Offbeat Alert: Exploring Underrated Jaffna In Sri Lanka

In 1621, the Portuguese founded Jaffna as their colonial administrative centre. But Sri Lanka's northernmost city has deep cultural ties to India and its distinct character sets it apart.
Jaffna trabantos/Shutterstock

Sri Lanka is one of the most popular island destinations in the world. From the tea trails, the beaches and spectacular surf spots, to pretty hill stations, the wildlife sanctuaries, and gastronomic culture, there is a lot to do on a holiday here. Its capital is always buzzing with a happening nightlife and an inviting food scene, with a bit of history and natural beauty thrown in. Roadtrippers can also embark on unforgettable journeys through scenic routes winding along sandy beaches and lush greenery.

Among its towns is Jaffna, Sri Lanka's northernmost city, with deep cultural ties to India. Its distinct character sets it apart. In 1621, the Portuguese founded Jaffna as their colonial administrative centre. Here is an interesting fact. Because it was submerged beneath water during the Miocene epoch, the Jaffna peninsula is comprised of limestone. The limestone is porous and grey, yellow, and white.

Things To See

Jaffna Archaeological Museum

Jaffna Archaeological Museum
Jaffna Archaeological Museumsaiko3p/Shutterstock

The museum, located on Navalar Road in Nallurm, was established in 1978. You may browse through antiques with archaeological and historical interest at the museum which displays an outstanding collection of items collected from various sites and donated by various people in Jaffna's Northern Province. The Buddhist and Hindu religious heritage collection is comprised of metal, wood, and stone. The museum also has a large collection of coins (of various eras and types) on display.

Address: M29F+PQM, Navalar Rd, Jaffna, Sri Lanka

Timings: 9 am to 4 pm, closed on Tuesdays


Buddhist stupa on Nainativu island
Buddhist stupa on Nainativu island

Nainativu is a small but significant island off the coast of the Jaffna Peninsula. The Tamils refer to it as Nainativu, whereas the Sinhalese refer to it as Nagadeepa. On the island are the Hindu shrine Nagapooshani Amman Temple, one of the significant 64 Shakti Peethas, and the Buddhist shrine Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya.

Historians have discovered references to the island in ancient Tamil Sangam literature from Tamil Nadu, such as Manimekalai, as well as old Buddhist traditions from Sri Lanka, such as Mahavamsa. Ptolemy, a Greek cartographer, refers to the islands surrounding the Jaffna peninsula as Nagadiba in the first century CE.

Ancient Kadurugoda Viharaya

Kadurugoda Viharaya, Jaffna
Kadurugoda Viharaya, Jaffna Fabio Lamanna/Shutterstock

Visit the Kadurugoda Viharaya at Chunnakam's Kandarodai  village. Around 56 stupas were discovered in the area, but only 20 exist now. The stupas are distinctive in that they are formed of grey-coloured coral stone and have a pattern of little holes all over them. They also have fixed umbrella-shaped pinnacles. Kantharodai Buddhist Monastery dates back to the Anuradhapura period.

Address: Puttur-Kantarodai Rd, Sri Lanka

Timings: Open 24 hours

Vallipuram Alvar Vishnu Kovil

Valipura Alvar Vishnu Kovil temple
Valipura Alvar Vishnu Kovil temple saiko3p/Shutterstock

This ancient Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu is located in Vallipuram, Point Pedro on the Jaffna peninsula. The entirety of the temple, including the entryway, shows multiple myths and legends about Lord Vishnu, who is revered in Hinduism as the preserver and defender of the cosmos. The temple holds an annual festival during the months of September/October, which are governed by the lunar calendar.

Timings: Open 24 hours

Nagapooshani Temple

The Nagapooshani Amman Temple is located in Jaffna on the island of Nainativu. This historic Hindu temple is devoted to Goddess Parvati, also known as Nagapooshani or Bhuvaneswari, and her spouse, Lord Shiva, who is known as Nayinaar here. It was founded many millennia ago by the Naga tribes (Snake-Worshipers), a pre-historic race of Sri Lanka. The temple structure has four gopurams ranging in height from 20 to 25 feet. The tallest structure is the Raja Raja Gopuram, which is 108 feet tall. Mahostavam (Thiruvizha) is a 16-day celebration held during the Tamil month of Aani (June-July).

Timings: 6 am to 6 pm

The Naga Pooshani Ambal Kovil on Nainativu Island in the Jaffna region
The Naga Pooshani Ambal Kovil on Nainativu Island in the Jaffna region Timo Gotz/Shutterstock

Jaffna Fort

The Portuguese built this formidable fort overlooking the Jaffna lagoon during their invasion of the Jaffna Kingdom in 1619. Walk around and explore the old walls, gateways, and moats. The ramparts offer an excellent perspective of the city.

Timings: 8 am to 6 pm

Jaffna Fort entrance and wall bordered by watery moat
Jaffna Fort entrance and wall bordered by watery moat Daily Travel Photos/Shutterstock

Point Pedro

Point Pedro is located in the northernmost tip of Sri Lanka, facing the Bay of Bengal. The name comes from the Portuguese Punta das Pedras, which meaning Stony or Rocky Point. Once a trading harbour, the town is known as Paruthithurai (cotton port) in Tamil because it was famed for being a hub that sold cotton to South India. Also known as Sakkotai Cape, the sandy beach here is full of colourful fishermen's boats. There is a lighthouse located on the east side. A board on the edge of a reef with a Sri Lankan flag marks this place.


Eating Out

From streetside shacks selling fresh seafood dishes to resorts, Jaffna has a variety of eating out options. One of the most atmospheric places to have lunch would be at the at the landside eatery of Fort Hammenhiel.

Fort Hammenhiel, off the coast of Jaffna's Karainagar, has gone through multiple identity changes from the early 1600s. It was formerly a Dutch fort, then a naval outpost, a high-security Alcatraz-style prison, and an infectious diseases hospital. The island is entirely run by the Sri Lankan navy and can only be reached by a quick 10-minute boat voyage.

The Point Pedro vadai, named after the district's northernmost town, is a must-try snack in Jaffna. In Tamil, the snack is known as paruthithurai vadai. The mixture is shaped into little balls, flattened, and deep-fried using gramme dhal, black gramme, salt, wheat flour, dried chilies, onions, curry leaves, and cumin.

Because of its coastal position, Jaffna is famous for its delectable seafood dishes, such as the nandu kuzhambu. The dish, also known as Jaffna Crab Curry, is traditionally cooked using mud crabs gathered from mangroves and blue swimmer crabs harvested from shallow coastal waters, seasoned with fennel, cumin, fenugreek, coriander, curry leaves, chillies, tamarind, and coconut.

Another dish to try in Jaffna is the seafood stew koozh featuring prawns, crabs, squid and white fish flavoured with garlic, onions, dried chillies, curry leaves, turmeric powder, cassava, jackfruit seeds and yardlong beans.

With similarities to Bengal's nolen gur and mishti doi, Jaffna's curd made with buffalo milk served with palmyra palm treacle is a good way to end a meal.

Getting There

The airport to Jaffna is Jaffna (JAF) Airport. The journey takes around four hours. Jaffna in fact is even more accessible now to Indians. In 2023, India's Alliance Air ramped up flight frequency from four times a week to a daily service, enhancing travel and trade connections between the two countries. In October 2023, it was announced that Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka will re-establish a sea route connection after a hiatus of more than 40 years, with a passenger ferry service launch. Managed by the Shipping Corporation of India (SCI), this ferry service will cover a distance of 60 nautical miles between Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu and Kankesanthurai, located near Jaffna, the capital of northern Sri Lanka, completing the journey in approximately three hours. Read more about it here.

You can also take a train from Colombo.

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