Jaffna’s String of Islands | Daily News
Sri Lanka’s Astonishing Archipelago:

Jaffna’s String of Islands

Jaffna has always held a mystique for travel writers. Leonard Woolf in the 1920s says “I did not idealize or romanticize the people of the country; I just liked them aesthetically.” Travel writer Juliet Coombe explores Jaffna’s ritually rich out islands.

For those that love natural beauty, history and dry heat head to Jaffna and the Northern part of the island. Often compared to Cuba’s Havanna, Jaffna with its classic cars has a vintage old world charm to it despite all the restoration work that has taken place since 2009 and exciting new buildings that have been built, there are still many wonderful historic colonial buildings, some still with bullet holes in, a reminder of Asia’s longest conflict. Travel around the islands and time vanishes as the birds become nosier and the food more delicious due to being straight from plot to plate.

Hiring a Morris Minor and driver from the old town is the only way to travel in style along the causeway to the harbour and its colorful ferryboats. Leave early so you can see the fisherman hand sewing their tackle before throwing the fishing nets into the picturesque lagoon, as the sun rises and young girls appear in saris and matching masks riding bicycles piled high with goods for the islands.

Little boats bob on the water either side of the causeway and ox drawn carts pass me with the stately grandeur of an ancient world that should be preserved for future generations to learn from. Only matched by fit looking old guys riding in the opposite direction on classic Singer bicycles with huge bundles of firewood and other raw building materials to be sold in Jaffna old town, where rebuilding is evident everywhere.

From time to time a Red Indian bus passes by carrying Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims to Nainativu - Nagadipa Island. As the car reaches the ferry dock, pretty blue and green painted boats come into view, moored safely waiting to take the next band of pilgrims to the different out islands and I notice a long line of women waiting patiently in the shade for the next boat to sacred Nainativu.

Sacred Nainativu is one of Jaffna’s seven out islands, a place where women take miniature dolls and messages asking for fertility rites, which they wrap up in sari cloth with coins they have blessed and hang in the temple trees As the hand-painted blue and pink flower ferry chugs out to sea ones breath is taken away by the clearness of the water in which colourful fish can be see. The main ferryboat is complete with shrine to Ganesh; it feels as if one is in India’s ghats, the city of learning and burning Varanassi. Puffs of smoke come from joss sticks stuck in the wood surround the shrine and fruit offerings that have been made that morning to the sea. Clambering through the main hatch I sit down on an old oak bench next to a couple of pilgrims exchanging stories of their travels and above I can hear sun-seekers who have clambered further onto the outer deck looking for the best spot to catch the sea breeze.

I talk to two of the women clasping in their hands all manner of miniature dolls as I take all this in, one original islander sitting next to me reminisces about her childhood living on Nainativu. Her eyes light up when her husband talks about the free vegetarian temple food served at lunchtime on banana leaves with island-grown red rice and delicious Jaffna island vegetables. Always, he says pointing out the building in the distance at one o’clock on the dot. Just the experience of seeing the giant steaming bowls of food is worth waiting around on the island to try the local dishes, and meet the people who see this as such an important pilgrimage site.

I discover from Ranjini another inhabitant that sadly the number of people living on Nainativu and all the islands has dwindled over the last three decades to less than a thousand, and most of them are either elderly, work in the temples as volunteers or as fisherman.

The temple Sri Naga Pooshani Amman is a few minutes walk from where we land and on either side of it are little stalls run by young lads selling island nuts, shells and coconuts. Inside the grounds, pilgrims socially distance only stopping to put a red dot on their foreheads before entering the inner sanctum and at exactly 12 o’clock a large drum is hit, accompanied by bells and trumpet music to celebrate the day’s most sacred midday ritual known as a puja, when special offerings are made to the gods. These include donations of plantin, beetle, arrack nut, coconuts, Jaffna mango “karuthakolumban, red rice and joss sticks which are also lit daily as the music is played the pilgrims pray, are blessed in turn and take comfort in the ancient temple surroundings.

Broody women or couples with fertility issues have been flocking to the temple for thousands of years, because this is the sacred Naga serpent temple of Meenakshi, who is closely related to Shiva, goddess of fertility. After the midday puja they ceremonially hang the miniature dolls in little boxes, along with their handwritten notes and pujas from the temple. After more prayers, special wishes are made as the coconut husk is burnt at the top, and then the women smash them to complete the ceremony and make a special wish if the nut breaks, asking the Naga goddess for fertility and a blessing on their family. If the coconut breaks they know that their wish will be granted, but not if it stays in one piece.

The temple and its very large grounds with smaller complexes is packed with all sorts of other things to see, like the sacred well, a small museum, a library with history and philosophy books, a carving centre and a large dining area with rolled up palmyra mats that are put out every day to serve the temple lunch. As you walk round you will find snake statues placed in the strangest of places and this is to remind you that the Naga serpent goddess is ever present working her magic on those struggling to conceive.

Delft in contrast is a much more bleak and remote out island, a fascinating outpost I discover the next day with an equally intriguing history, and friendly island people, ancient Buddhist ruins and a strange, windswept landscape full of wild horses, that look more like ponies left over from Portuguese colonisation.

Each island has its charm and strangely different series of rituals despite their relative close proximity to each other. It is easy to see why the likes of Leonard Wolf fell in love with the place.

The islands described by guide book writers a hundred years ago as Sri Lanka’s crown jewels, are all gems of places to spend time walking and enjoying that Robinson Crusoe desire in many of us to be stranded on a beautiful island cut off from the rest of the world. Looking out to sea and the stunning surrounding coastline, one can see why such a prized area has been so heavily fought over and also why there has never been a better time to explore Jaffna and its out islands.