Along the crumbling walls of Jaffna Fort Sri Lanka

Holland, Zeeland, Gelderland, Utrecht and Friesland faced away from each other in five unique directions.
One offered the view of the snapping crocodiles while the other two faced the calm Jaffna Lagoon. 
The remaining had the guards vigilant of breaches that could emerge from the city.

Not one could enter without being seen but many within could escape unseen.
Such was the ingenuity of the Dutch construction at the Jaffna Fort Sri Lanka.

It was my 2nd visit to Sri Lanka when I got an opportunity to discover the colonial history of Sri Lanka with a visit to Galle Fort. The Dutch construction that converted the small mud fort into a booming citadel did make quite an impression on me. Naturally, when I got a chance to see another one of the Dutch forts in Sri Lanka, I jumped at it. Jaffna Fort Sri Lanka very clearly exhibits the ingenious construction techniques that the Dutch employed. It may not be a thriving citadel anymore but it sure has its own story to tell.

Jaffna Fort Sri Lanka - one of the many Dutch forts in the country
Jaffna Fort Sri Lanka – one of the many Dutch forts in the country

Walking along the ruins of the Jaffna Dutch fort did bring out the Indiana Jones in me. I could not help climbing the walls and walking to every possible niche to see if I could find a treasure or two. There were a few that I discovered and some that left me with questions. What follows now is a virtual tour of the Jaffna Dutch fort – one that will be enough for you to mark this as a must-visit destination in Jaffna. As always, you will find your travel tips included to book your own visit to Jaffna fort.

Jaffna Fort history

Jaffna Dutch Fort in Sri Lanka
Jaffna Dutch Fort in Sri Lanka

The Jaffna Fort history actually begins before the arrival of the Dutch. The first fort was built by the Portuguese in 1618. It was Phillippe de Oliveria who constructed a small square stronghold with four bastions and a moat. The fort was fondly called the Fortress of Our Lady of Miracles of Jafanapatao after a Virgin Mary Church close to it. The church is said to be fraught with miracles which led to the fort being renamed by the Portuguese.

It was later, in 1658 that Rijcklot Van Goens led the Dutch army and invaded the square fort. They took over the place and remodeled it to its current pentagon shape. The expanded premises included several buildings like a church, Governor’s residence, Queen’s residence and parade grounds. The Dutch used it as a strategic powerhouse to keep their dominance over the trade route through Jaffna. It remained with them until 1795, after which they literally handed it over to the British.

View of the moat and the Jaffna lagoon
View of the moat and the Jaffna lagoon

Sri Lanka and the Ceylon army got it from the British post their independence in 1948. However, the place faced another take-over by the LTTE during the Sri Lanka Civil War. There were several Jaffna fort attacks during this time (between 1985 to 1995) and those caused a lot of destruction within the premises. Finally, after a long 50-day siege, the Jaffna Fort was re-possessed by the Ceylon army.

Today, the army occupies a certain section of it while the rest of it is being renovated as a key attraction in Jaffna.

The architecture of Jaffna Fort Sri Lanka

Jaffna Fort Map
Jaffna Fort Map showing the layout of the old and new fort

The four bastions of the Portuguese fort became five and the square turned into a pentagon under the Dutch. That is when Holland, Zeeland, Gelderland, Utrecht and Friesland were born. These are the names of the five bastions of Jaffna fort in Sri Lanka. The entire fort is surrounded by a moat that was rumoured to have been filled with crocodiles. The Dutch made use of stone, bricks, mortar and corals to create this stronghold. Even today, you will find patterns of those corals on the walls of the fort.

Mud, stone, corals - the key construction material used to make Jaffna Dutch Fort
Mud, stone, corals – the key construction material used to make Jaffna Dutch Fort
Side view of the Ravelin - the triangular part of the fort in Jaffna
Side view of the Ravelin – the triangular part of the fort in Jaffna

What makes the Jaffna fort architecture even more admirable is the way the walls of the fort slope down. This design ensured that the artillery and canons had a clear line of sight and no one could breach the walls from the outside. I believe these are called glacis. The other distinguishing feature of this Dutch fort in Jaffna is the pointed triangular corners called ravelins. These are strategic constructions typical of European forts. They help the defenders fire at the attackers as they attempt to breach the gates and bridges.

Both these features are best understood when you get a good view from the walls of Jaffna fort. Just watch out for those in the forthcoming sections.

The ramparts and the moat of Jaffna Dutch fort

Zigzag path to the first entrance of Dutch Fort in Jaffna
Zigzag path to the first entrance of Dutch Fort in Jaffna

Like most forts, the path to the outer wall has been laid out in a zigzag fashion. Following that, I entered the first line of defense from where I could see the deadly moat. A few interesting signboards pointed out small coves meant for the soldiers to rest, a covered tunnel that served as a safe passage for them and a slope that was meant to drag the artillery to the top.

The path to carry artillery on the outer walls of Jaffna fort
The path to carry artillery on the outer walls of Jaffna fort

It is definitely worthwhile to climb the slope of the rampart. This is where you get a lovely view of the moat and the pointed corners of the fort. As a photographer, you will love capturing the pristine reflection of the dramatic skies at sunset.

Safe passage exit for the soldiers in the fort of Jaffna
Safe passage exit for the soldiers in the fort of Jaffna
Resting places for the soldiers along the outer walls of Jaffna fort
Resting places for the soldiers along the outer walls of Jaffna fort
The Moat and drawbridge from the outer ramparts of Jaffna Fort
The Moat and drawbridge from the outer ramparts of Jaffna Fort

The only way to cross the moat is a drawbridge. When you look at the bridge, you might not be able to find the gap that makes it collapse but I believe, that is somewhere in the middle of the path. I guess with the restoration efforts, this gap has been closed and hence, it is now just a strong sturdy pathway. There are three such drawbridges to enter this pentagon fort of which right now, only one is accessible.

As you walk along the bridge, you will get your first glance at one of the ravelin – the key feature of Jaffna fort. One look at that and you know you would have been shot down if you had been on that bridge without permission. (Gulp!)

Armouries, wells and buildings within the Dutch Fort in Jaffna

Jaffna fort entrance with a Dutch inscription
Jaffna fort entrance with a Dutch inscription

Walk through the sheltered entrance and emerge on the other side to find tons of ruins staring back at you. In its hey-days, this space of Jaffna fort had a gorgeous Dutch reformed church, a King’s palace (Governor’s residence), Queen’s palace, a hospital, a warehouse and several quarters for officers and soldiers. Though it was never meant to be a living citadel like the Galle Fort, it was quite a self-sufficient space designed purely for military purposes. Sadly, the Civil war destroyed most of the buildings including the church within.

All rubble and stone inside Jaffna Fort of Sri Lanka
All rubble and stone inside Jaffna Fort of Sri Lanka

I began my journey through the vestiges with the tiny passage next to its ticketing counter. The Jaffna fort authorities have converted it into a small exhibition with pictures and information on various Dutch forts in the Northern province. It is here that I actually managed to get all that I know about Jaffna Fort Sri Lanka.

One of the 21 wells of Jaffna Dutch Fort
One of the 21 wells of Jaffna Dutch Fort

Continuing along the same walls, you will come across an armoury and one of the 21 wells of Jaffna fort. It is here that you can see the coral-laden walls at close quarters and from there spot the staircase that leads to the upper levels of the fort. That is where I proceeded next with a few diversions to examine the central heap of rubble in Jaffna fort.

Sadly, there was nothing I could discern of these lost blocks. For all I know, it might have been remains of the church or possibly the Queen’s palace. Besides the heap, one can also see the foundations of various buildings. I would have loved to know what each one was meant to be!

Walking along the walls of Jaffna Fort

Staircase to the walls of Jaffna Fort in Sri Lanka
Staircase to the walls of Jaffna Fort in Sri Lanka

Though the triangular staircase seemed to be the lone manner of reaching the walls, my guess is that there might have been plenty of other ascend points. Climbing up this one got me standing at the Gelderland bastion of Jaffna fort. A huge structure dominated the space and as I discovered later, it was the Hangman’s tower. It did attempt to whisper some dreary tales but the lack of documentation ensured that the stories remained obscure.

Hangman's tower in fort of Jaffna
Hangman’s tower in the fort of Jaffna

Right behind the hangman’s tower of Jaffna fort is one of the five ravelins. You can step right into the circular space to see how none could approach the fort unseen. A clear line of defense is visible from these spots – beginning with the outer walls, the passage in, the drawbridge over the moat and finally the main entrance to the fort. Quite ingenious I must say!

View of the outer entrance and the ramparts from the inner walls of the Dutch fort of Jaffna
View of the outer entrance and the ramparts from the inner walls of the Dutch fort of Jaffna
The road and the view of the Lagoon in Jaffna Dutch fort
The road and the view of the Lagoon in Jaffna Dutch fort
A lone home inside Jaffna Fort in Sri Lanka
A lone home inside Jaffna Fort in Sri Lanka

As I continued to walk along those walls, I even discovered the grass-covered glacis and the various artillery and cannon holes. The view outside gradually changed from the city sights to the calm Jaffna lagoon and the road behind. On the inside, I found a larger campus with a lone building in the midst of rubble. It got me thinking of how there might have been officers’ quarters here in the midst of greenery. There might have been cheerful banter of families and maybe, some clinking of wine glasses at night. But for now, all that was left were the indecipherable whispers of the walls and the silent views of the city and lagoon beyond. I finally, made my way out with this last view of a mesmerizing sunset over the moat of Jaffna Fort

Sunset over the Jaffna Fort
Sunset over the Jaffna Fort

In some ways, Jaffna fort in Sri Lanka was quite a melancholic visit and in others, quite exciting. It is this range of emotions that make me recommend a visit to Jaffna Dutch fort. If you are up for this, just go ahead- share and pin this post.

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Common FAQs about Jaffna Fort

Who built Jaffna Fort?

The current fort in Jaffna was built by the Dutch under the leadership of Rijcklot Van Goens in 1658. It was built and expanded over a smaller square fort built by the Portuguese in 1618.

How to reach Jaffna Fort?

Jaffna is in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. It has its own airport but for the moment, there are very few flights operating out of it. There used to be direct flights from Jaffna to Chennai in India but they are right now suspended. Given this situation, the closest airport would be the Bandarnaike airport near Colombo.

From Colombo, one can either take a train to Jaffna or drive down to the town. The train journey takes around 6 to 7 hours and there are almost hourly departures from Colombo.

If you choose to drive or take a road trip, the journey can take around 10 – 12 hours. There are two major routes that you can follow.
Route One – 400 km
Colombo – Negambo – NarammalaBogoda – Wariyapola – Anuradhapura – Vavuniya – Elephant Pass – Jaffna

Route Two – 362 km along a coastal road
Colombo – Negambo – Madampe- Puttalam – Akattikkulam- Periyavilankuli – Vellankulam – Poonakary – Sangupiddi Bridge – Jaffna

Once in Jaffna, you can hire a tuk tuk to take you to Jaffna fort near the lagoon. It is quite close to the market.

Where to stay in Jaffna?

There are quite a few good hotels in Jaffna and you can book them online through the booking resources section below. I stayed at the North Gate by Jetwing in Jaffna. They have very comfortable AC rooms and have a pool on their premises. The location is central but in a slightly quieter part of the town.

Jetwing also, has another property close to the market area. This is highly convenient if you wish to walk around and explore the city. Besides these, you can also, consider hotels like The Thinnai, The Valumpuri and The Green Grass hotel.

What is the best time to visit Jaffna Fort Sri Lanka?

In terms of season, Jaffna is best visited between January to October when it is not raining. The rest of the year, the city gets regular showers.

The Jaffna Fort timings are from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm every day. My personal recommendation is to plan a visit around Sunset. You can witness the magnificent colors of the horizon and their reflection in the Jaffna lagoon and the moat around Jaffna fort.

What are the entry fees for Jaffna fort in Sri Lanka?

The entry fee for Jaffna Fort for locals is LKR 20 and for foreigners, it is USD 4. There are no camera charges.

Travel & Photography Tips

  • Carry an umbrella or a raincoat with you. Always be prepared for the light showers.
  • Good flat and anti-slip shoes are recommended. These do make your exploration of this Dutch Fort in Jaffna easier, especially along its walls.
  • If you are a birder, you might want to carry a small telephoto lens. There are plenty of woodpeckers, gulls, Brahminy kites and even munias that you can spot from Jaffna Fort.
  • For capturing the architecture, your basic kit lens will do the trick. You do not really require a wide angle for capturing the fort.

Booking Resources

  • Booking.com is a good place to reserve your hotel in Jaffna. This link will help you get to the Jaffna hotel page and book your room.
  • If you are looking for car transfers between Colombo and any other city in Sri Lanka, you could book one through Klook.com. The website also, offers hotel bookings for Jaffna.
  • Another online resource that you can use to book cars and tours in Sri Lanka is GetYourGuide.
  • Amazon is a good resource to pick your travel requirements like bags, rain coats, trekking gear etc. Consider using my affiliate link to get to the site.
Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.
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6 thoughts on “Along the crumbling walls of Jaffna Fort Sri Lanka”

  1. Lovely narrative peppered with detailed insights on the fort architecture. There was so much to see and discover at the Jaffna Fort. Truly a gem waiting to be explored more and talked about more.

    Reply
  2. Amazing views, especially the first one and I guess there is a chameleon on the wall. Thank you so much for sharing these views.

    Reply

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