Yalpanam is layman’s name for Jaffna. The name originated from a blind fellow who played an instrument called the “Yal”. The king was so pleased with his performance, that he gave him some sandy land, which was later named after this famous ‘Yal Player’. He came back with some of his fellow tribesmen and settled well in that area. Yalpanan changed to Yalpanam as place names often end with an M.
Jaffna’s climate is that of the tropical rainforest nature, and it has the highest temperature in Sri Lanka which reaches 28C. Its hottest between April/May and August/September and coolest around December/January. Rain comes with the monsoon which varies from place to place and over time.
The Palmyrah tree was chosen as the symbol of Tilko Hotels being is a sturdy tropical palm of extreme versatility, strength and charm which represent the people of Jaffna. Entire industries stem from the various parts and produce of this plant which yields fruits, nuts leaves, syrup and jaggery (unrefined solid sugar) among other things. The robust palmyrah leaves can be fashioned into an unbelievable number of useful items including hats, baskets, mats, ornaments, rice sieves, wall hangings, roof thatching, banners, bags,wallets, purses and many more. The palmyrah leaf is also the basis for the Ola Leaf systems of ancient manuscripts which have miraculously survived in Asian libraries for centuries, in spite of tropical humidity and voracious insects. There is also the secret somewhat hard-to-source delight of legendary Palmyrah Toddy, which the Hotel will locate for you if you request.
Finally there is a little known wonder of the creamy, curdy, fruity and rich tasting Palmyrah & Fruit Jelly Yoghurt which has to be tasted to be believed. We suggest you put that on your bucket list and just don't leave Jaffna until you have sampled it- or arranged to start exporting it!
Built by the Portuguese in 1816, the stark grey stones of this iconic monument are etched deep with history, echoing legends, countless battles and voices long silenced. Like all fortresses the world over this one was considered a strategic location and the scene of many a battle as recently as two decades ago where a civil war raged for over 30 years.
Fittingly in post war Jaffna with its atmosphere of a phoenix arising gradually from massive destruction, you'll see scenic moats and mysterious green water, rocks and stones of the fort itself and much much ruin, that tells you so many stories without words. The fort was usurped in turn by the Dutch, then the British, then passed to the Ceylon Army, occupied by the IPKF, captured by the LTTE who strategically destroyed a large part of its defenses, and recaptured by the Sri Lankan forces in 1995. Legends of miracles abound, surrounding a statue of the Virgin Mary in a church inside the fortress and it has also been the scene of discovery of more than three dozen skeletons during various stages of excavations, although finding skeletons in Jaffna is unfortunately not very rare. ( Well, its another of those things that make it a bit different from other tropical holiday locations!) While you walk along the Fort, you may notice that the “bricks” of the Fort are in fact corals. Upon close inspection, you will notice that even the gallows in which the Dutch “took care” of those who went against the law, consists of corals/limestone. The Sri Lankan Army, with Dutch funding began carrying out painstaking renovations of this timeless monument and visitors are allowed access during day time. Please be mindful to avoid littering.
An iconic landmark not to be missed, the magnificent gold-crusted god-adorned structure looms over you as you enter the sacred premises of the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil (A Kovil is a Hindu place of worship). Located 2 km from the Jaffna city, the kovil is home to the sacred deity Murugan (or Skanda) and is a place of worship for Hindu devotees not only from Sri Lanka, but from other countries as well. The present kovil is the fourth and final construction since it was completely demolished in 1621 by the Portuguese and rebuilt in 1734 by the Dutch. Before entering the kovil, men must take their shirts off and women must be dressed modestly to show respect. (If you happen to be wearing shorts you can probably ask for a wrap around to cover your legs) To see the kovil in all its glory, be sure to visit during pooja times that are scattered throughout the day. Poojas are rituals of worship that the priests in the kovil conduct, which devotees can observe and or take part in. The kovil opens at 4:30 am every day to conduct a pooja at 5:00 am and then closes at 5:30 am. It reopens at 7:30 am, 10:00 am and noon for the pooja. The kovil again opens at 3:30 pm for a pooja at 4:00 pm and again at 5:00 pm. The gigantic golden-bronze gates of the kovil closes for the day at 6:15 pm. The Nallur Kovil is so significant to the devotees, that some never go a day without visiting the kovil and saying a prayer. In the premises of the kovil are a few magnificent buildings such as the main Nallur Kovil and Wilwangar which is opened only once a year and houses the chariot that Lord Murugan parades in. Devotees also worship the bilvam tree (Aegle marmelos) which is the equivalent of the bo (Ficus religiosa) tree for Buddhists in Sri Lanka is . It is said that the tree provides the shade and necessary atmosphere for the devotee who wishes to meditate and pray beside it. The Nallur Kovil is also famous for many festivals that surround Lord Murugan. The most prominent of these festivities is the annual Kandasti festival that lasts 25 days starting July 8th and ends on August 23rd. The celebrations begin with the raising of the Holy Flag of Kodiyetram. Various ‘Yāgams’, ‘Abishekams’ and special poojas are spread across the duration of this festival. November is a sacred and rather busy month for the Kovil and its visitors as it is the birth month of Lord Murugan. Parallel celebrations are held to mark his birth month at the Kataragama Kovil too, in Southern Sri Lanka many many miles away. November is also a month of celebration for Hindus as it is the month that celebrates his wedding to his first wife, Walli Amma which is celebrated on November 7th. His second wife is Deiywanna. Another elaborate festival is the Ther Thiruvilla or the Chariot festival is celebrated in August after a six day fasting period. Glamorously dressed statues of Lord Murugan and his consorts are paraded in a silver throne called;Simmasanam’. This silver throne is pulled by a rope of thousand devotees, brushing shoulders with each other, irrespective of class or age differences so that God Murugan can witness the sincerity and purity of his devotees. The festivities are a colourful affair that last for five days with as many as 300,000 devotees visiting the kovil each day.
Historic in the annals of time for being one of Asia’s largest libraries, and also a bone of contention in a civil war which resulted in its almost complete destruction in a critical political tantrum in 1981, the Jaffna Library arises once more like a brilliant white phoenix from its ashes as a glowing tribute to the scholarly, in this ancient Northern city. Reconstructed with funding from the Sri Lankan government as well as generous gifts in cash and kind, from India, USA, Japan and a number of other friendly nations, as well as private donors, the current facade replicates its original Indo-Saracenic architecture designed by S Narasinham, from Madras, India. A serene statue of Saraswathi, the Hindu Goddess of the arts, sits in front of the Library. The current collection, re-opened to the public in 2004, reaches more than 25,000 volumes including 1700 historical ‘ola leaf’ manuscripts on medicine and astrology, some of Indian origin.
VIsitors’ note: The library is a heaven of studious peace calm and quiet, and whilst visitors are most welcome, you need to knock off your cellphones, remove your footwear and not disturb readers as you view the public information. There are public notice boards about the places to see in Jaffna and a display containing antiques like one of the oldest radio receivers and other copper items, and finally very quaintly you will see evidence of the conservative nature of Jaffna society if you happen to see the “MALES ONLY STUDY HALL”, although the sturdy women of Jaffna are presumably allowed to study somewhere nearby too…
Also known as the Bottomless Well, this well is said to be the result of a top layer collapsing to expose a limestone cavern connecting an underground water source. Legend has it that this well was formed when Lord Rama pierced the earth with an arrow to quench his thirst. It is said that the well never dries up, even during the severest of droughts and provides the source of water to the farmers in the vicinity. During the annual festival of Lord Shiva, experienced locals dive here.
This is a sacred tank located next to the Naguleswaram Temple along the AB21 road which runs hugging the Northern tip of Sri Lanka. Hindus believe that the tank has healing properties. The tank is approximately 4ft deep and you can swim there by paying Rs 30 per person. The bathing sections are divided into two, male and female with the women’s section enclosed to offer privacy. Legend has it that an old sage named Nagula Muni who lived meditating in a cave near Keerimalai was cured of a facial abnormality that made him look like a mongoose. The name of Keerimalai comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Mongoose’. Its best to go early in the day before the place becomes crowded and also too hot . PS no smoking or drinking is allowed on the premises and also you are given changing rooms so that soap and shampoo is not used in the tank.
Naguleswaran Temple is located nearby the Keerimanalai (Literally Mongoose Hill) Springs and is the Temple located North of Jaffna, near Kankesanthurai. This is one of the oldest shrines of the region. Located furthest north in the island, the temple is visited and venerated by Hindus worldwide. The entrance to the temple ( “gopuran”) is through an arch with ancient sculptures of deities that is now entwined with vines. Partly destroyed and vandalised during the civil war this is another of those amazing reconstructions that preserve the character of this ancient temple. Walk through the intricately columned hallways with their cavernous carved ceilings and feel legend and history really speak to you in this hallowed Hindu edifice.
A beautiful strip of uncharted beach lies at the very tip of Northern Sri Lanka. While it is 34 km away and about 2 hours from Jaffna town, you must not leave Jaffna without checking in to the Northern extreme of Sri Lanka’s geography, the opposite of which is Dondra Head located in the Southern most tip of Sri Lanka in Matara. Along this road, you will also the see the Light House of Jaffna which was built in 1916. You’re not allowed to actually climb inside the quaint little structure but the cheerful guards will give you information about it and show you the “Tsunami line” which is the level to which waters arose during the December 2004 Asian Tsunami.
A star attraction in your visit to Jaffna is Nagadeepa, one island in the cluster of islands in the Palk Bay. The island houses two religious shrines, the Buddhist Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya and the Hindu Naga Pooshani Ambal Temple. Hindu and Buddhist devotees flock to worship these two temples as each of them brings about many religious significance to both. During Lord Buddha’s second visit to Sri Lanka, he resolved a dispute between two clans over a jewelled throne. The name ‘Nagadeepa’ stems from the word ‘Naga’ meaning snake and ‘Deepa’ meaning island. It is said that the naga tribe inhabited the northern coastal areas of Sri Lanka and were snake worshipers who could, according to legend, change form from human to snake at will. Around 30 km from the city of Jaffna (one hour drive by vehicle), Nagadeepa can only be accessed by a ferry which is organised by the Sri Lankan Navy. The ferry ride costs Rs 50/= per person and it takes around 20 minutes to reach the island. If you’re a foreigner entering the temple, you are requested to pay Rs 500/= as an entrance fee.Tip - Avoid the weekends as there is usually a line of devotees assembled to get into the ferry during the morning hours.
Truly haunting and right out of an ancient Dravidian Game of Thrones, the tiny sections that remain of the characterful Jaffna Palace are only the “Minister’s Quarters” or Mantri Manai. With a cavernous assembly room, thick walls of rounded ancient stone and the most intricate entrance, although unbelievably small and modest for a royal structure the architecture that remains of this palace is a veritable portal to the past. Beyond the timeless stone walls, the modern traffic of Jaffna rambles past in surreal contrast, a mark of a city caught at a historical crossroads.
One of the main attractions of Jaffna is untouched and unspoilt beaches, which have hardly known humans - Delft Island is surrounded by such uncharted beaches with wild horses roaming the Island in complete freedom. The island is also known for its incredible coral constructions, Adam’s oversized footprint and the Baobab Tree, which doesn’t mind being far from its homeland, Africa. It was planted long ago in the 7th century they say, by some Arabs with a sense of humour (and environmental concern, no doubt ). This majestic specimen is by far the widest tree in Sri Lanka and has room to hide two or three people in a gap in its trunk. Surprisingly it is not worshipped except for being the subject of much photography. In general lots of other bits of nature which seem even remotely mysterious automatically become the focus of a certain amount of worship and accumulate little offerings of flowers and incense sticks - like the Growing Rock, another spectacle in Delft which supposedly grows larger over time and has thus become a shrine of sorts. Then there are lots of wild ponies and horses and a few wild cows which are all now protected and allowed to graze and make for company as you go sightseeing. There are also lots of ruins including Chola, Portuguese and British ruins, as well as remains of another Dutch Fort (made of coral of course, and with walls which are more than two feet thick!) and some ancient stupas. There is a free ferry leaving the Karikaturen jetty in the morning around 9 and returns around 3 which you can climb on for a mildly perilous one hour journey. Three-wheels on the island will take you on round island tours for around LKR 1500-2000 and the drivers will act as guides and show you the sites you'd like to see. If you look around you might see large numbers of pigeons- these are the descendants of the birds who used to take messages around in bygone eras.
The Jaffna peninsula is located on a migratory bird pathway and is a veritable haven for bird watchers. A little explored area of much potential is the opportunity for bird enthusiasts to spot rare and unusual migratory birds, as well as endemic varieties in areas such as the Chundikkulam Sanctuary (about 65 km from Jaffna). August through to April have been recommended as the best times, when the birds from countries such as Europe, North East ASia, and North India fly south to escape the harsh winters, Sri Lanka being their last refuge before the South Pole. Good places to glimpse an assortment of birds are the Thondamanaru lagoon, Naranthanai, Karainagar, Mandaitivu, VallaiVeli, Kurivikadu (in Sarasalai),Kayts and Delft Island. There are also birds which you can spot only in the north, such as the Black Kite, Striated heron etc.
For more impossibly brilliant blue sky, shimmering ocean and multicoloured boats, do visit the island of Kayts, named after the Portuguese word for “harbour” which is CAIS. Long ago it has also been called Cais Dos Elefantes which means Harbour of Elephants, in reference to the long standing business of trading in Ceylon pachyderms among allied nations. Kayts town is a scrambled delight of bygone architecture from many European eras including the Kayts Island Fort built by Portuguese in 1629 built to protect the Jaffna peninsula, and called Urandai by the locals, meaning the Round Fort. There is also the usual medley of more modern local buildings as well as damaged ruins. There are also numbers of migratory birds passing through these areas, including painted storks, ibis, spoonbills, and pelicans, for the birding fan, best seen in the early months of the year.
For a true step back in history you can also visit Fort Hammenhiel which is built entirely around an island between Kayts and Karaitivu, and used first as an infectious diseases quarantine and then to detain insurgents even as recently as the 1970s. Thankfully it is now only a pleasant, breezy tourist attraction, and you even have a choice of sleeping in converted prison cells for anyone seeking a different experience.
P.S Watch out for jellyfish if you go swimming here.
The Tilko Hotel can provide you with a local guide who can converse in English and Tamil and who will accompany you to tour the city.
On request, the hotel can also organise chauffeurs to travel to any part of the country. Airport drops and pickups can be arranged too.