For centuries Jaffna (or Yarl) has been Sri Lanka’s Hindu-Tamil cultural and religious centre, although the 17th-century Portuguese tried hard to change that. In 1620 they captured Jaffna’s King Sangli (whose horseback statue stands on Point Pedro Rd), then set about systematically demolishing the city’s fabulous Hindu temples. A substantial wave of mass Christian conversions followed – hence all the beautiful churches. Many Hindu temples were not rebuilt until the mid-19th century.
Jaffna surrendered to the Dutch after a bitter three-month siege in 1658. Various Portuguese and Dutch fortifications remain dotted around the peninsula, but most are either ruined or still in military use (and so are inaccessible to tourists).
In 1795 the British took over Jaffna, sowing the seeds of future interethnic unrest by ‘favouring’ the Jaffna Tamils.
Escalating tensions overwhelmed Jaffna in the early 1980s, and for two decades the city became a no-go war zone. Variously besieged by Tamil guerrillas, SLA troops and the so-called peace-keeping force, the city lost much of its population to emigration. In 1990 the LTTE forced out most Muslims, though around 3000 have now returned.
Somehow Jaffna survived the endless bombings and a crippling blockade (kerosene once retailed here for 20 times the market price). In the sudden peace created by the 2002 accords, Jaffna sprang back to life. Today the town feels ‘occupied’ but surprisingly calm and relaxed. Although the town has been officially held by the government since 1995, in fact the LTTE wields considerable real power. Unlucky Jaffna citizens pay tax twice: both to the government and to the Tigers.