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Notes on the Geography of Sri Lanka: Jaffna

On November 11, 2019, a twin-engine turboprop landed near the northern tip of Sri Lanka. It was the first civilian flight to land in 41 years at an airport restricted all that time to military aircraft. Known as Palaly since it was built for the RAF in World War II, the airport had a new name, Jaffna International. It had a new terminal, too, a small, Spartan but clean metal shed. By the following February, JAF was handling two flights daily. One was a domestic flight to and from Colombo, and the other was the turboprop, an ATR from Chennai. Neither Travelocity nor Orbitz had heard of JAF, but Air India was selling tickets on its website. Arriving or departing, Chennai passengers had their bags searched by dismayingly thorough military personnel and also by men and women who appeared to be (but might not have been) civilians. The inspectors were polite and after a minute or two even conversational, but they radiated doubt about anyone without business or family ties. The airport had no car-rental agencies. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, because foreigners can’t drive in Sri Lanka without a special license obtainable only in Colombo. There were no buses, either, but a few impromptu taxis were waiting. I stayed with one driver throughout my visit. Like ninety-nine percent of the residents of Jaffna, he was a Tamil, which means probably a Hindu, possibly a Christian, almost certainly not a Buddhist. He had endured the crushing onslaught of the Sri Lankan security forces in 2009—been caught in the charnel house of the “no-fire zone.” Every time we passed a ruined building, he would say “more ruins.” He said it in a wildly inappropriate tone, gaily, as if we were passing a lovely patch of wildflowers or a blizzard of butterflies. After a while I found it irritating, but I had the sense not to tell him to stop it. I can’t write his name here, because he lived in fear of the Sri Lankan government. Was it paranoia that led him to believe that his life would be forfeit if he ever discussed in public the things he had seen? Arriving after a long flight to a new part of the world, I’m sensitive but stupid. The drive into Jaffna—about a dozen miles to the south—began with several miles of one-lane road with almost no traffic. An air of abandonment or unnatural quiet pervaded the place, but I didn’t think to ask why. Fortunately, and without my asking, the driver explained that during the civil war, which ran from 1983 until 2009, the Sri Lankan military had evicted everyone near the airport. Ten more years passed before the military decided to allow them back into this so-called high-security zone. Many returned to find their homes ruined. Others found that their home was still occupied by the military, which held it without compensation or redress. Owners lucky enough to re-occupy their homes usually erect a crude but cheap perimeter fence of painted sheets nailed to posts. The base of the sheets is often a foot or two off the ground. My driver came to the rescue again, explaining that this was done to calm the soldiers and police who were still on frequent patrol and who worried that attackers might hide behind a fence. Feet couldn’t hide behind these fences. The fences made sense particularly because the security forces, entirely Sinhalese, were all ignorant of the Tamil language. True, most Tamils know some Sinhalese—for them, it is a basic survival skill—but they use it only when they must. More than 100,000 of them died, after all, in a war that was fought, initially at least, over the Tamil desire for language parity. They had lost that struggle but not the desire for parity. The Sinhalese outnumber the Tamils seven to one—about fifteen million to two million across Sri Lanka—and see no reason to cede their dominance. After a few miles the landscape became less sinister. The road graduated to two lanes, newly paved and paid for by whatever foreign assistance hadn’t been creamed off by officials in Colombo. The island’s railroad, completed to this corner of the island in 1902, had been destroyed in the war but had now been rebuilt to a high standard. I never saw a freight train on the line. Passenger trains did run daily to Colombo with equipment that would have been scrapped decades earlier in wealthier countries, but buses would have been cheaper. Many were already on the road. The electricity supply was stable, no small thing, but buildings both along the road and in Jaffna proper seemed to stand in a 1:1 ratio between new or damaged buildings. Older commercial buildings, usually of one or two stories, hid some of their scars behind huge painted-wood signs: “Vene Stores,” “Style Park,” “Food City,” and so on, perhaps half in Tamil and half in English. New commercial buildings were owned mostly by Diaspora Tamils. They were the only people willing and able to invest. Viewed strictly as economic ventures, there probably were more profitable opportunities in other countries, but, like Diaspora Palestinians, Diaspora Tamils are determined to demonstrate their attachment to the place they consider home, even if they make only occasional visits. A few undamaged homes from the colonial past survived. Typically, these were L-shaped bungalows, with heavy tile roofs over plastered brick walls painted shades of tan. Many were trimmed with ornamental columns and pilasters. Some had wooden bargeboards running around the eaves like the edges of doilies, and a few had upper stories with long balconies overlooking the street. The most ostentatious were set back from the street and had massive masonry gateways under a pediment connected to a short but elaborately decorated covered walkway to the house. Nearly all these once impressive houses were in ruins. Attracting attention is a bad idea in wartime. A major cement plant had opened in 1950 at Kankesanturai, on the coast a few miles north of the airport, but it had closed during the war, and its machinery had been surreptitiously sold off. Leyden Industries, an old underwear factory close to the center of Jaffna, was an empty, burned hulk. I saw none of the cut-and-sew factories common farther south on the island. A few tourists wandered around, mostly young, mostly foreign, mostly on foot. Most had arrived by bus or train, but, as the behavior of the airport officials implies, the tourist presence was puzzling. Jaffna has never been on Sri Lanka’s tourist circuit—or on old Ceylon’s, for that matter. That is unlikely to change. There are beaches and diving opportunities, but if that’s what you want you don’t have to make the six- or seven-hour drive from Colombo—and that’s according to speed-demon Google Maps. Jaffna and its neighborhood do contain many Hindu temples—at least eighty percent of the population is Hindu—but the temples were methodically destroyed by the Portuguese in the 17th and 18th centuries. Rebuilt during the comparatively tolerant British Raj, the temples were once again damaged or destroyed during the civil war. The senior Maviddapuram Temple, unlucky enough to be only two miles from Palaly, had now, in 2020, been almost completely rebuilt, but replicas don’t draw many tourists, especially when the circus-bright figures decorating the walls look as though they were sourced from a Chinese sculpture factory dealing only in bulk orders. Similarly, Christian missionaries have been very active in Jaffna for two centuries, but few tourists seek out the churches, schools, and hospitals that, along with tombstones, are the visible legacy of the missionaries. What does that leave? The prime attraction is Jaffna Fort, built by the Portuguese in 1618 and taken over by the Dutch in 1658. Dissatisfied with the simple Portuguese rectangle, the Dutch completely rebuilt the fort on a grand scale—a star with five mighty bastions, a moat, and outworks, much like the fort that the Dutch built in Cape Town. A few years later, in 1795, Holland agreed in the Treaty of Amiens to cede Ceylon to the British. This was a sideshow in the politics of Napoleonic Europe, but it must have seemed like idiocy to the Dutch in Jaffna, obliged to abandon the splendid new fort without a fight. The fort remained almost perfectly intact in British hands. Then, during its bicentennial, the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military reduced everything except the wall to rubble, including the Dutch church that was the fort’s chief attraction. You don’t need a ticket to see the walls, and you might as well save your money if you’re looking for the church. Tourists with Leonard Woolf’s autobiography can track down the bastion-top house into which he moved in 1905, fresh from Cambridge. It was the beginning of his life-changing decade in the Ceylon Civil Service, but the bungalow is gone except for some waist-high walls and a young banyan, perhaps the descendant of the huge banyan that, Woolf wrote, was home to a devil that terrified his servants. There is a good view from the bastion over the moat toward the city’s nondescript skyline. Looking inward, there’s a view over the rubble of the Dutch church and a building once called the King’s (or Queen’s) House, where visiting governors were accommodated. My 1984 Lonely Planet guide calls the building “an excellent example of Dutch architecture of the period.” C’est la vie: there’s nothing left of the King’s House except some fragmentary walls. A greater loss may be the floor of the church, once paved with loquacious Dutch tombstones. One of them survives outside Jaffna’s small and makeshift museum. The town had a pre-war museum, “itself a fine old Dutch building” according to my old Lonely Planet. It’s gone, too. Outside the fort, Jaffna has many restored churches, another beneficiary of Diaspora Tamils. The Anglican church of St. John the Baptist has been very handsomely restored with slim, wood-framed Gothic windows that pivot on a central, vertical axis. Inside, beams project over the nave and support a steeply pitched roof. A plaques on a wall recalled a young man who came from England and worked as a customs officer before dying seven years later at 29. Another plaque recalled a missionary’s wife who died at 33. Her husband married again—twice—before eventually returning to England, where he was still alive at 94. Luck of the draw. The St. John’s churchyard was locked tight on a busy Sunday morning, but the church warden provided a couple of guides who unlocked the gate. With their help, I hunted for Percival Ackland Dyke. I headed for the biggest monument I saw, a cube about six feet on a side. It seemed a plausible monument to the “the Rajah of Jaffna,” but most of the cube’s marble sheathing was gone, and bullet holes were sprayed across the remaining bits. I found no inscription, looked around the graveyard, and was on the verge of giving up when I went back to the cube and peeped behind a cast-iron bathtub that had been propped up against it along with some trash. Sure enough, there was an inscription: “Percival Ackland Dyke, more than 40 years Govt. Agent of the Northern Province, born in 1805, who died in his tent at Koppay.” Koppay, or Kopay, is a village on the edge of Jaffna. Dyke is not exactly a household name even in Jaffna these days, but for 38 years until his death in 1868 Percival Dyke was a virtual satrap. It is said that he returned to England only once and that, in dudgeon at the tone of a cab driver, turned around on arrival and went straight back to Jaffna. It’s probably too good to be true, but it does suggest a certain manner. Nowadays, and depending on the situation, we either detest or laugh at imperial arrogance, but Woolf was startled to find that the British kept no troops and hardly any police in Jaffna. The Pax Britannica rested instead on celestial confidence. Compared to governments that rely on guns, bluff doesn’t seem so bad. While not on tour and living (and dying) in a tent, Percival Ackland Dyke—I don’t suppose anyone ever called him Percy—lived in a mansion apparently built with his own money. He in any case thought of it as his personal property, because he bequeathed this so-called Residency to his successors in perpetuity. The ruins stand today at the edge of a well-tended patch of green called the Old Park. It’s about a mile from the fort and only a couple of blocks from St. John’s. Woolf writes of cycling every day from his house on the bastion to the kutchery or government office adjacent to the Residency. He regularly had tea with John Penrys Lewis, the Government Agent of the day, and with Lewis’s formidable wife. The Residency looks like a ruin from antiquity, but it was occupied as late as the mid-1960s by another of Dyke’s successors, Vernon Abeysekera. In a memoir, Abeysekera describes the Residency as having “pillared verandahs, lofty archways, and timbered ceilings. 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.” The columns survive, along with bare walls and a few roof beams now naked under the sky. There was once a plaque remembering Dyke, but I could not find it. Abeysekera himself retired to Melbourne, where he died in 2005. I found another surprising connection between Jaffna and Melboune. Just offshore, and plainly visible from the walls of the fort, there’s a good-sized island that can be reached by a two-mile-long causeway. The north end of the island has a village called Kayts. (The name is Dutch and is pronounced “kites.”) Just outside the village there are ruins of a Portuguese fort, with a rectangle of damaged walls enclosing an area about the size of a basketball court. It’s underwhelming until you notice that the walls are made of cobble-sized blocks of many species of coral, each patterned in its own elegant and delicate way. A bit less than a mile offshore, there’s a much grander fort filling up a tiny island still used by the Sri Lankan Navy and now including a tourist resort. Kayts also has a superabundance of Catholic churches. The oldest, St. James, from 1715, is painted in shades of gold. A few hundred feet away, in an intense blue, there’s St. Mary’s, from 1895. In a different direction but still within a few minutes’ walk, there’s St. Anthony’s, from 1920 and in a gently competitive pale magenta. Two miles down the road there’s St. Peter’s, from 1909. It’s pink, not a bad color for a church whose high façade is stepped and trimmed like a wedding cake. It’s easy to assume that there were simply too many Catholics here for the pews at St. James, but the truth is that the different castes needed different churches. After all, the famous temple at Maviddapuram traditionally excluded low castes. So, too, these churches. The priest at St. Peter’s explained that his church had been built for high-castes but that with their emigration it was used now by low castes. It turns out that neither the Portuguese nor the Dutch nor the British were able to shake that infinitely adaptable engine of hierarchy called caste. Some scholars, M.M.M. Mahroof among them, have argued that the British actually strengthened it by codifying its groups in colonial law. The priest surprised me again by saying that he had just returned from a decade as a parish priest in Melbourne. I think it came up in the context of my American accent. It was easy to understand, he said, unlike the Ozzie accent. He smiled and without missing a beat said, “G’die, Fatha.” I asked why he had returned from an obviously more comfortable posting, and he replied matter-of-factly that his work in Melbourne had been a failure. I must have looked puzzled, because he went on to say that he had been unable to convert a single person. Worse, he could not even get young Tamils from Catholic families to come to Mass; only their grandparents attended. I was tactful enough not to ask if he was doing any better here at St. Peter’s, but it became clear that he wasn’t. Back in Melbourne, he must have known what he would find here—a Church that appealed only to the old—which brings us back to why he had returned. The answer, I assume, is that home is home. He wasn’t a young man. If I had thought of it, I might have steered the conversation to Jaffna College, whose history coincides with the priest’s experience. Jaffna College, I should explain, is about five miles north of Jaffna or, by helicopter, about ten east from Kayts. It’s one of two neighboring schools established in the 1820s by American missionaries. One was a boys’ school called the Batticotta Seminary. Since 1872 it’s been Jaffna College. The other, about four miles farther east, is the Uduvil Girls’ College. Both are very much alive and still functioning as private institutions under the control of the Church of South India, but both have had troubles since the Sri Lankan government in 1975 expropriated a large part of the Jaffna College campus. The last principal of the Batticotta Seminary was E.P. Hastings, a New Yorker by birth. (In one of those funny reminders of Six Degrees of Separation, Hastings was married to Anna Cleveland, one of Grover’s sisters.) In 1855 Hastings closed the seminary permanently, or so he thought. This had nothing to do with academic standards: Emerson Tennant, Ceylon’s colonial secretaries in the 1840s, praised the school’s eight-year course of study as bearing fair comparison to European universities. Hastings instead acted because in three decades the school had been able to make no or almost no converts. It wasn’t his fault: only high-caste families could afford the school fees, and high-caste Hindus, as everywhere in South Asia, are the least likely converts. The school might have given scholarships to a few low-caste students, but then the high-caste students would have left. Enrolling only low-caste students was impossible, because the mission could not afford to provide scholarships for every student. Fifteen years later, recognizing the value of the Western education they had received at the now-defunct seminary, a group of Batticotta graduates got together and sponsored the reopening of the school as Jaffna College. Ironically, they hired as principal none other than E.P. Hastings. He apparently had had second thoughts; in any case, he ran the school for another 17 years, until 1889. Since then, Jaffna College has had a long line of well-credentialed headmasters, including John Bicknell, a graduate of the Yale divinity school. Bicknell was headmaster from 1916 to 1936, and his name is recalled on a handsome plaque on one fine old building and in large words painted on the concrete bleachers overlooking the cricket pitch: Bicknell Memorial Pavilion. No matter. I suspect Hastings would still deplore heathen recalcitrance. Generations of students have passed under—and mostly ignored—the words over a main staircase at the school: “Jesus Christ. The Light of Life.” It is the same story at Uduvil. The school’s church has a plaque for Eliza Agnew, another New Yorker by birth and principal at Uduvil from 1839 to 1878. Known as “the mother of a thousand,” she never returned to the United States, even in the five years of life remaining after her retirement. Her bungalow on the school grounds is still just about perfect: a long building one room deep and with plastered masonry painted white under a tile roof. A long arcaded porch overlooked a driveway lined with a brigade of potted plants. The school has several new buildings but none with the appeal of that bungalow. Still, I wonder what Eliza Agnew would say if asked if her work had been a success. The school’s motto has always been “The Truth shall make you free,” but, despite their provenance in the gospels, those words can as easily be read in support of not just Christianity but any religion, or none. A plaque on one classroom building recalls Ariam Hudson Paramasamy, the school’s “first national principal.” The daughter of a Jaffna College professor and the holder of an M.A. from Oberlin, Paramasamy was principal from 1941 to 1970. The plaque does not mention that she was the only Christian in her own family. I like to think that on the matter of conversion she would have called for infinite patience. Frustrating as the missionary experience has been in Sri Lanka, it’s nothing compared to the failure of Tamils and Sinhalese to get along with each other. About a mile north of the Uduvil school, there’s a whisper of the antagonism. It’s in a Buddhist cemetery, a collection of twenty hemispherical stupas crudely rebuilt by the British while Sri Lanka was still Ceylon. None is taller than a man and there’s nothing noteworthy until you notice the original bases, which consist of delicately varying concentric rings reminiscent of the wonderful moonstones of Anuradhapura. Archaeological evidence dates these stupas to about 1,000 A.D, but popular belief has it that sixty monks were poisoned here about 600 years ago. Or perhaps, less malevolently, that they merely starved to death. Either way, there’s no great love around here for Buddhists. I asked my driver to take me about six miles north to the coast. We were too early for paddy, but we passed rectangular blocks of bare and dry earth, freshly plowed and red as iron ore. Earth bunds or low dikes rimmed the fields, which awaited the monsoon. The skyline was meanwhile green with coconut and palmyra palms, and there were hundreds of acres of resplendently green tobacco and of fruit and vegetables, including exotics like bitter melon. They were all irrigated by tiny ditches. Irrigation water that a century ago would have been lifted manually with well sweeps—the shadufs of the Middle East—was pumped by small engines parked next to open wells dangerous to anyone drunk or careless. Every now and then, my driver would gaily point and say, “More ruins!” but otherwise the landscape seemed almost apolitical. Traditional agrarian or peasant landscapes always do, like the scene at the end of Seven Samurai, when the war is over, the bandits are dead, the samurai are no longer needed, and the villagers are once again singing in the fields. The coast here is dotted with many small fishing ports. The boats are about the size of a dory, so the industry is absolutely artisanal—a polite way of saying primitive—but they imply a strong seafaring tradition. This is significant because it’s about thirty-five miles from here to India, and during the civil war the Tamil Tigers were resupplied across these waters by men who spent their lives on them. Along the coast road running eastward we passed a resort built and run by the military. Perhaps it’s busy on weekends, but when I saw it the Thalsevana Holiday Resort was spookily empty. It had a nice beach and I suppose the usual amenities. I didn’t go inside. We also passed collections of huts built, as people here say, for displaced people. It’s unclear how many are victims of the civil war and how many are casualties of the 2005 Boxing Day tsunami. In this part of Sri Lanka there are no hills and no tall buildings for refuge. I met one man who told me that he was alive only because he got so drunk on Christmas Day, 2005, that he remained unconscious when the wave picked him up from his bed at dawn and left him wedged against some attic beams. He had been injured, he said, but he had survived, unlike friends who were awake enough to fight the water. After tracing the coast for about ten miles, we came to Velvettihurai, a town of about 20,000. On my own, I would have driven right through it, at most noticing a large tree growing in the main road. Affixed to the tree was a very colorful poster of M.G. Ramachandran, known as MGR to all lovers of Tamil cinema. The image—Ramachandran is wearing his trademark wraparound shades under a karakul cap—is the magnified image of a 15-rupee Indian stamp. The poster was especially puzzling because close by there was a golden statue of MGR adorned with garlands. “Curious,” I might have said, but my driver knew the place well, and suggested we turn right onto a narrow lane. After passing a dozen or more homes we came to an empty and heavily overgrown lot. There was nothing to indicate anything significant about it, but my driver explained that this was the site of the family home of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE or Tamil Tigers. The government of Sri Lanka would never permit a monument to the Tiger’s leader, but it tolerated monuments to a Tamil film star who later in life entered politics and as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu provided the Tigers with arms and safe refuge. The people of Velvettiihurai saw MGR and thought of their dead hero, Prabakharan. At least some of them did. Townsfolk aren’t going to share their innermost thoughts with an unknown foreigner in town for an hour, but one man told me that he wasn’t sure that Prabakharan was dead. He also assured me that Prabakharan was a very gentle, modest man. I mentioned suicide bombings, which the Tigers had pioneered. I mentioned Rajini Thiranagama, a graduate of Jaffna College and a medical doctor trained in the UK. While teaching anatomy in Jaffna, she was also a Tiger sympathizer helping injured Tigers. Her fatal mistake was to dare in print to criticize Tiger atrocities. In 1989, she was gunned down outside her home. Her children heard the shots, and she became another name on the list of Tiger atrocities. The man I was speaking to replied only that it is in the nature of violence to escalate. Even during the war, he said, when Prabakharan was a wanted man, he would come to town unannounced and would walk the streets, modest and gentle as ever. Along the coast road we had passed propaganda signs posted by the government. They urged everyone to forget the past; it was the only way forward, the signs said. Yet over on Kayts my driver and I had passed the spot where General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, once the most popular general in the Sri Lankan army, had been blown up with his retinue in 1992. The road was closed to through traffic, but it was open as far as a concrete monument with large color photographs of the dozen or so officers who died in the blast. Next to it was the preserved wreckage of two military vehicles obliterated so totally that I couldn’t even recognize them as vehicles. So the winner’s history was to be hallowed and the loser’s buried. That’s usually the winner’s plan and perhaps it’s usually the eventual outcome. Still, quiescent volcanoes are not always extinct, and the security forces in Jaffna, far from cooling Tamil aspirations, were only repressing them. One man told me that peace would be so easy, if only the Sinhalese were not so hard. It wasn’t clear if he was asking for equal rights, an autonomous Tamil region, or outright independence, but were those things so terrible that they had to be prevented at any cost? Staying up north, I missed the Sinhalese reply. I did take a bicycle down to Jaffna’s main fish market. It’s only a few blocks from some ruins that are all that’s left, I suspect, of the house occupied by Sir William Twynam. Succeeding Percival Ackland Dyke, Twynam had been “Rajah of Jaffna” from 1869 to 1897 and apparently had to be shoehorned out of his post. Even then he did not leave Jaffna, instead moving to a house on Beach Road. Twynam lived until 1922. I suspect that his house became the Grand Hotel, which had fallen on hard times when Lonely Planet came by in the early 1980s. By the time I saw it, only one gable-end wall was intact. The nearby fish market was just a roofed space across a narrow road from a seawall. Dories came abreast of the wall with their floorboards piled with fish, and men used plastic buckets to unload the catch and dump it on the concrete floor of the market. A scrum of men—all men—negotiated the sale of tuna and barracuda, crabs, shrimp, and fish so small you could swallow two at a time. The near-shore water was blanketed with floating trash that piled up wherever there was a bit of beach. A spiffy new billboard urged Jaffnans to keep their city clean.

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It's three months later, and the flights are running smoothly. 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. The nearest one from here is more than a hundred miles to the south.

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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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Land o'Goshen! 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: more Diaspora Tamils.

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Another palace, 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 probably of the Grand Hotel, which was in business--barely--in the 1970s. Earlier, it had possibly 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--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, 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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Close-up.

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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 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 are 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 that the Emerald City's Royal Palace helped the mighty Oz.

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Unimpressed, banyons go about their insidious work of demolition.

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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). Odd way of showing it!

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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 squirrelled away after what 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 heathen 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 when it's 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 not so rigidly 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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A lot of these missionaries were tough birds. Case in point: Eliza Agnew, 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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But sorry, we're here for the churches that cluster at the nearby village of Kayts (pronounced "kites"). Here's the oldest of them, St. James, and it sets the standard. It also raises the pesky 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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Tiddly.

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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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The village of 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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What's more striking is the array of brutal medallions lining the walls.

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Must have scared the hell out of generations of kids.

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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 higher or lower caste. 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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It's easier for an outsider to understand how in a civil war houses get wrecked, like this one on the road to Kayts.

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The classic entrance, complete with classical columns and the traditional 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 theTamil 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 violent 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 expert official condemnation of building this "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's no hill 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 homes or 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's 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, 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 his family home was obliterated and the site is now 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 more than 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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