October 11, 2013 7:19 pm

A place apart: islands off Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Peninsula

Out on the lagoon off Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Peninsula©John Gimlette

Out on the lagoon

All around me lay the remains of a tiny Irish empire: a mansion in ruins, some 60 wells and a sandy canal. Even the drystone walls were said to be an Irish idea, sprawling over the island.

Strictly speaking, it was an empire within an empire, although its creator paid little regard to British niceties. Appointed “Superintendant” in 1811, for 13 years Lieutenant Edward Nolan ran the Sri Lankan island of Delft like his own little raj – building, judging, planting, and making love to all the local girls. Even today, they say, many Delftians smile with Irish eyes.

Map of Sri Lanka

Looking around, it was easy to see how Nolan’s one-man empire had survived so long. The island and a dozen others off the northern city of Jaffna are in one of the remotest regions of Sri Lanka. Until the railway opened in 1905 it took three days just to make the 200-mile journey from Colombo to Jaffna. From there, an even sandier journey begins. While coral may hold it all together, this is an archipelago of dunes. There are no rivers and no ponds and the sea is seldom more than a few feet deep. It’s been perfect for coconuts, migrating birds and would-be sultans, like Edward Nolan.

I’d often been intrigued by Jaffna’s islands, but there was little encouragement to visit. I’d never met any Sri Lankans who had been there, and most thought it off limits after the civil war (1983-2009). As for the theevaar (or islanders), they were usually described as either wily entrepreneurs or complete hicks. It wasn’t much to go on. Meanwhile, maps or guidebooks proved hard to find, and the only hotels seemed to be run by the military. Even the guide who took me, a Tamil called Murali, had never actually been there before.

There was also the thorny political issue. Everyone entering the Jaffna Peninsula has to pass through a checkpoint, like airport security. It’s a sign that from now on, things will be different. There’ll be sentries everywhere, on every street, and even out on the saltiest of flats. Critics say the government is making use of this security regime to grab land and enrich itself. The state denies this, and points to the road gangs at work, and the dust from new construction work billowing out of the bomb-sites.

Tourists are faced with the tricky challenge of working out how to spend their money in ways which will benefit the local people, while avoiding enriching those accused of war crimes. One step is to stay in a private hotel. For me, this meant basing myself in Jaffna, one of the most defiant cities I’ve ever known. There were new ice-cream parlours among the ruins, and a bazaar blazing into the night. The main street was an outrageous bright yellow, and those that didn’t yet have shops worked on the kerb, including cobblers and typists. There was special affection for the old cars – Austin Cambridges and Morris Oxfords – that had kept the place going through the war. Now they gleam like new, and a good 1956 model will cost you “a million bucks” (meaning Sri Lankan rupees – around £5,000).

Nallur Kandaswamy Temple near Jaffna©Getty

Nallur Kandaswamy Temple near Jaffna

Everyone, it seemed, was busy forgetting the past. The city had changed hands three times in the war and, in 1995, it was evacuated (even the hospital was stripped). One day I went for a walk around the fort. Completed in 1792, it was once the greatest fortress in Asia. Now soldiers were clearing out the rubble. Among the debris I found a Tamil Tiger’s shirt with its distinctive horizontal stripes. It was a macabre reminder of how fierce – and recent – the fighting had been.

From the city we made several trips out to the islands. This was easier than it sounds because the bigger ones could be reached by causeways (one almost three miles long). I enjoyed the odd sensation of driving over the waves, taking the shallows at a height of 5ft. It’s probably the nearest I’ll ever get to being a seagull. Below us the lagoon was busy, with fishermen up to their waists. They looked like farmers reaping the sea.

Ahead a beautiful world took shape, or rather lost it. For a while, the landscape would be reduced to bands of blue and sand, with vast sweeps of silvery salt. Only the brawniest opportunists lived here – cormorants, fish eagles and brahminy kites. But soon, pushing farther into the island of Karaitivu, we were among flora again; briny bushes, oleander and the stately palmyra palm. Farms would appear, tiny tufts of brilliant green under this vast carapace of sky. On Karaitivu, life is lived around the well.

It was a while before we found settlements. In the islands’ history, few outsiders have known what to do with them. Early Arab traders called by, leaving only baobab trees. Marco Polo may have stopped over, as did the Portuguese. But it was the Dutch who were the first to enjoy this place, from 1658. Perhaps it reminded them of their own salt-washed archipelago, and so they gave the islands names like Rotterdam, Haarlem and Delft (though only the latter remains in use).

They even added an island of their own. The Portuguese had long had a stockade out on Karaitivu’s sandbanks, but the Dutch added a few thousand tons of coralstone and built a castle, Hammenheil. It is still there, small yet magnificent as ever, run for years by the navy, first as a secret prison and now as a boutique hotel for the chronically ghoulish.

Back in the trees, we suddenly found ourselves among mansions. I loved these places: rambling Indo-Saracenic fantasies, decorated with bulls and peacocks and fancy columns. It was the same on Kayts, another island just to the south. Over the centuries the islanders had grown rich, working abroad, trading, or selling elephants to India (a mere 40 miles away). All this – the villas, the giant quays and the red-striped lighthouse – belonged to a golden age. But now it was abandoned. “The war,” said Murali, “even here. People left.”

There were signs of the merchants returning. One day we joined a funeral party, where we drank pink milkshakes and made offerings to Shiva. Many of the mourners were from Malaysia, their first time back in 30 years. Some said they wanted to stay: “We’ve kept everything. Tamils never sell land.” In their plan for the islands, there was no place for anyone else: hotels, outsiders or government. I could see the struggle that lay ahead.

Sivan-Kvil Road in Jaffna©Getty

Sivan-Kvil Road in Jaffna

Each evening I returned to my own mansions near Jaffna. The first, the Margosa, was a mini-palace – like those I’d seen on the islands, except rich in colour and cooking. My second hotel, the Jaffna Heritage, was more modern; a cool, low-slung building in olive green and teak.

My last island visit was the most memorable of all. This time, we took the causeways as far as we could go, across Kayts and past the lumpy old sailboats of Punkudutivu. At the end of the road was a crowd. Some were pilgrims, heading for Nainativu (where, they say, Buddha preached on his second visit to Sri Lanka). The rest of us were packed into an old wooden ferry (180 passengers, seats for 100). It was a long, hot hour on the choppy, dark sea, but the reward for it all was Delft.

Everyone loves Delft, also known as Neduntheevu, and even the war seemed to pass it by. About half the size of Jersey, it’s still home to 5,000 islanders, 5,000 cows and a herd of wild horses. In the rains, everyone rushes about, teasing onions out of the sand. The rest of the time there’s no rush at all, and life has a dreamy antique feel; no cars, no plastic and nowhere to eat (if you want lunch, ask the pretty girl who cooks for the council). We hired a tuk-tuk and set off through the lanes.

Everyone has left a bit of themselves here. There are the tell-tale baobabs and some chunky Arab doors, built so small you have to crouch. The Portuguese left a fort – like a giant, crumbling cake – and the horses. Then there’s the Irish empire, and the stables Nolan built for a hundred newly broken steeds. In 1819 he was finally tried for abuse of power, and – on the islanders’ evidence – gloriously acquitted. He died in Ireland 45 years later.

Before leaving I went to watch the horses – free again – grazing the crisp red grass at the end of the island. Despite their foreign genes, they have about them something of the spirit of this archipelago: magnificent, disowned and obstinately wild.

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Fort, Colombo: New life in the district that bombers left for dead

Cargills department store, a Fort landmark since 1906©Getty

Cargills department store, a Fort landmark since 1906

For years, visitors have avoided Fort, Colombo’s old business quarter. When I first walked through it, I didn’t know whether to be charmed or appalled. The art deco was flaking away; banks were sprouting trees, and Cargills, the great candy-striped department store built in 1906, was open but almost empty, ghostly rectangles where the cabinets had been. It wasn’t just a case of faded grandeur, Fort was showing signs of terminal neglect.

Even the Grand Oriental Hotel was two-thirds abandoned. Bella Woolf once wrote that if you waited here long enough, you’d meet everyone (and, sure enough, Chekhov and Twain were among the guests). But these days, you wouldn’t want to linger. The waiters wear slightly creepy sailor suits, and Tchaikovsky rumbles out of the gloom. The GOH’S only redeeming feature is the view from the restaurant, a truly Victorian scene of ships and steam.

It’s hard to believe all this was once the hub of a great Asian city. Ibn Battuta called by, and Ptolemy marked the site on his map. The Portuguese built the first fort (1517), and the Dutch the second (1656). You can still find traces of the “Hollanders” – ramparts, barracks and the governor’s residence (now a church). Then there are the great, crumbling British streets – Chatham, Duke and York.

So what happened? How did this pearl of the Orient become its Havana? “Terrorists,” people explained, “and bombs.” On a single day in 1984, five exploded here. After that you couldn’t park, and Fort began to choke on its checkpoints. Business left first, followed by the government, and the district began to die.

But now there are signs of life again. The barricades have mostly gone, and a few swanky cocktail bars have opened on Chatham. Every day, pavements are torn up, new ones laid, and colour is seeping back. Most exuberant of all is the old Dutch Hospital, built in 1681. Once a mouldy police station, these days it’s the Covent Garden of the city, complete with bands and outdoor cafés. I even had a massage in the surgeon’s old quarters, now a chic, black-uniformed spa (www.spaceylon.com).

There are even more ambitious plans ahead. Next year a “seven-star” Shangri-La hotel will appear, and there’s talk of a Four Seasons and even a Raffles. But if it’s calm you’re after (and a bit of old Ceylon), you need to drive a few minutes south. Two places stand out. The Park Street Hotel is an ancient aristocratic mansion, brightly refurbished. Even more palatial is Tintagel. I slept in the lavishly corniced nursery of a former president. It will be a while before Fort achieves serenity like that.

Not everyone’s happy with the changes afoot. Some accuse the government of driving development along, and skimming off the cream. Others like Fort just as it is. Conservationists fear the render and plastic cannons (yes, they’re coming), and film-makers will miss the dust and decay (even Duran Duran once made a video here, in some decomposing tea-rooms). As for the drunks, they’ll miss the oldest and sleaziest bars in Colombo, where a shot of arrack costs 25c (or 15p).

But, whatever the changes, I’ll be back. The details won’t change; the gypsy with a cobra; the street cricket; an elephant in a truck; the little khaki tuk-tuks marked “SL ARMY”. In this fabulous city of surprises, I suspect that Fort will always be the place to pick up the drama.

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John Gimlette was a guest of the Experience Travel Group (www.experiencetravelgroup.com), which is recommended by the charity Tourism Concern for providing “ethical” holidays to Sri Lanka. It offers a two-week trip to the north and east from £1,879, excluding flights. Sri Lankan (www.srilankan.com) flies from London to Colombo daily; returns from £547. The Expo Pavilion Margosa hotel (www.jaffna.travel) has doubles from £95 per night; the Jaffna Heritage (www.jaffnaheritage.com) from £60

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