Introducing Jaffna: Sri Lanka's rising star
Earlier this year, hundreds of enthusiastic Sri Lankans joined Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Jaffna Station to witness the arrival of the Queen of Jaffna for the first time in 24 years.
The long suspended "Queen" train service connects the capital Colombo to the city of Jaffna, a former war zone on the island's far north.
The rail line was built by the British in 1905 and shut down in 1990 by Tamil rebels, who spent a quarter of a century fighting for a separate homeland in the north.
Since the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka has been pegged by some as Asia's next big travel destination.
A growing number of tourists are visiting the palm-fringed beach resorts of Tangala and Bentota, the lush tea estates in the southern highlands and the ancient cities of Kandy and Anuradhapura in the central plains.
However, Jaffna, once a prosperous port city accessible only by a long and tiring drive, had kept all but the most intrepid travelers away.
The return of Queen of Jaffna train service promises a positive new beginning in the postwar era.
“For nearly 30 years, we could not even think of going there,” says P Roshanlal Perera, manager of the Tea Factory, one of the most notable hotels in the country's southern highlands.
“But now I am waiting for the opportunity to return. I'm very keen to see how the reconstruction efforts are shaping up.”
Throughout most of the medieval era, Jaffna was either ruled or heavily influenced by the kingdoms of southern India, which lies less than 50 kilometers west across the Palk Strait.
So it's not surprising to discover Indian and Hindu culture is omnipresent in Jaffna.
At the city's bustling daffodil-colored central marketplace, Hindi music screams from DVD shops and public loudspeakers affixed to electricity poles.
Restaurants like Hotel Rolex (not a hotel) add generous doses of chili to their chicken curry and coconut sambal paste, while emaciated holy cows stroll down the street -- oblivious to the congestion they cause.
But nothing says India more than the candy-colored, richly decorated Dravidian-style Hindu temples that soar over Jaffna's haphazard buildings and homes.
Non-Hindus are welcome as long as they adhere to the rules: shoes must be removed, women must cover their legs, men must remove their shirts and photography isn't allowed inside the temples.
The best time to visit Hindu Temples like Nallur Kandaswamy is 4 p.m., when daily ceremonies take place.
Like a scene from a Bollywood movie, these rituals are a total assault on the senses.
Draped in orange robes, Hindu priests belt intoxicating melodies using trumpets, symbols and bongos while devotees chant in unison and the sweet blue smoke of burning incense sticks wafts through the air.
Hotel Rolex Restaurant, 340 Hospital St., Jaffna; +94 (0)77 907 9888; 7 a.m.-10 p.m., meals from 240 rupees ($2)
Jaffna Market, Jaffna Sri Lanka; between Hospital Street and Powerhouse Road | closed Sundays
Nallur Kovil, Jaffna Sri Lanka; corner of Jaffna-Point Pedro and Temple Roads, Jaffna | ceremonies held daily 4-5 p.m.
Set on Sri Lanka's northern tip and surrounded by brackish lakes and lagoons, Jaffna is a city not by the sea but “of the sea.”
Its strategic position proved irresistible to European navigators who ruled Sri Lanka from the 17th century and built a succession of sophisticated forts.
The current fort -- a star-shaped structure with corner bastions and a moat -- was built by the Dutch East India Company in 1792.
It was one of the most technologically advanced forts in the days of limited range cannon-powered naval warfare.
It had been perfectly preserved until 1980, when it was destroyed in the civil war.
But following an extensive rebuild co-sponsored by the Netherlands, Jaffna Fort reopened to the public in October 2013.
Complete with spiral staircases, labyrinth-like chambers and a small museum with colonial-era photographs, it's the perfect place for a walk late in the afternoon when the burning heat of the day begins to calm down.
The reconstructed Jaffna Library stands as another symbol of Jaffna's rebirth.
It was burned to the ground in 1981 by pro-government paramilitary forces, resulting in the destruction of nearly 100,000 books, centuries-old newspapers and palm-leaf manuscripts of incalculable historical value.
The library's destruction is said to have fueled the Tamil independence movement, while its reconstruction is likewise seen as a symbol of a thriving postwar Sri Lanka.
The gleaming white art deco building is fronted by a statue of the Saraaswati, the Hindu goddess of learning.
Entry into the library is restricted to students.
“You can visibly see the scars left from the past conflict, but you also feel the positive vibes that its moving on in the right direction,” says Harpo Gooneratne, a restaurateur from Colombo looking to open a hotel school and a coffee house in Jaffna.
“It’s one area of Sri Lanka not discovered by many, but I think the tourism boom will strike here next.”
Jaffna Fort, Jaffna Sri Lanka; corner of Point Pedro and Beach Roads
Jaffna Public Library, Jaffna Sri Lanka; Jaffna-Kankesanturai Road, Jaffna; daily 9 a.m.-7 p.m.
West of the city, the Jaffna archipelago consists of 10 low-lying islands edged by beaches and mangrove forests.
Cast aside preconceptions of tropical hideaways, for the islands are suffocatingly dry, laced with salt flats and ranked among the wildest and remotest in Sri Lanka.
Yet there's beauty in the isolation -- a vast, flat world of blue and white colors that shimmers like a mirage under the sun.
And four of these islands are now linked by causeways that make them easy to explore.
Riding in a car or bus over the causeways that hover over lagoons and tidal flats is surreal.
Only the hardiest of birdlife -- cormorants, kites, fish eagles -- and equally hardy people are able to survive here, eking out a living from fishing or coconut farming.
Tilko Jaffna City Hotel, 70 / 6, K.K.S Road, Jaffna Sri Lanka; +94 (0) 21 720 0707 | 7,500 rupees ($57) single or 9,500 rupees ($72) double.
Tilko Jaffna City Tours, day tour of Jaffna archipelago in private vehicle 9,000 rupees ($69)