and workers engaged in the restoration. As dusk falls through they are able to take a break from work to enjoy a game of cricket. We could hear loud cheering and the foot steps of the boys scrambling to get ahead of the rolling ball. Caught and stumped – there’s an uproar!
What happened during the 1980s was such a heart-breaker, even as a slightly grown-up child I did not understand Why? As a result of the riots many of my Tamil friends in Colombo vanished – some opted to migrate overseas. Our connections died a slow death over the distance and time.
Next I was caring children of my own when the war broke off into a major scale and I could never regale in any of the victories like others, for the sake of one race knowing well the destruction and brokenness in the lives of the others. There was some guilty feelings in been able to live in the relative safety (of Colombo suburbs) while unsuspecting civilians were caught in ravages of war. On one hand the Tigers were mauling people and burning down entire villages and bombing places where people were gathering, the security forces were also known to inflict casualties although such news did not reach the print lines. Our people got accustomed to talking of these stories, sparing nothing of the barbarian killings. And it was at this point I started to shut my self off to all opinions and held on to a prayer of peace….
Thoughts of such prayers were remembered as I passed bullet ridden homes, desolate fields and abandoned schools. This is one reason I keep visiting Yalpanam, to come into consolidation of my grief of what happened. Like many wars that were fought and won/ loss make us wonder Why such madness for the ownership of vast empty land ? It’s people that matters and the relationships they hold – Life.
During my visit in August 2016 (five years since my last visit) I spent much of my time with a Tamil family in Jaffna. My friend’s residence was some 6 kms from the town along the A9 road. She told me she had lost her mother, sister and youngest daughter on the same day some 20 years back. She is someone I admire alot. On that day my admiration and fondness for this lady grew because of the patience she has with those who have caused her destruction. She lives freely without a trace of malice/hatred and it speaks volumes of the healing she shares. I keep coming back to this family during my trips to Jaffna. I try not to feel the odd one out has the young ones run from to room to room getting dressed, adorning themselves in bright clothing, the older gentry give respectful nods and we manage a few lines through the translations provided. Often my thoughts are deeper and heavier than the occupants – so I walk out to the open yard.
This month the goat had given birth to 2 young kids – the hazelnut-brown fawns approached me and nuzzled their wet noses in my open palm. I spoke lovingly and they turned their beautiful eyes upwards at me until their mother neighed a warning note, which sent them scrambling in her direction. (That must be like: How many times must I warn you against strangers?!) At this moment my thoughts went back to the terrible accident on the very same spot where three of her family members had perished. Life has taken and also given back. Watching the innocent softness of the young goats with a gentle smile across her face, my friend emegerd from the house and said ‘lets get going’ in Tamil and all of us piled up into a local tuk-tuk to visit our next destination.
The Rajamanthri palace is a two storied building located a few kilometers along the Jaffna – Point Pedro road. The place had belonged to the chief minister of King Sangli 2 ( BTW is featured as a warrior king riding a horse under the clock tower near the Police in Jaffna town – the statue has been painted in gold! so you can’t miss it) who ruled over Jaffna during ancient times. Many other old buildings exists dating back to the colonial days but how this particular building withstood the war times and remain in one piece is a mystery. Perhaps its location being in close pr0ximity to Nallur temple may have brought it under the protection of a no-go zone.
The Archeological department maintains a small museum close to the Nallur kovil where an astonishing collection of artifacts from recent and very early days have been placed on exhibition. Excavations has unearthed pieces of pottery, coins and knives etc that go back to the Anurdhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandyan Kingdoms indicating close links maintained by the Tamil with their Southern counterparts. While most historians depict the North as the state of the Cholas (Tamil) who battle with the Southern kings I fear the case would have been quite the opposite, that people lived under the rule of their own king peacefully and maintained strong links with other kingdoms. The items coming from the period of British rulers helps put Jaffna on the map not as a separate state but as part of a country that saw the same fate. A fate that was not too bad after all – since it left us with the Railway system, postal and education systems and also the constitution and parliamentary system.
Close to the old Cement factory in KKS (Kankasnthrai) is located a major historical site of 56 small tombs dating back to the 9th century AD. The place is known as Kandarodai and is a well preserved monument. A resident told me that these cremation tombs hold the last remains of 60 Buddhist monks who were Tamil and were killed by Indian warriors. However the place is claimed as a Buddhist archeological site implicating the presence of Buddhism (hence Sinhalese-Buddhist people) in the North the monks are believed to have died during a famine. Kandarodai has taken the identity of Buddhist worship with a small shrine that has been placed in recent time.
The Nagaviharaya in Jaffna town and Dambakola Pattuna also reminds the visitors of the urgency to renew placed of Buddhist worship, since the ending of war brings the entire country under the rule of the majority – thus helping the island regain its purity of a Buddhist nation. Long years ago when these very same locations did not receive such arduous patronage they were much nicer. I remember my visit to Nagadeepa temple in Nainathivu by making it across the small stretch of sea in a simple fishing boat. The Buddhist monk pinned a small Buddhist flag on my lapel and handed over a few marbles. It was a time where temples and kovils stood side by side without the semblance of a dominance of any one, religion.
The exploration of Yalpanam was all well and good. I enjoyed all of that but the highlight of the 4-day visit seemed to be the daily walks along the promenade overlooking the lagoon. As I became more familiar and confident of making these long trails (covering as much as 15 kms daily) in the early morning orevenings I enjoyed a great sense of freedom and well-being. The power of physical trials is the focus on the ‘now’ amidst the flow of adrenaline and a composite mix of happy enzymes. While it helps elevate all unhappy thoughts it leaved you wasted and utterly satisfied.
To know of the turmoil the place has undergone and to be able to travel along the causeway without any presence of fear is s very liberating thought for me. At the same time I experienced the release of my own ‘personal baggage’. I learned to forgive myself and be happy during the long walks along the promenade. The sun shone in mellowing tones turning the vast skies pinkish. Birds skimmed water, glided gracefully and arose taking a new direction. As I would too. It was very quiet and beautiful.
As lost love leave you in terrible heart-wrenching pain you know it’s making you stronger and more aware of your own capability of loving. When you let go, it leaves you with a vacuum – which allows others around you love you in small simple ways – none of which can fill you entirely but nevertheless fulfills the want of been accepted.
“I Think it is lost…..but nothing is ever lost nor can be lost .
The body sluggish, aged, cold, the ember left from earlier fires
shall duly flame again.” ― Walt Whitman