On last night’s bus ride from Jaffna, I met a very interesting person, who sat next to me, and without asking, paid for my fare. He was a young hardware salesperson and engineer who was just married in Vavuniya. His English was superb, and he was really kind.
Sadly, in the war, his brother went missing. He paid an extortionate amount to the LTTE to smuggle him out on a boat, headed for Australia. The conditions on the boat were horrid, cramped hungry and sickening. His boat was picked up off the coast of Indonesia by the Indonesian Navy. Before his, or any of the other people on the boat, could have their refugee status application analysed (in Australia, seemingly at the discretion of the minister), since they were in international waters, they were “escorted” back to Sri Lanka.
Back to the war zone where his brother had disappeared.
Back to the country tens of thousands of civilians were to die in the closing months of the war.
He is lucky to have survived. I am lucky that he treated me so nicely as a stranger in his country, considering the pains and consequences he went through to try to visit my country.
Arriving at Jaffna, I was in awe at the development that had occurred since last time I was here. The famous Jaffna teaching hospital was being refurbished, Nallur Kovil had a new pyramid entrance built and shopping centres more than 4 stories high seemed to be popping up everywhere. The Jaffna charm was still there, though, with the plethora of ’50’s cars still lining the roads.
I checked into a spartan, but cheap, serviceable and friendly “Jaffna Lodge” (about 9 AUD a night, a great bathroom/shower, a bed that was literally made from corrugated cardboard, but was surprisingly comfortable, and lovely staff) and was off to sleep .
The next morning, after the requisite hour of phone conversation with some idiot Southern USA girl about trying to cancel my master-card (when I told her I was in Sri Lanka, she seemed to forget that I knew English, and began speaking slowly and loudly), I was off to enjoy my favourite places in Jaffna on my day off.
A stroll (a bit longer than usual, getting lost a few times on the way) and I was at the most grand temple in Jaffna, the Nallur Kovil, dedicated (I think, though I may be wrong) to the 5 faced god Murugan - patron god of the Tamil people.
The new pyramid which had only been scaffolding last time I came was now complete, standing tall (100 ft!) and golden above the red and white candy-striped walls of the temple. Walking into the sandy courtyard outside the temple, I take of my shoes and set them aside. I smash a coconut (as do the others) as an offering on a darkened stone in front of the temple entrance and i take my last photo — inside the temple, photos aren’t allowed.
As I walk into the temple, like all the other men, I take my shirt off. I hear the Vedic chants of the Brahmin (the priestly caste) Ayer’s (priests) coming from the altar of the temple, the bells ringing, the horn blowing. Walking around the temple, I look at the murals: epic depictions of the feats of Murugan and the other gods. The roof is lined with tiny curtains that bellow with the wind and make it seem like the building is alive, and, indeed, breathing.
I walk through the temple, stopping in front of each god’s shrine, walking around the shrines with the other visitors to the temple. I tie a nominal coin donation to the tree in the courtyard, already mummified with colourful donations.
The ceremonial pond, surrounded by staircases going down to the water, is now full, bloated in the wet-season. When I came here in July, I could see right down the depths of this well, now, the water came up to greet me.
I make my way back to the central altar, because I hear a Puja starting. Bells. Horns. Tambourines. Chanting. Offerings from the masses placed in front of the gods via the Brahmins of the temple. The Brahmins were dressed in white fringed sarongs, with their ceremonial 4 stranded string lying casually over their shoulder and beaded prayer necklaces hanging off their necks. Each one had long hair (of varying degrees of whiteness), an intense look in their eyes and purposefulness and efficiency in their movements. A complex three shade Pottu adorned their forehead.
After the first round of prayer, the devotees offer slips paper (marked 100 – they probably cost a dollar each) to a Brahmin, who utters a prayer in each of their names and places the offerings in front of a shrine to the right of the main altar. I stay back, not wanting to offend anyone with my ignorance.
A younger Brahmin calls me forward sees my confusion and says “name”.
I reply “Yohanan” — what the locals call me and what I think is easiest for them to say.
The Ayer responds with “Yohanan” followed by some chanting: brief, but purposeful chanting.
He offers me the plate of ash. Again, seeing my confusion, he dips his finger in the turmeric paste (or Saffron? The yellow coloured paste) and marks my head with a Pottu. He then pinches some ash between his fingers and puts a line above the Pottu he had drawn.
I pace my hands in front of my (like the other devotees) and step away, but he calls me forward again. He takes the candelabra that he had next to him, calls together the other Ayers and parades around one of the idols. After, he brings the candelabra to me, and takes my hands in his, putting them over the fire to feel the warmth. The other devotees rush forth to put their hands, too, over the fire.
I say “Rommah Naandri” (many thanks) and I step back, my hands again clasped in front of me.
I take a seat and listen the rest of the chants and songs, and lose track of time sitting in the sand in the temple that was breathing around me.
As much as the temple is a ritual, so is the post-temple requirement for all adults to take their children to the famous Rio Ice-Cream Parlour. A happy, busy place surrounded by empty pretenders. A decent ice-cream too! Not really that delicious, but the atmosphere and presentation is remarkable!
After my quick ice-cream and a stroll through the markets, I head back to the “hotel” to read about what had just happened in Nallur Kovil, and found myself on a multi-hour Hindu Mythology Binge. After hearing these amazing stories, I totally wanted to read some of the primary sources, especially the Ramayana, who’s story seemed fascinating. Then, I read that these epic stories are literally 10-20 volumes long. Maybe I should save it for an especially cold winter’s day then.
In the evening, I, again go for a walk, this time on the seedy side of Jaffna on the way to the lagoon. Where the main street is filled with bright lights, flashy old cars in ridiculous colours and scaffolding towering high into the night, the side streets still bear the scars of war. Half-buildings that are now squats. Roofless buildings turned into concrete lace by gunfire and shelling. Children playing on the sides of the street. Teens and older men sitting drunk on sandbanks on the side of the road.
I make it to the beach, but where I was expecting a promenade, there was a navy base, with a 18 year old Sinhala speaking soldier telling me to turn off my flashlight and head back. Hearing the target practice in the base behind me, and seeing the darkness around me, I became (I confess) a tad nervous. I headed back in the direction that I came and became horribly lost. I look to my iPhone’s GPS for guidance – No Service (thanks Etisalat!).
Thankfully, the drunks in Jaffna are ridiculously friendly and have great senses of direction. After chatting with a cycle-gang of older teens with their bottles of Arak and Lion Lager at their side — the alcohol on their breath stinging my nostrils as I tried to keep a friendly face — one of them told me to hop on the back of his bicycle.
Not wanting to get on the wrong side of a gang of twenty somethings (even ones on bicycles that were friendly and spoke good English) I jumped on to the handlebars of the bike, and in a few minutes I was home at the hotel – with a new Facebook friend to boot!
This time, when I visited Jaffna, I didn’t get to see my awesome friend Paran, or visit Jana or Karthi’s families, but I will be there again in a few days, and I hope to meet up with them soon!