Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sri Lanka’s crown jewels - doll yourself up for Jaffna’s out islands

 Text and pix by Juliet Coombe

The calm after the storm. Now the war is over tourists are flooding back into Jaffna and discovering its myriad of hidden delights. Guide book writer Juliet Coombe sets sail for Sacred Nainativu, one of Jaffna’s seven out islands and found herself surrounded by miniature dolls.
My classic Morris Minor hired in Jaffna old town glistens in the sun, which rises above dark ominous clouds, passing old men throwing fishing nets into a picturesque lagoon, or riding bicycles piled high with goods for the islands. Little boats bob on the water either side of the causeway and ox drawn carts pass me with the stately grandeur of an ancient world that is just starting to reawaken from a very long sleep. Only matched by fit looking old guys riding in the opposite direction on classic Singer bicycles with huge loads of firewood and other raw building materials to be sold in Jaffna old town, where rebuilding is evident everywhere.
From time to time a red Indian bus passes by carrying Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims to Nainativu-- Nagadipa Island. As the car reaches the ferry dock, pretty blue and green painted boats come into view, moored safely waiting to take the next band of pilgrims to the different out islands and I notice a long line of women waiting patiently in the shade for the next boat to sacred Nainativu.

Living on Nainathivu

As the ferry chugs into shore covered in hand-painted blue and pink flowers, complete with shrine to Ganesh, one feels transported to India and places like the city of learning and burning Varanassi. Puffs of smoke come from joss sticks stuck in the wood surround the shrine and fruit offerings that have been made that morning to the sea. Clambering through the main hatch I sit down on an old oak bench next to a couple of pilgrims exchanging stories of their travels and above I can hear sun-seekers who have clambered onto the roof looking for the best spot to catch the sea breeze. On closer inspection I notice the other women sitting around me from the pier are clasping in their hands all manner of miniature dolls.
As I take all this in, one original islander sitting next to me reminisces about her childhood living on Nainativu. Her eyes light up when her husband talks about the free vegetarian temple food served at lunchtime on banana leaves with island-grown red rice and delicious Jaffna vegetables. Always, he says pointing out the building in the distance at one o’clock on the dot. Just the experience of seeing the giant steaming bowls of food is worth waiting around on the island to try the local food, and meet the people who see this as such an important pilgrimage site.
I discover from Ranjini another inhabitant that sadly the number of people living on Nainativu has dwindled over the last three decades to less than a thousand, and most of them are either elderly, work in the temple as volunteers or in the island’s oldest profession - (no, not that one) - fishing. In June, however, there is a major 18-day Hindu temple festival when thousands flock to the island.
The temple Sri Naga Pooshani Amman is a few minutes walk from where we land and on either side of it are little stalls run by young lads selingl island nuts, shells and coconuts. Inside the grounds, pilgrims put a red dot on their foreheads before entering the inner sanctum and at exactly 12 o’clock a large drum and oboe blare out, accompanied by bells and trumpet music to celebrate the day’s most sacred midday puja, when special offerings are made. These include donations of plantin, beetle, arrack nut, coconuts, Jaffna mango “karuthakolumban, red rice and joss sticks which are also lit daily as the music is played the pilgrims pray, are blessed in turn and take comfort in the ancient temple surroundings.
Broody women or couples with fertility issues have been flocking to the temple for thousands of years, because this is the sacred Naga serpent temple of Meenakshi, who is closely related to Shiva, goddess of fertility. After the midday puja they ceremonially hang little boxes with miniature dolls inside carried as I had seen with loving care on the boat from the mainland, and others with handwritten notes folded up hang them in the trees to the left of the main complex. After more prayers, special wishes are made as the coconut husk is burnt at the top, and then the women smash them to complete the ceremony and make a special wish, asking the Naga goddess for fertility and a blessing on their family. If the coconut breaks they know that their wish will be granted, but not if it stays in one piece.

A small museum

The temple and its very large grounds with smaller complexes is packed with all sorts of other things to see, like the sacred well, a small museum, a library with history and philosophy books, a carving centre with Indian workers and a large dining area with rolled up palmyra mats that are put out every day to serve the free temple lunch. As you walk round you will find snake statues placed in the strangest of places and this is to remind you that the Naga serpent goddess is ever present.
Over the daily free temple lunch I talk to the female pilgrims about the dolls and discover that the success rate for having children afterwards is nearly 90 per cent. Pretty good compared to IVF and Western methods of dealing with infertility. The families tell me about the other six islands, and in particular Delft a firm favourite with original island families.
Delft is a much more bleak and remote an out island, a surreal outpost with an equally intriguing history, and friendly island people, ancient Buddhist ruins and a strange, windswept landscape. An island which once had its own royal ruler, King Vaidyarasan, and has a mixed population of Hindus, Catholics and Protestants. However, the problems of recent times and the political turmoil led many people to migrate further south. It takes about four hours to circle the whole island on a tractor, the only form of motorised transport on Delft currently. Alternatively, if you fancy your horse-whispering skills, try harnessing Delft pony, the wild horses left over from Portuguese colonisation!
Returning to the mainland watching the sun set over the islands as the ferry chugs back into port I can see why the likes of the writer Leonard Wolf fell in love with the place. One American senator said of Jaffna’s recent tourism revival: “Jaffna is struggling, kicking and fighting back to life and is in my opinion one of the most exciting places to be right now in Asia.” The islands described by many a guidebook writer over the centuries as Sri Lanka’s crown jewels, are gems of places to spend time because the people are so hospitable and kind its impossible not to fall in love with the place. Looking out to sea and the beautiful surrounding coastline, one can see why such a prized area has been so heavily fought over.
Jumping back into my Morris Minor I head for Jaffna town and an ice-cream spot at Lingam Cream Shop and have the local specialty jelly, fruits and ice-cream mixed together and served in a glass bowl, which is a bargain at 60 rupees and a perfect way to cool off at the end of a day island hopping.

For further information

For further information on things to see and do in Jaffna buy a copy of Sri Lanka’s Other Half published by; Sri Serendipity Publishing House, Galle Fort, Sri Lanka. Web site: Sri to place an order. You can also pick up a copy in five star hotel in Colombo: Barefoot, Odel and all leading bookshops. Galle: Barefoot and The Galle Fort Hotel. Price: Rs 3500. Pages: 278. Format: Colour, paperback.
Island hopping fact box:
For people who want to get off the grid check out Kayts, Karaitivu, and Pungudutivu and Mandativu islands. Kayts also known as Leiden in Dutch is a small island where you can chill out and organise trips to the surrounding areas with local fishermen. Always check the current Ministry of Defence position as they still control these waters.
The prettiest one is Pungudutivu Island. Most of the residents are Hindu Tamils with a minority practicing Christianity. It is one of the most off the beaten track places to visit in the peninsula; a small island with a surprisingly lively and hospitable bunch of villagers, but no hotels to stay in. The only option is to get permission to camp, or take a day trip from the mainland. One of the joys of this place is the island cooking and being able to order fresh fish straight out of the sea - so fresh you can still taste the sea salt. This is travel at its most raw!
The war meant that a large number of young people and families left the islands so don’t expect any nightlife and the only young people around are the navy guys stationed across the peninsular. Plus staying on the islands is still very limited.

source & photo credit -

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