Everything else.. Celebrating Yalpanam: A Journey through Jaffna’s Rich Legacy

Celebrating Yalpanam: A Journey through Jaffna’s Rich Legacy

2020 Jul 30


Jaffna, the bastion of Hindu-Tamil heritage, located on the Northern tip of Sri Lanka, is a region of timeless beauty and poetic charm. Before this bustling city witnessed the scourge of a civil war, Jaffna, known in Tamil as Yalpanam, was once the second most populous city of the island. The city is home to an ensemble of creative culture, delectable cuisine and historic sites that still stand tall despite being deeply affected by decades of war, emigration and loss to life and property. Here, we journey through the many shifts that Jaffna underwent through the years and celebrate its rich legacy that has persevered over time.

The Kingdom of Jaffna

The origins of the Kingdom of Jaffna, also known as the Kingdom of Aryachakravarti, has been contested but most historians point to the year 1215 CE as its founding with the invasion of Magha. A major development that followed the consolidation of power by the Aryachakravartis was the establishment of Nallur as the capital of Jaffna. Signs of a distinct population in the region has not been identified until after the 13th century, following a culmination of social and political developments. 

Following 150 years of rule by Aryachakravartis of Jaffna, the kingdom was annexed to the Kingdom of Kotte during the reign of Parakramabahu VI, following an invasion led by Prince Sapumal, the King’s adopted son. However, the Kingdom of Jaffna, with the restoration of the Cinkaiyariyan dynasty, regained its independence following the disintegration of the Kotte Kingdom around the year 1467. 

At the time, it is said that the Kingdom did not have any threat of a South Indian invasion. Similarly, the Kingdom of Kotte was witnessing a sharp decline and the Kandyan Kingdom showed no plans of conquest. Interestingly, lines of communication between the Kingdoms of Jaffna and Kandy have been recorded as they were used for the purpose of trade. It was with the invasion of the Portuguese in 1505 that the Kingdom of Jaffna witnessed the end of its glory days. 

This Sangiliyan statue is dedicated to Cankili II, the last king of  the Jaffna Kingdom. The statue is seen as a landmark of the city of Jaffna.


Antique map of Jafnapatnam and adjacent islands (copper engraving). The province of Jaffna, and specially the fort at Jaffnapatnam were the last Portuguese holdings in Ceylon before they were driven out by the Dutch in 1658. Printed in 1672 by Ph. Baldaeus.

The colonial era

In its early stage, the Portuguese showed minimal interest in Jaffna as they were preoccupied with gaining ground in South India and South Western parts of Sri Lanka for the region’s coveted spices such as cinnamon and pepper. Jaffna initially caught the attention of the Portuguese due to several reasons, including the strategic location of lucrative markets, Jaffna’s Vannimai chieftaincies who were considered supporters of anti Portuguese groups within the Kotte Kingdom and the interference of Roman Catholic  missionary activities that were central to Portuguese interests. They also feared that the Kingdom would eventually be subjugated by the Dutch. Therefore, in the year 1620, they captured the last king of Jaffna, Cankili II, whose statue still stands near the Royal Palace ruins to this day, by both naval and land expedition. The events that ensued carried a lot of loss to lives and property, including the destruction of several sacred Hindu temples. A wave of religious conversions to Christianity under the influence of Portuguese missionary activities was a significant change that occurred in the region during this time.

Jaffna was subsequently ruled under the patronage of Phillippe de Oliveira who moved the capital of Jaffna from Nallur to Jaffnapatao, and served as Captain-major until his death in 1627. The famous Jaffna Port, or Yaḻppanak Koṭtai, located near the coastal town of Gurunagar, was built during his time. The iconic fort was later rebuilt by the Dutch in the second half of the 18th century. 

Following a three-month siege, the Portuguese lost Jaffnapatao to the Dutch East India Company in 1658. Jaffna lived through 140 years of Dutch colonial rule, during which the region became a significant hub for trade. According to historical accounts, the Dutch were perceived as more tolerant than their Portuguese counterparts. Much of the Hindu temples and property were rebuilt and native religious practices were allowed. Apart from the large scale refurbishment of the Jaffna Fort, a host of Presbyterian churches and government buildings propped up in the region. 

Jaffna prospered further under British colonial rule from 1795 onward. The region witnessed a sudden rise in literacy among the Jaffna population. This development is attributed to the establishment of schools built by several Christian missionaries at the time. Jaffna witnessed rising levels of prosperity and development, including the building of new roads and railways that connected the region to Colombo, Kandy and other parts of the island.


Following independence from Britain in 1948, Jaffna became overwhelmed with ethnic tensions that led to a thirty-year civil war. For over twenty years, what was once a region of priceless heritage turned into a turbulent war-zone. Due to the conflict, a significant portion of the Jaffna population was lost to emigration overseas or to other parts of the island. The burning of the historic Jaffna library in 1981, which housed several significant books and documents and was one of the biggest libraries in Asia, was a particularly devastating moment in the island’s history. Despite a brief period of relative peace following the peace accords of 2002, tensions arose in 2006 and continued until the end of the war in 2009. 

Today, the wounds of a bloody thirty-year civil war go beyond just the rubble and cracked concrete of the city’s buildings. Its scars persist among much of Jaffna’s population. However, the city has re-embraced its vibrant culture and its social fabric has sprung back to life. Post-war reconstruction is well underway and efforts to heal the wounds of the past are the hope of many. 

History and Heritage

Jaffna’s history, tradition, arts and culture are beautifully interwoven within these historic sites and notable landmarks. They help tell the story of Jaffna’s rich legacy and is well worth your attention. 


1. Nallur Kandasamy Kovil

The renowned Nallur Kandasamy Kovil dedicated to Murugan (or Skanda) -the god of love, war and beauty, has attracted devotees, tourists and locals alike, through the years. Originally built in 948 A.D, the Kovil found its glory when it was rebuilt by Puvaneka Vaahu and several others, including Prince Sapumal, during various junctures in time. Nallur, the city that the Kovil is named after, served as the capital city during the rule of monarchs, owing to its strategic location and defensive fort. 

The architectural legacy of this Kovil is reflected through the four gold-encrusted kopurams (gateway towers), an outer courtyard, the holy bathing well (theertha keni), shrines and other significant elements. In the olden days, the outer circles were left for business matters and the so-called commoners who resided there while the inner circles were dedicated to the nobles. 

The temple’s main entrance faces the East and carries a gold-encrusted five-story tower. At present, the inner circle holds the shrines of Lords Ganesh, Vairavar, Sun and Sandana Gopala. The holy pond and the Thandayudhapaani shrine is located in the southern wing. 


2. Jaffna Public Library

The burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981 has been written down in history as one of the worst cases of biblioclasm in modern history. The historic building housed 97,000 volumes of valuable material, including palm leaf manuscripts and irreplaceable ancient texts, which were destroyed through the fire. With generous donations from well-wishers, the library was rebuilt and completed by the year 2001, making it one of the first major buildings that were refurbished after the ceasefire. 

The historic site stands tall with its gleaming white finish and classical lines; as a testament of the resilience of the city it represents. The building remains true to the former prowess of neo-Mughal design and is considered an architectural marvel across Sri Lanka and the wider region.


3. Jaffna Fort

Once considered one of the greatest Dutch forts in Asia, the Jaffna fort was built in 1680 by Phillippe de Oliveira, over a previously assembled Portuguese construction. The defensive triangles produced in the classic Vaubenesque star form was added later in 1792. Such a concept was one that was popular in Italy during the 15th century. It is the second biggest Dutch fort built in Sri Lanka, according to the Department of Archeology, who mentions that a portion of its seaside rampart and a few monuments had been destroyed during the civil war. The tunnels of the Fort, however, have been well-preserved. Signs of Dutch architecture can be seen through the short parapet walls and access to the rampart with an ornate trellis balustrade, known to have functioned as a pathway for the Dutch to transport arms. 

In an effort to reconstruct the site that had been badly damaged due to the civil war, the Dutch government offered to archaeologically renovate the Fort. However, the project did not reach full completion. The many treasures that were found in the Fort, such as ancient coins and medieval pottery, are indicative that the site was once a place of significant importance. 


4. Elephant Pass

Elephant Pass, also known colloquially as the Gateway to Jaffna, is a narrow causeway that connects Chavakacheri of the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the island. Vistas of table-flat salt fields extended across miles in this area and produced around 60,000 – 80,000 metric tons of salt every year before operation ceased due to the civil war. At present, post-war reconstruction is underway through the Elephant Pass saltern project with the reconstruction of the reservoir, construction of spillways and seawater intake. 

Its strategic location made causes the Pass to become a military base in 1760 when the Portuguese built a fort which was later garrisoned by the Dutch in 1776. It also served as a military base for the Sri Lankan army during the civil war and was a contested spot by the LTTE who tried to take over the strategic location at various junctures during the war in 1991, 2000 and 2009. Today, it holds two major war memorials that attract tourists and locals around the year. 


5. Cankili Thoppu Archway and Mantiri Manai

The Cankili Thoppu archway, otherwise known as Poothathamby arch, is a historic site down Point Pedro road, thought to be one of the Pandiya Royal Palace’s original entrances. Despite being weather-beaten at present, an intricate carving of an inscription to King Sangili from the year 1519, still remains. Similarly, the Mantiri Manai is another archaeologically protected site believed to have been the residence of one of the Ministers of Cankili, prior to the disintegration of the Kingdom of Jaffna due to the Portuguese invasion. The origins of this site are contested by historians, some of whom date it to the Jaffna Kingdom while others believe that it was built during the Portuguese or Dutch era. 

These historic landmarks are but a fraction of what Jaffna has to offer. Despite being subject to many vulnerabilities during the civil war, much of these sites reflect the resilience and splendor of an era long gone. 

A legacy of resilience 

Tamil culture certainly has its own rhythms and easy ambience. Such traditions are springing back to life as locals re-focus on a future that would revive the rich traditions and customs of this wonderful city. Given its recent history, the people and places of Jaffna continue to resemble a vibrant exuberance of spirituality, culture and history. From the city’s regal and colonial legacy to the arts and customs that have stood the test of time, there is a lot to love surrounding our wondrous Yalpanam