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Watching the fishermen haul in their bulging nets of freshly caught fish was entertaining enough, but we soon discovered that this wasn’t to be the main attraction in Negombo.
Unbeknownst to us, we had chosen to visit during the Nallur Festival, the largest Hindu festival in Sri Lanka. As we walked closer towards the main town the sounds of drums, horns and cymbals filled the air. The quiet streets were soon buzzing with crowds of people in colourful outfits and we were swept along with the crowd towards the glittering Jaffna Nallur Kandaswamy Temple.
Today was part of a 25-day celebration, which locals told me would see more than 600,000 worshippers visit the town throughout the month for this incredible festival.. What made it even more poignant, was that some of the people who returned home for the festival were former refugees who had escaped the Civil War.
The atmosphere in the town was intoxicating. Apart from the colourful outfits and energetic music, the market traders were adding to the sensual overload by filling the air with the rich sticky scent of peanuts that they were cooking in large pans by the roadside.
I was told by some of the locals we met that worshippers take part in many customs, including going into a trance, piercing their body and tongue and breaking coconuts in front of the temple. However, as we walked towards the temple we mainly saw families gathering laughing, eating and praying together.
As we reached the temple we could see men carrying huge floats upon their shoulders. Shaped like cobras and peacocks, these giant statues were balanced upon bamboo poles, which the men were using all of their strength to keep aloft. They walked round and round in front of the temple as the crowd of worshippers gathered around them.
The heat of the Sri Lankan sun in August was rather unforgiving so the locals had taken the step of spraying water over the hot sandy streets that surrounded the temple so that the barefooted worshippers could walk on it. As we had also shed our shoes out of a sign of respect, I too was now appreciating the coolness of the damp sand beneath my feet.
The temple was such a sight to behold. I had never seen a temple of such lustre and grandeur. This was even before I stepped inside. Entering the temple was akin to walking into a palace. The floor, walls and statues had all been created with great care and were a masterclass in craftsmanship. However, I had to keep my camera firmly in my bag as no photography was allowed within the confines of the temple.
What I saw was enough to make me change my plans. We arrived in Jaffna 10 days before the end of the festival. We had only planned to stay for a couple of days, but we were so swept away with what we saw, we decided to stay until the final day. They told us that the festival would become more and more enthralling as time went on. We decided to spend the time to visit the rest of Jaffna and enjoy some more time at the festival. We visited famous sites in the city, such as the Dutch Fort and visit nearby waterfalls, but we would return to the festival on important days to lose ourselves in the crowd and see who we could meet.
Whether we would visit the festival in the morning or the afternoon, we would always see something different. On the last day, when we visited the festival we were packed like sardines. The sun was beating down upon us and there was not much of a breeze. I think that all 600,000 people must have been there at thatpoint
But the wait was worth it as there was still one more visual treat in store. As it reached sunset, the devotees carried out their god in a chariot. The chariot was of such an incredible height. But what was more impressive was that it was being carried around using only human strength, as the worshippers were holding it aloft on their shoulders. I was left in awe of the majestic sight.
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