The end of places holds a fascination for many of us; Land’s End, Finisterre, John o’ Groats, North Cape, Cape Horn and the end of Sri Lanka.
Through the War Zone
We drove up the A9 road, impassable during the time of the Tamil Tigers, through the war zone and past many abandoned houses without windows, roofs or doors and many marked by scars of fire. What happened to the former occupants is sad and troubling. Was it the Tamils who took the occupants away or was it the Sri Lankan Army? Who knows, but the end result was the same.
Kolinochchi, the Tamil’s main city is now thriving again but the water tower is still careened alongside the main street where it was blown up by an air strike. There is a new tower nearby. Neat and tall fences surround Army, Navy and Air Force bases but the forces are kept out of the public eye at present. There are many new buildings, both public and private. Things are getting back to normal.
The contested Elephant pass has a guard post and a Corporal of the Army looked at us for a moment or two. We drove across the causeway with the rail line alongside and bordered by the sea and then into Jaffna.
Here we saw burned out buildings, bullet-pocked walls and occasional piles of rubble. Encouraging were the building works. The famous library there is now rebuilt and open to the public. People have donated books but the original ancient Tamil documents can never be replaced.
Hotels are said to be a problem in Jaffna but we struck lucky with a new one, not yet officially opened. It is beautiful, secluded and built to a very high standard. There is a different feel about Jaffna, it reminded us of Kerala and South India.
To the end of the Land
Driving Northwest from Jaffna, the land is flat and fields alongside the road were often waterlogged. We drove along causeways to places which were previously islands. We were in places where there was more water than land. Gently, the sea and the land seemed to merge into one as we hopped from island to island until we had to park at the end of a jetty. There we took to a rickety wooden boat.
We were all given life-jackets and packed inside the boat like sardines. It was claustrophobic and unsafe. We were jammed up against the 3-cylinder diesel engine which rattled away steadily. There was a stiff breeze to cool us but that meant spray. After a half hour of pitching and tossing we reached a jetty on Nainathivu Island and climbed ashore.
There are even more islands after this one, the sea, land and shifting sand bars form a mirage islands Northwards towards India. This is the Palk Strait and the string of islands is called Adam’s Bridge. It used to be passable on foot with a bit of wading. Now I am sure it could be done with the aid of a surfboard. A rail line once went half way across but it was washed away in 1964. The seas are too shallow for merchant ships to pass between India and Sri Lanka and the sandbars too inconstant.
A bridge or tunnel across to India has been proposed, so has a dredged shipping channel but nothing has happened yet except political argument.
During the civil war, India supplied arms and men and there was important military traffic across the strait. Eventually the Sri Lankan Navy set up a blockade so that the Tamils could not be re-supplied, neither could they escape the final onslaught.
As well as guns, a form of sand fly carrying a disease called Leishamaniasis crossed the straits and cases of Kalar Azar or Dumdum fever as it is also known became common in the region. Malaria was also endemic up here but is no longer a problem.
Nainithivu, a Small Island
On Nainithivu Island are large Buddhist and Hindu temples. We visited the Hindu Kovil, towering into the bright sky with images of all the Hindu gods in full colour. To gain entry one had to obey the dress code, women covered up but men had to remove their shirts.
We watched a deity carried through the temple with much chanting, drumming and blowing of conch shells. Candles burned bright in the dark interior and worshippers genuflected and knelt in veneration. The rhythm of the drums, the haunting notes of the conch shells, the bright lights and shiny decorations became hypnotic. Some people seemed in a trance.
Just outside many people had left alms in the form of food. A cow wandered in and helped herself to a bunch of bananas before being shooed away.
Back from the Brink
Back in the ferry, we were escorted by a Sri Lankan Navy fast gunboat. Their role these days is to police the fishing agreements with India. There were places where we could see fishermen half a mile out to sea and up to their waists, tending nets. A highlight was the wading birds and a flock of flamingo feeding in a lagoon.
This was the end of Sri Lanka, blue sea and lighter blue sky, strips of green land and lines of yellow sandbars with the bright sun and brisk breeze. No photograph could convey the atmosphere of the place. It was an experience of the end of things.