Mannar Island is a beautiful, eerily dry near-peninsula with lots of white sand and palm trees, gulls and terns, wild donkeys, and little lanes and fishing boats. Jutting out into the Palk Strait, the island is only about 30km from India. Because of its location, Mannar Island was hard hit by the war: it was a major exit and entry point to and from India, and became a key host of refugees. The island’s large Muslim population was driven out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1990, and some of the land is still mined. The Vavuniya–Mannar road was aggressively fought over, and most of the villages along it were abandoned; bunkers and watchtowers still dot the road at 50m intervals.
But despite all that, the town of Mannar, reached via a 3km-long causeway from the mainland, is a pleasant place. There’s not much here for tourists, but it’s quiet and more appealing than Vavuniya if you want to break up a Colombo–Jaffna trip. The town has a Portuguese-Dutch star fortress, which is an out-of-bounds military camp, and a big, exotic baobab tree, 1.2km northeast of town. The tree is believed to have been planted in 1477 by Arab traders; it’s shaped like a giant ball, with a 19m circumference.
About 38km from town, at the western end of the island is Talaimannar; long ago, ferries to Rameswaram, India, departed from a nearby pier. Offshore is Adam’s Bridge – a chain of reefs, sandbanks and islets that nearly connects Sri Lanka to Rameswaram. In the Ramayana these were the stepping stones that the monkey king Hanuman used in his bid to help rescue Rama’s wife Sita from Rawana, the demon king of Lanka. Along the coast, an abandoned lighthouse marks the start of Adam’s Bridge. The navy now occupies this area and runsboat trips to the first of the Bridge’s sandbars.
In the other direction, about 13km from Mannar on the mainland, is Thirukketeeswaram Kovil. Like Naguleswaram Kovil, Thirukketeeswaram is one of the pancha ishwaram, the five historical Sri Lankan Shiva temples established to protect the island from natural disaster. It’s an imposing site, with a towering, colourful gopuram. Ranged around the temple are pavilions containing five gigantic floats, called juggernauts, that are wheeled out each February for the impressive Maha Sivarathiri festival. Thirukketeeswaram Kovil is 4.5km down a side road off the Mannar–Vavuniya road between the 76km and 77km markers. Buses from Mannar are frequent; three-wheelers charge Rs 800 for the round trip.