Jaffna is a large town situated on a peninsula, which is separated from the mainland by a shallow lagoon, called Elephant Pass. A quaint little fort, built by the Dutch in the eighteenth century to guard against incursions of hostile Singhalese, stands at the head of the ford. Elephants attempting to cross the lagoon sometimes sink in the mud and perish. In the rainy season flamingos may be seen feeding in long lines, like regiments, also numbers of bag-billed pelicans and clouds of wild-duck and teal.
The most noticeable features of the peninsula are the red soil and the palmyras, one of the ugliest and at the same time one of the most useful of the palms. Its stem affords most durable timber, its leaves are used for a variety of purposes, its fruit is largely eaten, and from its sap is made arrack and coarse sugar, called jaggery.
What are called " married trees" may often be seen, being a palmyra palm growing out of the centre of a spreading banian-tree. Jaffna is famous for its luscious mangoes, and the coral-tree, with its red blossoms, is a common sight.
At certain seasons the whole country is covered with tobacco gardens, and the way the plants are watered from wells is most interesting. The water is raised in large palm-leaf baskets, hanging from poles swinging on supports and weighted at the lower ends. Men walk down and up the poles, holding on to hand-rails, causing the baskets to dip into the wells, and then to rise brimming with water, which is made to flow down runnels between the plants.
The people of Jaffna are all Tamils, and are most intelligent, industrious, and enterprising. The vast majority of them are worshippers of the heathen god Siva, to whom many temples have been dedicated throughout the peninsula, most of them with highly ornate gopurams, or towers. Strange sights may be seen at these temples on festival days—the dragging of lofty idol-cars through the streets, attended with native musicians and dancing-girls ; the bathing of idols in sacred tanks ; men and women rolling round the temple walls, or measuring the way in a series of prostrations ; devotees walking on spiked sandals, or with skewers through their cheeks and tongues, or with hooks fixed in the skin of their backs with reins attached, by which they are driven by admiring relatives, as children " play at horses "!
For sixty or seventy years Protestant missions, chiefly American and Wesleyan, have been at work among these people, with marked results. The Roman Catholics have also many converts and churches.
There is a large fort at Jaffna, built by the Dutch in the middle of the eighteenth century, with a wide moat around it. It is probably the finest specimen of an old-world fortification in the East. The story of its building by forced labour is a strange one. It is said that the coral stones used in its construction were conveyed from Kankaisanturai, eleven miles distant, by a line of men and women, who passed them from hand to hand all the way!
One of the sights of the peninsula is the Putoor Well, a natural circular hollow in the ground. The water is very deep, and is said to have communication with the sea, though some miles distant. The idea arose no doubt from the fact that the water is fresh at the top, but salt at lower depths.
There are a number of islands off the west coast, on one of which, usually spoken of by its Dutch name of Delft, there are herds of semi-wild horses, the descendants of blood-stock maintained by the Dutch when they ruled in Ceylon. They have greatly deteriorated since then, and are now weedy, cow-hocked creatures, of little value.
At the northern end of the lagoon on the shores of which Jaffna is built is a curious and picturesque little fort, called Hammenheil, on a rock in the sea. It is now used as a quarantine station, to guard against the introduction of plague from India.
At Point Pedro, the most northerly point of Ceylon, may be seen many catamarans, the most primitive sea-going craft in the world. They are simply rafts, generally made of five logs of soft wood, rigged with a picturesque peaked sail, fixed in a short forked mast. .Forty or fifty years ago there was a regular catamaran mail-service between North Ceylon and South India.