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Notes on the Geography of Sri Lanka: Jaffna

A record of a visit to Jaffna in January, 2020, shortly after the airport there had opened to flights from Chennai and shortly before COVID-19 shut it down.

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We're on the main road in from the airport and just a block from the intersection with Hospital Road, Jaffna's main street. A temple's been restored or possibly built, and signpainters have work. Otherwise? A bit of air-conditioning. Lots of motorscooters and bicycles. The road's in good condition, too, but a lot of buildings still need attention.

It's a long, long way from this description of the town in 1914: "Jaffna is the queen city of the North, the 'northern capital' of Ceylon, where dwell a splendid people, cultured, wealthy and industrious. Jaffna is a well-kept and a clean city, and in its centre are to be found many relics of the old Dutch architecture." (Amicus, an illustrated weekly published in Colombo and quoted by John H. Martyn, Notes on Jaffna, 1923, p. 158).

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Ten years of peace, yet buildings on a main street have yet to be repaired. The sacks of cement hint that someone somewhere is building something, but the cement is Japanese, which is a pity because there's a major cement factory a couple of miles miles past the airport. It opened in 1950, closed in 1991, and then had its machinery sold off surreptitiously. The paint is Japanese, too.

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Exception: dress and jewelry shops have been cleaned up.

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About as central as Jaffna gets. The building appears to have housed the former local office of The Indian Express. Date of the building? Maybe the 1950s?

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Across the street, the Jaffna Market is probably of the same vintage--sometime between Independence (1948) and the start of the civil war (1983).

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There's no shortage of buses, and here's some new construction, probably funded by overseas Tamils who have no intention of forgetting where they came from.

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That was certainly the case with this hotel, owned by an overseas Tamil but managed by a Sinhalese company (Jetwing). Just beyond the hotel is a shopping center including a Cargill's supermarket, part of a Sri Lankan chain. This one is an outlier, more than a hundred miles from its nearest sibling.

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Here, just a few blocks from the last photo, is the wreckage of an underwear factory on Hospital Road.

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And here, even closer to the Jetwing hotel, is the wreckage of the Subhas Tourist Hotel. It faces its onetime rival, the Hotel Ashok, which has been fixed up and converted to the Jaffna Police Station.

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Both hotels are close to this clock tower, built in 1882 to recall the visit in 1875 of Albert Edward, the future Edward VII. What did it look like in 1990? Good question, because Prince Charles visited in 1998, after which the tower was rebuilt with British funds. Linda Duffield, then the British high commissioner for Sri Lanka came for the rededication. Her name survives on a plaque hidden behind the plants.

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A park across the street limps along with plastic trash and this pedestal for something. But wait: it says something.

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Ananda Coomaraswamy was an eminent student of Sinhalese art. Presumably the Tamils during the civil war did not consider this a persuasive reason to protect a statue of him. The Coomaraswamy family came from Point Pedro, about 20 miles north of Jaffna and near the island's northern tip, but this, too, failed to save him.

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Housing in Jaffna and across the peninsula surrounding it is usually obscured by fencing, most commonly cheap metal sheeting. The view here is on Vembady Road, a few blocks from the clocktower.

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Hunt for it and you'll find better fencing, usually screening the town's few expensive new houses, like this one near St. John's church. If you're nosey, you might find out who owns these houses, or you can rely on scuttlebutt: another family from the Tamil diaspora.

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Another example, in this case across from Christ Church.

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Here's someone who prefers something more European. Corner of Kovil Road and Rakka.

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A few well-maintained older homes survive, like this one on the Kandy Road (Highway A9). The L-shape is very common, as is the heavy tiling, in this case trimmed with bargeboards, columns, pilasters, and of course a garden.

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No garden here, though with a bit of TLC the house could be very comfortable. (218 Kovil Road).

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Another fixer-upper (Hospital Road).

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What was it? It's named Kanakasthan, it's on Power House Road near Victoria Road, and it's inhabited. But was it originally simply a house?

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Many grand or even semi-grand old houses have elaborate entrances like this one on Kovil Road.

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The style is formulaic (Adiyapatham Road).

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The formula originated here, at the Cankilian Thoppu or Cankilian Gateway to the palace of Cankili II (r. 1617-1619). Cankili was taken to Goa by the Portuguese and beheaded. Ironically, the gateway adopts a European style. The palace itself is gone.

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The most effusive example is nearby and at the supposed house of Cankili's (or Sangili's) minister.

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Officially a protected monument, it receives no protection, tangible or otherwise.

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The entrance corridor is the grandest bit.

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Patched-up coral columns.

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Wooden capitals suggest iconic plants. Coconuts and banana flowers?

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Shade for goats.

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More ruins, in this case possibly of the Grand Hotel, which was in business--barely--in the 1970s. Earlier, it may have been "Alfred Villa," the retirement home of Sir William Twynam, a government agent who served so long--50 years including 27 as Government Agent--that after retiring he decided to stay put in a bungalow on Beach Road. That's where we are, at the intersection of 1st Cross Street.

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Speaking of beaches, we've come a few blocks to the waterfront, where a small inlet is testing the proposition that land can be reclaimed with plastic.

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Languid filth. We're on our way to the fish market.

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The fish boats are small and simple; when they die they decompose in situ.

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That's the market up ahead.

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It's intense.

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Here comes the catch, splayed on the bottom boards of even the best boats.

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Ice is superfluous if the boats return to shore quickly enough.

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Here's a boat with an inboard engine and a boom in apparent need of attention.

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See any refrigerated trucks? I count one.

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We'd better look inside.

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Once again, fish hit the deck. Tuna?

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Here's a seller trying to keep his fish clean and sorted.

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A bigger catch.

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Sorry, I couldn't hear you. What was that you said about size limits?

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A solitary ray and some miniscule crabs.

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Shrimp on their way to a fiery curry.

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We're still on the waterfront but now almost a mile to the north of the fish market and standing on one of the five bastions of the star-shaped Jaffna Fort, built by the Dutch only a few years before they ceded Ceylon to the British in 1795. The Portuguese in 1624 had built their own fort on the same site, but 34 years later the Dutch seized control of the island, demolished the Portuguese fort, and showed the Portuguese how these things were done.

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W.A. Nelson, writing in The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka (1984) calls Jaffna Fort "the Netherlanders' ideal.... Everything was done to the latest design at each successive state... the final result was the strongest fortress in the East, the perfect defensive design in the days of powerful an destructive solid shot artillery of limited effective range.... it is doubtful whether in its technical perfection and in its completeness Jaffna can be surpassed."

The wall is generally in very good shape, as are the outworks to which we've moved. The same cannot be said for what's inside the fort. Atop that bastion--the Holland Bastion--there's a belltower that's lost its bells. The cannon are gone, too, though the bastion was designed to hold 18 of them--six on each of its long sides and three on each of its short sides.

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A view from that bastion to the next bastion--the Zeeland Bastion--and over the moat to some of the outworks. The moat ends in a sluice regulating water levels in the moat. The public entrance to the fort is through one of those two arches on the left through the outworks, then across the moat and into another tunnel. That's Velanai Island in the distance. It's connected to Jaffna by the two-mile-long causeway you can make out. We'll be heading over there later.

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If you circle the fort, you'll notice that parts of the outworks are disintegrating.

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Have some money for a ticket?

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Here's the approach to the outworks. We'll go under that arch. The curve is deliberate, intended to prevent firing toward the entrance.

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Here it is, up close. There must be a less obtrusive way to handle trash.

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The ticket counter's inside the main wall. There used to be a drawbridge here. When did it bite the dust? Dunno.

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Ticket, please. See the date (1780) up top? Fifteen years later, the Brits moved in. The Dutch were in no shape to resist, even if they had wanted to, because a fort like this needs defenders, and the Dutch had been decimated by malaria.

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Inside is mostly open space and rubble. For a decade the Tamil Tigers held the fort, but the Sri Lankan military regained control in 1995. The Tigers must have made them fight for it.

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Here's what's left of the Dutch church, once the fort's main attraction. Archaeologists early in 2020 were supposedly working on it.

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Good luck to them. The floor of the church was once paved with elaborate tombstones. One survives in the town's makeshift museum. "Makeshift" because it was inexpensively put together after the original museum was destroyed in the war.

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Was the church blown up deliberately? If so, was there any justification? Had it been used, say, as an ammo dump? Such things happen.

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We've come up to the Gelderland Bastion, the one closest to the Dutch church.

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The spot is interesting because a very young Leonard Woolf was stationed in Jaffna in 1905. In Growing, he writes: "It was in this bungalow on the bastion that I lived with [Tom] Southorn [who would marry Woolf's sister, Bella]. It was a rather gloomy house, overshadowed by an immense banyon tree which had covered the whole area between the verandah and the edge of the bastion with the tangled roots and branches which is the sinister method of the banyan's growth. The tree was inhabited by a notorious and dangerous devil, so that the servants disliked the bungalow and would never go near the tree after dark" (p. 51). Perhaps the tree was damaged in the war, but it (or perhaps its offspring) seems to be making a fresh effort.

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The ruins of Woolf's house, here in the foreground, overlook the ruined church and the so-called King's (or Queen's) House, the occasional residence of touring governors.

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Not much is left of it, either.

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Another view.

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Speaking of ruins, we've moved a mile or so to the Old Park, which includes the ruins of the office and adjoining home of Jaffna's Government Agent, the British (and for a time the Sri Lankan) government's man on the spot.

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Part of the Old Park is indeed a park in very good shape, including this spectacular well.

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But over to one side is an oval wall.

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It presumably was built by the Portuguese or the Dutch at a time when security was still a concern.

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Interior of the wall. By 1900, the British were able to rule with bluff instead of force. It worked startlingly well, because a few British civil servants ran the entire Jaffna peninsula without any military force beyond a modest police presence.

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Here's a view of the ruined office building or kutchery.

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Wolff writes that "it was as Cadet attached to the Jaffna kachcheri that I arrived in Jaffna on January 5th, 1905. The station had a white population of ten or twelve government officers, perhaps ten missionaries, a retired civil servant with a daughter and two granddaughters, and an appalling ex-army officer with an appalling wife and an appalling son" (p. 36).

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This much remains. Woolf writes: "We sat all day in the office working, except for the hour we took off when we bicycled back to the bungalow for lunch or tiffin. I rather doubt whether any European ever really understands an important side of the East and of Asia, ever gets the feel of its castes and classes and individuals into his brain and his bones, unless he has sat hour after hour in a kachcheri, watching from his room the perpetual coming and going along the verandah of every kind and condition of human being, transacting with them the most trivial or the most important business, listening to their requests, their lies, their fears, their sorrows, their difficulties and disasters" (p. 52).

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Plus the very grand entrance on the far side. (The new paving and lighting lead to new buildings beyond.)

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Architectural display helped the British maintain their rule in the same way that the Emerald City's Royal Palace helped the mighty Oz.

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Unimpressed, banyons go about their insidious work.

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Here are the ruins next door of the Residency, the Government Agent's house built during the long rule of one Percival Ackland Dyke.

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Another view.

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And another. The house had a very grand second-floor reception room in use at least into the early 1960s. Vernon Abeysekera, Government Agent at that time, wrote that "the Residency combined all the features of period British architecture at its best--pillared verandahs, lofty archways, and timbered ceiling. The showpiece was the drawing room upstairs, so immense that it could only be furnished with two sets of furniture, one in each half of the room... (Images of Jaffna, 1989, p. 5).

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Someone sometime tried some maintenance.

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A plaque recalling Percival Dyke seems to be missing from the Residency, so we've come a few blocks to St. John's church. Dyke's buried around here someplace.

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The church has been handsomely restored since the civil war. No mention of Dyke.

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Can the windows date, as the church does, from 1860? Surely not.

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No sign of Dyke, but Christopher Edmonds, assistant collector of customs, was the only son of a family in Bishopstrow, Wiltshire.

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Husband Robert was for decades principal of the seminary attached to the church. He subsequently moved to Nuwara Eliya and then back to England, where he was still alive in 1910, aged 94. He married twice after Charlotte and outlasted at least one and maybe both of them. One of his sons, Frederick, joined the Indian Civil Service and, following the death of his wife, retired from the Calcutta High Court bench and returned to England to study ancient Sanskrit documents, publish learned books, and 20 years later die at Oxford.

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There's a cemetery near the church. It's locked, but where there's a will. And look! From its size, this might by Dyke's tomb. He was certainly important enough, running this part of the world almost without check from 1829 to 1867. Never mind the damaged marble facing (are those bullet holes?). How can there be no inscription?

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Come around to the other side and disregard the sink: here's our boy. The plaque reads: "Percival Ackland Dyke, more than 40 years Govt. Agent of the Northern Province, born in 1805, who died in his tent at Koppay [three miles from the Residency]."

Not exactly gushing, but an obituary published in 1867 in The Colombo Observer was less restrained: "Mr. Dyke was in every sense a Rajah in Jaffna, and the Jaffna people invariably treated him as such. They knew they were safe in his hands, and they liked him; but his disciplinarian habits astounded them, and we doubt if there is or ever has been a Government Agent so thoroughly feared." Now there's a tribute to warm the heart of an autocrat.

The obituary is quoted at pp. 233-4 of List of Inscriptions on Tombstones and Monuments in Ceylon..., 1913, by J. Penry Lewis. Small world: Lewis was Woolf's boss in Jaffna and later in Kandy. Woolf writes that Lewis "was a large, slow, fat, shy man... extremely lazy and not fond of responsibility.... After I became his Office Assistant and he found that I liked responsibility and did not make mistakes, he left more and more work to me... I did nine-tenths of his work. We never had much to say to each other, but I liked him very much...." (pp. 41-2).

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Christ Church, Jaffna, has not been restored since the war.

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Perhaps it's left unkempt to appeal to the foreigners who come for the Sunday afternoon service in English.

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One of Toussaint's pallbearers was the Rev. Pargiter, whose wife Charlotte had died a dozen years earlier. Leave it to J. Penry Lewis to dig up such minutia. He wasn't quite as lazy as Woolf says; he beavered away at the work that interested him and found others to do the official business.

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We've come six miles to the northwest and to the campus of Jaffna College, originally the Batticotta Seminary, established in 1824 by American missionaries who had come from Boston in search of souls.

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Here's Ottley Hall, the oldest building on campus and a fine one, too. It dates from 1826, but was heavily rebuilt a century later. A photo of the original building shows the same footprint but no arcade. Instead, there is a conventional pitched roof of tile over the two-story block. Overhanging eaves are supported by a wrap-around colonnade almost perfectly matching the palms. (See Mary and Margaret W. Leitch, Seven Years in Ceylon: Stories of Mission Life, 1890, p. 129).

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There you go: dispositive!

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The capitals are especially nice. Who do you think conceived them?

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My vote goes to Reverend Bicknell, principal at the time and a graduate of Yale Divinity School. He died in harness. (Vaddukoddai is another form of Batticotta.) That name for the seminary was retired in the 1850s, when the school closed for about 15 years after its principal, E.P. Hastings, despaired of his failure to convert his students, most of whom were happy with their status as high-caste Hindus. In 1872, graduates decided to reopen the school no longer as a seminary but as Jaffna College. The school was still religious--it even had the same principal, Dr. Hastings--but less evangelical.

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Bicknell's name survives here in these bleachers which, almost surely from the 1950s or later, suggest that he was not forgotten. The New York Times carried a two-inch obit (December 19, 1936) saying that Bicknell "helped revise the Ceylon educational system" and left behind a widow living in Blue Rapids, Kansas. Now there's something to unravel.

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Eliza Agnew was the principal or headmistress of the Uduvil Girl's School, five miles to the east of Jaffna College. Here's her old bungalow and office, still in service. Admiring assistants wrote that Agnew "remained in Ceylon for forty-three years without once going home for a rest or a change. When friends would ask her, "Are you not going to America for a vacation?" she would always reply, "No; I have no time to do so. I am too busy." (See Mary Leitch and Margaret W. Leitch, Seven Years in Ceylon: Stories of Mission Life, 1890, p. 118).

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There's a church attached to the school.

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Lo and Behold! Agnew appears from photographs to be as stalwart as you might expect, with a face not unlike the face on packages of Quaker oatmeal. If you can judge anything about a voice from a face, hers was commanding. (See Ethel Hubbard, "Eliza Agnew," a pamphlet published in 1917 by the Woman's Board of Missions.)

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Other instructors at the school were not always so lucky.

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We've come over, as promised back at the fort, to Velanai Island.

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The official tourist attraction is this Portuguese fort. Not too impressive?

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Here's the residue of a chapel.

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But look more closely at the blocks.

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Amazing stuff, coral.

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Even ashlar blocks retain some of their natural character.

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Across a mile of water, there's another old fort still manned by the Sri Lankan Navy and raising a bit of cash of the side by operating the Fort Hammenhiel Resort.

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Churches cluster at the village of Kayts (pronounced "kites"). Here's the oldest of them, St. James, and it sets the standard. It also raises the topic of Christianity in this part of Sri Lanka.

In 1544 the rajah of Jaffnapattam ordered the execution of 600 Catholic converts, including one of his own sons. A lifetime later, and soon after the Portuguese conquest of Ceylon in 1617, "the whole of the Tamil population was baptized into Christianity." One source claims that the Jaffna Peninsula was dotted with chapels and schools in each of the parishes into which the Portuguese had divided it.

Maybe so, but the Dutch conquered Ceylon after only 40 years of Portuguese rule, and they set about root-and-branch extirpating Rome, for example by making it a capital offense to harbor a Catholic priest.

Fast forward a century to the British takeover in 1795. There were said to 360,000 Protestant Tamils in Jaffna, presumably thanks to tender Dutch evangelists, yet the conversions must have been skin deep, because a visiting Scot, Claudius Buchanan, wrote in 1806 that the Dutch religion "was extinct, the fine old churches in ruins, the clergy who had once ministered in them forgotten, and but one Hindoo (evidently Tamil) catechist [remaining] in charge of the Province. (See John H. Martyn's Notes on Jaffna, 1923, pp. 140, 144, and 160.)

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Which brings us back to St. James and whether the date of 1715 can be correct; after all, this was during the Dutch period, when being Catholic was not good for one's health. Perhaps it began as a Dutch Reformed Church, not a Catholic one. As for the Dutch attitude toward the Catholic Church, try this excerpt from "The Seventy-Two Orders," a translation of Dutch law in Jaffna: "Be it known, that we strictly prohibit all the inhabitants of the Province whether settled or strangers, from publickly conducting the services, and ceremonies of the Papacy, and even from attending such... Moreover, those who invited others to be present in the assemblies where these things happened, if found out in the very act, shall without the least mercy, be put in fetters, and banished for three years to Colombo" (Henry Francis Mutukisna, A New Edition of the Thesawaleme, or, the Laws and Customs of Jaffna, 1862, p. 687)

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The "and abroad" is significant, because that's where the money is.

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A five-minute walk away, there's another Catholic church, this one still under repair early in 2020.

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Kayts has no secular buildings to compete with these churches.

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Work's coming along.

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The altar.

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The plaque seen in the last picture.

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Yet another big church, St. Mary's, less than ten minutes' walk from either St. James or St. Anthony's.

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The nave is long.

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The color is not as oppressive on the spot as it seems here.

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The altarpiece.

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Brutal medallions line the walls.

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Must have scared generations of children.

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Here, a mile from the others, is yet another Catholic church, St. Peter's. The nagging question is why there are so many. The answer at least in part is that the Tamils found it perfectly sensible to accept Christ as their savior while simultaneously retaining their caste identity. Naturally, they would not attend church with people of other castes. The civil war upset things, and the priest here at St. Peter's explains that the congregation today was for low castes, though it had originally been for high castes.

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A ruined house on the road to Kayts.

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The classic entrance, with columns and a tile roof. Think it's worth restoring? Somebody apparently does, because the property had a new wire fence.

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Maybe you can make out the name?

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A neighboring ruin.

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And a third, this one next to St. Anthony's.

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And yet another.

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Here's another kind of ruin, still near Kayts. It's a monument erected by the Sri Lankan military to General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, whose vehicle was blown up by the Tamil Tigers in 1992.

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A dozen officers are commemorated.

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The entire Jaffna neighborhood still feels quietly tense, with barely submerged Tamil resentment. Here, only a mile or two from the missionary schools, is a Buddhist graveyard at Kantharodai (or Kaduragoda). Peaceful? Maybe, but locals say that the tombs were built for sixty monks poisoned here six centuries ago. A milder version is that they merely starved to death. Archaeologists pooh-pooh the stories and say that the tombs are much older than 600 years, but the mere fact that people believe in the stories of painful death speaks to the deep river of anti-Buddhist, which is to say anti-Sinhalese, feeling.

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The graves were discovered early in the 20th century and have been partly restored.

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The best parts are the concentric bases, with rings reminiscent of the moonstones of Anuradhapura, a hundred miles to the south.

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Just a coincidence, I suppose. A few dairy cows were working their way through it.

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There's farmland all around here; we've ignored it so far.

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Beets and bananas, an odd combination.

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Tobacco and bananas.

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Bitter melon or gourd.

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It's the dry season, and crops must be irrigated. Here's a classic source, the Nilavarai well, fresh to a certain depth but salt below.

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Here it is in context.

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Here's a simpler well.

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A little diesel pump.

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Ditches to irrigate the tobacco.

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We're up at the top of the island now and about 30 miles from India.

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We're also at the end of the track, which opened in 1902 despite official condemnation of building a railway as useless as a "railway to the moon" (Martyn, p. 346).

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Bet the turntable came from the UK.

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Several passenger trains run daily to Colombo.

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In theory the trains are handy for vacationers, but the beach here has been commandeered by the military for its Thalsevanana Holiday Resort. A bit of work still has to be done. This part of the island did not escape the civil war, because the Tigers were supplied by boat from India.

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As fishermen, which they are still, local Tamils knew the waters well.

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You won't find bigger boats.

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You will, however, find camps set up for dislocated victims of the civil war or, in some cases, of the 2005 tsunami. There was no hill for them to climb for safety. (There have been other disastrous waves; one occurred in 1627.)

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Ruins of war or perhaps of the tsunami.

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Fancy second homes here usually belong to senior military officers.

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We've come to a north-shore town of Valvettithurai. This was the scene of the final battle after which the Portuguese seized control of Ceylon in 1621; it was also the hometown of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the deceased leader of the Tamil Tigers.

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Villagers say that he was a mild gentleman forced into a cycle of escalating violence. He was also clever, they say, which is why many of the village streets are narrow enough to let someone escape pursuing jeeps. During the war, villagers say, Prabhakaran occasionally came home, unpredictably, of course, but strolling modestly.

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This kink in the road, they say, was another deception, intended to make soldiers think that their target was trapped by a dead-end.

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Prabakharan's family had been prosperous, but their home was obliterated and the site early in 2020 was overgrown.

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Want to see it? Come half a mile west of Valvettithurai Junction and turn here at the corner of Aladi road. The poster is curious. It's a reproduction of an Indian 15-rupee postage stamp and it shows MGR, or Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran, a famous Tamil movie star.

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Here he is just across the street in three dimensions and still with his trademark shades. But why here? During a decade as Tamil Nadu's chief minister, MGR supported the Tamil Tigers. Villagers say that the government tolerates him where it would remove any monument to the man for whom MGR stands in.

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