The snow’s piled up outside.
Summer still clings to my head in spite of the skeletal trees brooding outside my window.
Okay, so returning to warmer times in sunny climes …
We are now in Jaffna, Judy. Part Two of our virtual travels together, you and I —
Click here to read Good Morning (Again) Colombo! (Dear Judy, Part 1) …
We drove into Tellippalai where Dad’s parents settled on their return to Ceylon (Sri Lanka’s pre-republic name) from the British colony of Malaya, shortly after World War II. Grandpa, a communications officer under the British government, took up the post of Airport Controller in the neighbouring town of Palaly.
Ghosts of war-time devastation lined our route. Cringing skeletons of bombed out buildings still haunt this once-upon-a-time ghost town.
A trickle of former war regugees are returning after decades of absence. Several unclaimed properties are now in government hands …
Desolate brick-and-motar wraiths of buildings steadfastly guard their ground –
So on day three of our odyssey, Husband and I found ourselves at the entrance of the graveyard attached to the Church of the American Ceylon Mission.
The rubble of shattered gravestones poked their way through tall vegetation, thorny underbrush and rope-like vines. A tangled tatch of tropical jungle.
Yikes! How trustworthy is the church caretaker who said there were no snakes?
But I have to tell you first about the journey leading up to this moment, Judy.
So this is how it came about …
Husband and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit our ancestral homelands in the Jaffna Peninsula, a war zone for decades and only recently open to tourists.
How to figure out the details in such a short space of time?
I remembered Yamindra Watson Perera of Jungle Fowl Leisure Planners
— and presented my wish list to Mariesz, her assistant. A demanding cut-and-paste itinerary, a combination of every location in the area associated with family history and lore. Neither lady turned a hair.
Mariesz: No. So sorry, we are still in the process of setting up our site for online payments.
Me: (wailing) But I don’t have time to go to the bank!
Yamindra and Mariesz showed up at Dad’s condo the next afternoon, with Accountant Lady and credit card machine in tow.
Impressive service or what?
All booked and paid up by the time Husband flew in from Toronto.
Still pitch-dark. Growling clouds burped and released a deluge as we drove away.
Rest stop and a scalding pot of Ceylon tea in the ancient city of Anuradhapura –
And it’s well past the hottest time of year …
Landscape grows arid, parched and thirsty.
A paradox-panorama of war and peace as we fly by –
Crossed Elephant Pass, a sliver of strait connecting the northern province to the rest of the island, sandwiched on either side by shallow stretches sea.
Welcome to Jaffna, the traditional homeland of the Tamil people …
Zipped through Vavuniyya, then Chavakacheheri —
— and on to Jaffna town.
A different ambiance manifests beyond Elephant pass. It’s unique, distinct.
Ladies on bicycles –
— scooters and motorbikes –
Neatly draped sarees and all …
Scooters/ motorbikes are the new, affordable middle class family vehicles –
A plethora of Hindu temples at every corner –
Temple architecture is typically South Indian …
Ancient deities –
– worshipped in nooks and under spreading trees –
Sages and ascetics, some long dead ..
… and some still very much alive —
A distinct, bright South Indian flavour in the traditional women’s fashions –
One-of-a-kind cuisine –
‘Holy’ cows roam the streets unchallenged —
Ubiquitous stray dogs-
A conservative culture still –
Check out the sign, Judy. Chuckling with you …
Discreet couples sneak into quiet corners away from the prying eyes …
A certain demureness about the young women. Untainted grace and elegance.
Long tresses, often worn in a single braid, still the order of the day –
(1) Shopping malls boasting …
… beauty parlours and bright billboards
(2) Supermarkets –
Shopping in airconditioned comfort versus haggling over prices at the local market …
(3) Upscale tourist hotels –
(4) Mobile phones –
(5) … and Tom Cruise!
Niranjan slowed down to point out the ruins of the old Kachcheri –
The bombed remains of the Kachecheri (district secretariat), a maginificent Dutch-era seat of administration. It’s modern replacement sits across the street ..
and other landmarks around town :
– The Jaffna Public Library and clock tower –
- Imprints of King Sangilian, last ruler of the Jaffna Kingdom
Lingered awhile in the amazingly well- preserved home of King Sangilian’s minister.
How it survived the war is a mystery …
– The teaching hospital
– And ever-present phantoms of the past
Remains of once-magnificent Dutch-era architecture –
(Click here to take a haunting walk through the shattered ruins of an old Dutch-period mansion.)
Carefully slid camera under barbed wire fence to get this one. No one could identify the sprawling ruins, probably a palace, across the street from our hotel. The damage is definitely pre-war, from ceturies of neglect. Thick tree trunks grow out of remnants of walls.
No fanfare or signage for many ancient abandoned Hindu worship-places squatting by the roadside –
A sense of unhurried uncomplexity about life in this region. As if it’s just awakening from a long sleep.
Fluorescent lights, after-sundown markets and shops groaning with made-in-China and other items in varying violent shades of neon –
The three-storey Rio Ice Cream parlour with its wide variety of modestly-priced sundaes, is the place to visit these days.
A constant stream of tourists spill out of loaded buses …
The place is popular with couples anxious to hide from nosey parkers.
In a culture of arranged marriages, young women have to be cautious about ‘spoiling’ their names and ruining future ‘chances’ …
Popped in at Aunty Sothy’s old house, occupied for years by the LTTE and then the military. Street numbers and names have changed. It took some locating.
Then on to some vanishing landmarks of the LTTE –
– The unmarked site of the slain Tamil Tiger leader, Prabhakaran’s home –
– and the remains of a Tamil Tiger war-themed children’s playground –
Built for children raised to hate and kill. Sent unpleasant chills up my back …
Must-see tourist spots –
- Nilavarai – the bottomless well –
- Keerimalai (Mongoose Springs) –
There is a more evident Buddhist presence these days, in this former enclave of Hinduism –
Sunday morning service at St John’s Church, Chundikuli, where Mum’s parents were married –
Click here to sing along in Tamil with the congregation of St John’s …
The minister gave us access to old vestry records …
The ones that survived …
… and introduced us to David, who led us to the little churchyard –
… and pointed out tombs and monuments of interest –
Such a thrill to locate the site of Mum’s grandpa Charles’ grave …
Niranjan invited us to visit his ancestral home.
He shrugged when I enquired enthusiastically if there were plans for restoration and renovations in the near future.
“Who has the money?”
Framed family photos still adorn the walls, dusty books distintegrate on cupboard shelves, clothing and kichen untensils scattered on the floor while a rusty parrot cage languishes in the yard outside –
Signs of hasty retreat …
Me: Is there any bitterness in your heart, Nirangan?
Niranjan: No. The people of the north accept that war is a political machine. Soldiers are paid to do a job and follow orders. Without acceptance and forgiveness, there is no way of moving on. Besides, we are tired of war and the stagnation it brings.”
Niranjan was born into war, a child of the horrendous ethnic conflict that saw a death toll of over one hundred thousand civilians. His eyes clouded over when he described the growing up years without electricity or leisure activities, when he had to do his homework by the light of a kerosene-fuelled hurricane lamp. When there were no sounds of boys playing cricket in the dirt lanes outside the garden gates. When no one dared step into the dusty streets after sundown. When schools ceased to operate, childhood ceased to exist and young people disappeared, never to be seen again. When every young man was suspected of being a terrorist and subjected to unspeakable horrors, or seen as a potential recruit for the Tamil Tiger cause and expected to perpetrate such horrors.
He talked of the time he was conscripted into the LTTE, months before the end of the war –
Against his will …
– and when the militants surrendered and the army closed in. The memories grew ugly and burdensome. He changed the subject.
Sometimes the eyes speak what the lips cannot utter. There’s a heaviness in the air …
Nirangan: No more tears. Why dwell on the past? Sinhalese is spoken on the streets as much as the Tamil language now.
I asked if I could write his story and he agreed to sit down and talk the next time I visited Sri Lanka.
I purchased a hurricane lamp –
A souvenir to remember the many years determined young people of Niranjan’s generation excelled academically despite deprivations and hindrances …
And now I should return to the beginning and the jungle-graveyard in Tellipalai, shouldn’t I? But I’m all out of time, Judy. I’m so sorry. In the next post, I promise. Probably not until after the New Year though.
Tons of Christmas stuff still to get done . I’m really behind this year …
If you should happen to know anyone who’s thinking of exploring Sri Lanka in an off-the-beaten-track sort of way, I would recommend Jungle Fowl. The service is personal and prompt. The team is with it, knowledgeable and passionate. An exciting, different kind of travel service, to be sure.
Stay warm, my friend. Loving this country as I do, the tropics still run in my veins. I’d be happy to remain indoors from December all the way to March, if I had the choice.
So thankful for the freedom we take so much for granted in this wonderful country of my adoption.
God keep our land, glorious and free,
Merry Christmas, my inspiring friend. You are a truly remarkable lady.
Thinking of you with affection.
All my love until next time,