Chennai - Jaffna in 90 minutes

After a hearty breakfast in Chennai, you can now fly to the north of Lanka in 90 minutes, and just in time for lunch, courtesy direct flights from Alliance Air starting Monday

When India and Sri Lanka firmed up plans to run flights between Chennai and the northern city of Jaffna some months ago, the announcement invoked instant nostalgia for many in the island’s north.

Gushing on social media, they recalled flying into Chennai or Tiruchi in the 1970s to give their London A-level exams, for some quick wedding shopping, or even a temple tour. The flight service — some remember the Air Ceylon Dakota aircraft they boarded — was suspended for a host of reasons, and Sri Lanka’s civil war that spanned over 30 years until 2009 made its revival impossible. Starting November 11, operations are set to re-commence after four decades and understandably, the residents of Jaffna are thrilled.

The Palaly airport, now renamed Jaffna International Airport, after an upgrade with Indian assistance, is less than a half-an-hour’s drive from Jaffna town. “Logistically it’s just a flight connection to south India, but the opportunities that come with it are so vast,” says T. Shanaathanan, a visual artist, who teaches art history at the University of Jaffna. “I mean, we can go to events like the Kochi-Muziris Biennale so easily.” As opposed to travelling via capital Colombo, that could take about eight hours and many army check points, especially during the war and soon after, by road; or an infrequent, expensive two-hour flight from Jaffna to Colombo.

Alliance Air, a subsidiary of Air India, on Thursday announced the launch of direct flights between Jaffna and Chennai thrice a week. The duration of the flight is less than 1.5 hours.

“We can now go for art exhibitions and discussions, we can fly across for lit fests even if we are not invited as speakers, we can link up with universities, there’s just so much we can do,” says Shanaathanan. “Personally, I am just so excited.”

The possibility of frequent travel and cultural exchange may seem a novelty now, but it was the norm in the pre-colonial era, according to the art historian. Be it the shared history of churches in Jaffna, Kerala and Goa, the temple ties between Shiva temples in the north-east of Sri Lanka and Chidambaram, the artistic links and culinary similarities, the bond that was maintained through exchange via sea ports was “solid”.

“And it was not just about Tamil Nadu, but about being linked to a region, with a narrow (Palk) strait separating us. The borders were drawn more clearly by the modern, post-colonial states and they grew rigid with time. Until then, we didn’t think of ourselves as an island,” says Shanaathanan.

It is not just Sri Lankans who have much to look forward to with the new service. Indian tourists and others visiting Sri Lanka, via India, now have a different point of entry to Sri Lanka. One that could possibly give a different perspective of the island too.

Until now, tourists — the highest number are from India — visiting Sri Lanka arrive in Colombo, drive down to the southern beaches or to the central hills, perhaps to archaeological sites in the north-central parts, and then proceed to the north, often for temple tours.

A Jaffna entry to Sri Lanka offers a new lens. There’s a lot to do, even for those who aren’t avid temple-goers. Like taking a ferry ride to Delft island off the peninsula, or a dip at the sparkling-clean Casuarina beach, watching the sunset from the Jaffna fort — built by the Portuguese and taken over by the Dutch — or taking a stroll around the charming temple town of Nallur with many eateries and Jaffna’s most-loved ice cream joint Rio. Many of these sites were silent witnesses to the brutality of the war, but they are also sites of unmistakable resilience.

For foodies, Jaffna’s signature crab and mutton curries are a must, with flavours you get nowhere else. And there’s local Palmyra arrack for the high-spirited.

With new, high-end boutique hotels, homestays and business hotels growing over the last few years, the options for accommodation are many. “The demand was so high that our management decided to take over and run a second hotel,” says Gangaiamaran Ramachandran, assistant manager at the Jetwing Hotel. “For pilgrims there are ancient temples (Thirukoneswaram and Thiruketheeswaram), for those interested in ancient sites there is Nagadeepa (Buddhist temple) and those looking to try new cuisine will find the Jaffna food unique. Even within the Tamil provinces (north and east), the cuisine is very, very diverse,” he says. It is all in the mix of spices and that tinge of coconut milk, locals would tell you.

Further, tourists could travel south and explore the rest of the country, perhaps making a first stop at the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, which fans of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s epic historical novel Ponniyin Selvan, substantially based here, will find fascinating.

“First, we had the A9 (main highway connecting Sri Lanka’s south to the north), then the railway link from the south was restored, and now this flight connection to south India. This is going to be a major boost for Jaffna,” says Gangaiamaran.

Source - The Hindu

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