Ian Lockwood


Ticket to Jaffna

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The Nallur kovil is one of the most important landmarks in the Jaffna peninsula. Jaffna Fort, started by the Portuguese, strengthened by the Dutch and utilized by the British never saw conflict until modern times when it was severely damaged during fighting between the LTTE and government forces. It has now been partly restored and is an important point of interest for visitors and Jaffna residents. Tickets are required…

The northern part of Sri Lanka offers visitors an opportunity to see, taste and experience a distinctly unique, yet undoubtedly Sri Lankan, part of Serendip. At the end of January Raina and I took a modest-sized group of OSC students on a five-day exploration of the area’s landscape, culture and natural history. The land sits on a limestone bed devoid of hills and just a few fragile meters above sea level. Expansive lagoons are interwoven between human settlements, palmyra forest patches and fields of paddy. The climate is dry for much of the year with the North East monsoon (October to January) accounting for most of the rainfall. The culture of the Jaffna peninsula is influenced by the Tamil community with their rich history, Tamil language, links to southern India and minority faiths (Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism). In the mid-1950s the politicization of the choice of an official language for the newly independent nation of Ceylon created a communal rift that eventually cascaded into a fearsome civil war and the displacement of large numbers of people in the north. Nearly 30 years of armed struggle and war that ended in 2009 have left a mark on the Jaffna peninsula: empty, overgrown art deco houses are interwoven with vividly repainted gopurams and new storefronts. Most of the once ubiquitous military checkpoints have been removed, schools are thriving, business is vibrant and the roads are repaved signaling a new page in the area’s story.

OSC groups have visited Jaffna before-we sent the first Week Without Walls (WWW) group up with Amanda Lenk and Suren Rajadurai in 2013 when things were still quite raw. COVID interrupted these visits and our other experiential education programs so it was good to renew our association with a new batch of students ten years later. During this time while coordinating the program, I have worked on developing ecology and hiking-oriented experiences in the south. This year Raina and I got a chance to revive the Jaffna trip. Our family has visited Jaffna several times (see my 2011 post for the first account). Of course, we have a special connection to this part of our island home thanks to my paternal grandparents Edson and Dorothy Lockwood who taught at Jaffna College for 30 years.


Last year, in order to plan our learning experience, Raina and I visited the Jaffna area with the aid of a school van. We were accompanied by OSC’s driver Nishanta. This gave us an opportunity to visit places that we would stay at and the sites that we would visit to build the learning around. We packed in a number of places to our busy schedule, Mihintale (on the way up), Jaffna Fort, Point Pedro, Kankesanthurai,Keerilmalai springs, Kayts, Nainativu docks, the baobab tree on Pungudutivu, and Hammenhiel fort. On the way back we overnighted in Anuradhapura and visited the remote Sesseruwa hermitage. There were many critical visits for our WWW experience (one was discovering Lavin’s a south Indian restaurant with first-class dosas and filter coffee).

Getting down at Anuradhapura station-the furthest north that we could go by train (there was major track work going on just north of the city). We weren’t the only tourists in the area.


The most challenging aspect of our trip was the distance and trying to squeeze in as much as possible in the five days that were allocated to the learning experience. We planned to go straight from Colombo to Kankesanthurai (KKS), the northmost train station. Riding Sri Lankan railways was an important part of this but we could only get as far north as Anuradhapura as there was maintenance work going on just north of the station. Our groups of 13 students and three adults assembled at the school campus at the rather un-holy hour of 4:00. Raina and I were supported by our colleague Gayani Bentotage who handled key negotiations, kept track of accounts and was crucial to the success of the trip. While we went to the station in a borrowed bus our own vehicles (led by Anthony a tri-lingual, multi-talented driver) went ahead to meet us in Anuradhapura. The train ride was enjoyed and the transition back to the road was smooth. At Elephant Pass we stopped to see the bulldozer-converted war memorial that commemorates the Sri Lankan army’s achievements in this once-contested spit of land connecting the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the island. My highlight was spotting a large flock of Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) across the tracks just north of Elephant Pass. There is no way to predict when you can see these majestic migratory birds and seeing them in the Jaffna area is a rare treat. Sri Lankan birders (not unlike the author) go to all kinds of logistical gymnastics to see and photograph them (usually in Mannar). So we stopped and the students had a chance to see the birds through our scope. Interestingly it was the same area that our family had stayed over at in December 1977. The Rest House where we stayed, with its verandah overlooking the lagoon, was regrettably lost during the years of fighting.

Memorials celebrating the Sri Lankan government’s victory over the LTTE are a key feature of the built landscape in once-contested areas. These images are from the Elephant Pass memorial.

Watching Greater flamingos near Elephant Pass. There is no way to predict when you can see these majestic migratory birds and encountering them in the Jaffna area is a rare treat.

Our drivers took us through short, intense monsoon showers to Point Pedro, the northernmost Point in Sri Lanka. Raina and I had brought postcards and stamps and all the kids wrote and sent cards home from the northernmost mailbox. We did an obligatory stop at the Unity in Diversity sign in the same area as the lighthouse and then drove westwards to KKS for our first night, spent at the army-run Thalsevana Resort across from KKS station.

Point Pedro snapshots: We sent postcards from the northernmost post box in Sri Lanka and then appreciated the “Unity in Diversity” sign. Some of the postcards reached parents before we returned five days later.

Words of wisdom at the spanking new Kankesanthurai (KKS) railway station.

Sri Lanka’s northernmost train station is at Kankesanthurai (KKS). It adjoins a harbor and the airport (now with international flights to Chennai) at Palali. The station and all the railway connections north of Vavuniya were rebuilt after the war with support from India and China.


On our 2nd day, we left the coast and did the short drive south into the city of Jaffna where we were based for the majority of our trip. On the way, we visited Keerimalai and the next-door Kovil. The seaside spring is well known for its therapeutic water. Our group was prepared and after a tour of the Kovil we bathed at Keerimalai in the designated parts for males and females). We shared the space with pilgrims and visitors from all over Sri Lanka. A Buddhist monk and Catholic priest were recording a message of unity for a TV program. Kids from a nearby school had cycled up to swim. There was a family of Sri Lankans from the diaspora settled in Toronto. By the time we resumed our ride, we were refreshed at all levels. Before reaching Jaffna center we stopped to see the Kadurugoda Viharaya, a mysterious Buddhist site set amongst houses and towering palmyra trees.

Snapshots from a bathing ritual at Keerimalai and the visit to Keerimalai Naguleswara Kovil.

Pilgrims Rest at Keerimalai, an important architectural treasure in the process of being restored.

Kadurugoda Viharaya, a mysterious Buddhist site set amongst houses and towering palmyra trees near the Jaffna suburb of Chunnakam.


At KKS we had stayed in barracks-style rooms with no complaints. In Jaffna city, the group was treated to the more upmarket Thinnai Hotel. That gave us good access to a number of sites and we also relished their fine Jaffna-style cooking. Visiting Jaffna Fort, the Jaffna Public Library and Nallur temple were all key features of our stay. We spent our first afternoon exploring the ramparts and interiors of Jaffna Fort. On the 2nd full day, we visited the Jaffna Public Library. Raina had established a good connection through our student Chirath who had just completed an internship at the Asia Foundation in Colombo. That relationship helped pave the way for a meaningful exchange and tour of the site. Raina and her Room to Read service group had collected reference books to donate to the library so these were delivered when we visited. In the evening Raina and I took the group to Lavin’s for dosas. That was a major hit with all the kids. It worked so well that we ate a second meal there on Wednesday. There were other short trips to Nallur, to the dry fish market and the minister’s crumbling mansion (Manthri Mannai).

This staged picture from the lobby of the Thinnai Hotel sums up the good-natured, playful and open-minded approaches of our wonderful cohort of OSC students.

Details and sweeping views at Jaffna’s historic fort.

OSC students & teachers visiting the Jaffna Public Library.


Our longest visit outside of Jaffna involved traversing several lagoons, to Kayts,  and Pungudutivu before taking the ferry to Nainativu (see attached map). This small island is an important pilgrimage site for both Buddhists and Hindus. It seems that all good visitors to Jaffna make the visit (luckily we went on a non-poya weekday). The boat ride is short-sitting on top was refreshing and probably safer than the interiors (Amanda Lenk had warned me about this years ago). Both shrines have been redone and repainted in recent years. Next time we hope to make the longer ferry ride to Delft. A select group of our team returned to Kayts on the last day to look for birds. The sheer abundance of ducks, waders, egrets, ibises, storks and other waterbirds was extraordinary. We saw another group of flamingos on the way to Pungudutivu but they were very far off.

Approach to the Nainativu ferry on Pungudutivu.

Boat ride to Nainativu-a service of the SL Navy.

OSC group at Nainativu in front of the Kovil.

Twelve of sixteen: Portraits by the author of the Jaffna Northern Narratives group (most of it) in action in various parts of the experience.


On Thursday we started our journey south to Pidurangala where we broke the journey and spent a night in tree houses. Anthony took our bus via the Sangupiddi bridge and Pooneryn. The road is in excellent condition (compared to our 2011 visit) and the scenery is still stark and spectacular. The vast lagoon, a veritable sea, stretches in all directions. A few sail-powered boats were out checking crab traps but otherwise, the shallow water was devoid of human activity (and flamingos, unfortunately). A series of giant wind turbines now tower alongside the south bank of the peninsula. Near Omanthai we visited with a local Tamil-medium school. Raina had set up a meeting with a principal so that we could deliver boxes of books to five different schools. These had been collected in a community drive and were going to be distributed to schools identified by our parent members working at the ILO. It was a good visit and we left wanting to return to spend more time to develop a meaningful relationship.

Dropping off donated books from OSC’s Room to Read service group to the Omanthai schools.

At Mihintale, the place where Buddhist teachings were first introduced to the island, we took a rest to explore the exquisite Kaludiya Pokuna. This is one of my favorite, off-the-beaten track sacred places and is ideal for introspection and exploration. No one in the student group-including the Sri Lankans had been there previously and it was our privilege to share the worn boulders, mad-made lake, caves and other structures with the group.

OSC students at a monastic cave near Kaludiya Pokuna in Mihintale.

OSC students at Kaludiya Pokuna-a special sacred place that is ideal for exploration, introspection and reflection.

We pulled into Pidurangala in the very last light of the day. As usual with any Back of Beyond property, I always have a feeling of coming home. They had ensured that all of our team got to sleep in tree houses. Most of us were thrilled with this arrangement though a few had doubts. My treat from the BoB team was special: A small Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) had been found and it had been left alone so that I could catch and photograph it. Unfortunately, it was lodged in a rafter outside Gayani’s room (later, I discovered that she has a fear of snakes and didn’t get much sleep that night). Working with Anaanda (of BoB) I fashioned a crude snake stick, climbed a ladder, and got it into a basket. The dry zone individuals have green eyes which I had not seen before so I was thrilled. I released it near their pond.

No Week Without Walls experience is complete without some natural history. This gorgeous Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) fulfilled our need to experience some of Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity. Special thanks to the team at Back of Beyond Pidurangala, including Ananda and Vajira, for locating the individual.

In the morning we got the whole group up early and did the trek up to Pidurangala to watch the sunrise on Sigiriya. The weather was muggy so there really wasn’t a sunrise but we had a good time and it was a fitting way to complete our experience. We coasted home via Dambulla, Kurunegala and the new Central Expressway (not quite complete but it helps cut some stressful driving). Along with all the other WWW teams, the Jaffna Northern Narratives will be sharing its learning at the annual Experience Sri Lanka Exhibition on February 17th.


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Fabry, Philip. The Essential Guide For Jaffna And Its Region. Colombo: Perera Hussein Publishing House, 2012. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Windows on the Long Road to Jaffna” Ian Lockwood Blog. April 2013. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2023-02-13 at 10:17 pm

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