During the long civil war that took place at Sri Lanka, it was then that the rail line to the far north was severed by the fights between southern Buddhists and Hindu Tamils. When the last Yal Devi Express rolled into Jaffna on 13 June 1990, it was abandoned by bombing. Empty carriages were repurposed into military bunkers, tracks being ripped off for scrap metal and stations fell into ruins. The train travel to the Hindu north of Sri Lanka became a distant memory.
Then later in the year 2014, the shrill whistle of the locomotives was heard in the north as Yal Devi Express rumbled back on gleaming new tracks, for the first time in a generation to reach Jaffna.
Today this three-and-half-hour journey from the ancient Buddhist city of Anuradhapura to Jaffna offers a window into altogether different Sri Lanka. You move away from the shining white dagobas(stupas) at Anuradhapura to reach the multi-hued kovils(temples) that colour the countryside as you steam into Sri Lanka’s north.
Finally, as you approach Jaffna, the landscape flattens out, and patches of water and saltpans appear as the train crosses Elephant Pass- the heavily militarised bottleneck guarding the entrance to the Jaffna Peninsula. Tall palmyra palms rise over a landscape that still bears the scars of the war, along with green shoots of rejuvenation, as villages and townships have developed after decades of conflict. At the end of Jaffna itself lies a vibrant Hindu city with a colonial heart- an easy point for some Sri Lanka’s most idyllic, unspoiled islands and beaches.