Sri Lanka, As It Heals From War



NEW YORK, NEW YORK, March 15, 2013 (New York Times, by Amy Karafin): My two-week trip here last June was my second visit to the Jaffna Peninsula, a 400-square-mile expanse of Technicolor temples and arid, surreally beautiful landscapes in northern Sri Lanka that have only recently opened to tourists after a 26-year civil war. I had traveled there in 2011 to research a guidebook, but that trip had been packed with activity; this time I wanted to explore the area at my own pace. So, basing myself in a guesthouse in the capital of Jaffna on the peninsula’s southwest coast, I returned to linger in the region’s temples and visit the tiny islands offshore.

One of the first things I did was hire a car and driver and travel 10 miles to the Maviddapuram Kandaswamy Temple, where I had received a warm welcome from the priest’s family on my previous visit. Reminders of the war were all around. As we drove through the village of Maviddapuram, we passed abandoned houses; vegetation grew in former living rooms and banyan trees spilled over walls.

The temple itself had been hit hard during the war and is still being reconstructed. Much of the 17th-century structure that once stood there is gone, though its ornate 108-foot gopuram (tower), covered in sculptured Gods, has been rebuilt. Over and over again I would see evidence of the civil war, which began in 1983 and continued until 2009. During that time, militants seeking a separate Tamil state in the north and east (an area including the largely Tamil Jaffna peninsula) were pitted against the government, which had, since independence from the British in 1948, become dominated by pro-Sinhalese policies.

Two miles down the road, Maviddapuram’s sister temple, the ancient Naguleswaram Shiva Temple, has also been renewed: its interior now gleams with a thousand colors, and its sacred Keerimalai Spring is full of bathers seeking the mineral water’s healing powers. Guidebooks from 10 years ago mention that visitors may, if they are lucky, visit the spring after military searches and with an armed escort. But now travelers can go, as I did, escort-free, and, float in the pools (there is one just for women), thinking about the Tamil princess who discovered the sacred spring in the seventh century.

Elsewhere on the peninsula, damage from the war is also obvious, including in Jaffna, the largest city in the region, with a population of around 90,000. During the war, the capital, which is the spiritual and intellectual heart of Sri Lanka’s Tamil people, was caught in the cross-fire between the separatists and the government, neither of which fully represented its aspirations. Many believe that even though the fighting has ended, the disenfranchisement of Tamils from the political process continues.

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