Looking for information on how to visit Nainativu? You’ve come to the right place!
Nestled in the Palk Strait, west of the Jaffna Peninsula, lies Nainativu. Also known as Nagadeepa, it’s an ancient place steeped in history and spiritual significance.
This tiny (4-square-kilometre) island is fairly close to the northern Sri Lankan city of Jaffna. An important pilgrimage place for both Hindus and Buddhists, Nainativu houses two of the country’s holiest temples.
I visited Nainativu earlier this year during my week exploring Jaffna. It’s a really interesting place with a unique atmosphere that’s very hard to describe. I’ve never been anywhere like it before.
Why Visit Nainativu Island?
For an island of its size, Nainativu’s contribution to Sri Lanka’s religious heritage is immense.
It’s a place where mystical stories and centuries-old Tamil literature come to life.
As soon as I stepped off the boat onto Nainativu, I was struck by a powerful and unique atmosphere that was almost surreal.
People mill around barefoot in silent devotion, the tranquility punctuated only by the tinkling of temple bells and the cries of seabirds.
It’s a place that allows you to leave behind the demands of modern life and step into a world that moves to the rhythm of worship and the gentle pace of pilgrim’s footsteps.
Despite its significance, Nainativu (/Nagadeepa) is definitely a long way off the beaten track for most tourists.
It’s an amazing place to explore if you want to experience a totally different side of Sri Lanka. One that most other visitors don’t get to see.
Where is Nainativu?
The island of Nainativu is located in the Palk Strait, the stretch of sea that separates Sri Lanka from southern India. It’s close to the famous island of Delft (also known as Neduntheevu).
Many of the other islands to the west of Jaffna are connected to the mainland by a network of bridges and causeways. However, to get to Nainativu (and Delft), you need to take a ferry.
When I visited Nainativu, there wasn’t much information available online about how to get there. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this blog post, to help give you as much helpful info as possible.
The following is based on my own personal experience, as well as guidance and tips that I received from various helpful local people.
How to Get to Nainativu (/Nagadeepa)
Embarking on a journey to Nainativu is an adventure in itself.
First, you need to head to the Kurikkaduwan Jetty. (This is the same jetty you’d use to get to Delft Island.)
You can either take the number 776 bus from the centre of Jaffna, or drive yourself there. It takes about an hour, although beware that the road is very rough and potholed in places.
Upon reaching Kurikkaduwan, ask for the ferry to Nainativu. There’s no need to book in advance – I don’t even think you can.
The ferry takes about 20 minutes and costs 160 LKR per person round trip.
The timetable is quite sporadic, although services run fairly frequently throughout the day.
While I was waiting, I had a nice chat with one of the Sri Lankan Navy guys manning the terminal. He was friendly and welcoming, but very curious as to why I was there. (I love places like that!)
Try and get a spot on the upper deck if you can. The boats are often packed by the time they depart, and it can get very cramped and unpleasant down below.
The History of Nainativu
Nainativu’s history is fascinating and diverse, dating back to ancient times.
The island was mentioned in the writings of the Greco-Roman geographer Ptolemy in the 1st century CE. It also features in various Tamil literature from the 6th century.
These references paint a picture of an island significant in the ancient world, both as a maritime landmark and a spiritual sanctuary.
Once home to the Nagas, an ancient Sri Lankan tribe, Nainativu still has many visible traces of their serpent-worshipping practices.
You’ll see snake imagery everywhere. Statues and paintings of snakes feature heavily in both the Buddhist and Hindu temples on the island.
Several people I met were keen to share with me stories of the Nagas and their serpentine deities. They told the stories passionately and seemed keenly aware and proud of their island’s ancient heritage.
This is a history – and a place – that begs to be experienced, not just read about.
Hindu Heritage: Nagapooshani Amman Kovil
Nainativu’s Hindu heart beats around the vibrant Nagapooshani Amman Kovil, a temple dedicated to the goddess Parvati.
The temple’s foundations can be traced back to antiquity. It’s mentioned in various ancient chronicles as one of 64 Shakti Peethas (major shrines to female deities).
Reconstructed in the 18th century, the current structure is a beacon of faith and a cornerstone of Hindu worship in the region.
I found myself mesmerised by the towering gopuram entrance tower, with its elaborate sculptures and bright colours.
Inside the main courtyard lies the main temple building. The air is filled with the smell of incense and the sounds of prayers and rhythmic chants.
Walk slowly around the edge of this incredible structure and admire the hundreds of colourful statues that depict scenes from Hindu mythology.
A pair of beautifully carved doorways lead to the inner sanctum. These doors were shut when I first arrived. But, a priest saw me and opened them up for me to take a look inside.
Photography isn’t allowed inside the temple, although it’s really beautiful and definitely worth seeing. I can only imagine how atmospheric this place must be during puja ceremonies.
The temple is a place for both quiet reflection and group worship. It’s also a hub of community activity and celebration, especially during festivals.
This is when the temple truly comes to life, with processions, music, and dance illuminating the temple grounds.
For anyone visiting Nainativu, the Nagapooshani Amman Kovil is a must-visit.
It’s a place where the past and present, the spiritual and the communal, converge. It offers a vivid snapshot of Sri Lankan Hindu culture that’s accessible to all, regardless of your beliefs.
I left the place with a deeper appreciation of the rich tapestry of Sri Lanka’s Tamil heritage. Don’t miss it!
Buddhist Sanctity: Nagadeepa Purana Vihara
Located a mere 700 metres south of the main Hindu temple, near where the ferry arrives on the island, lies Nagadeepa Purana Vihara. This is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka.
Buddhists believe that the Lord Buddha visited this very place himself over 2,000 years ago. He supposedly came here to settle a dispute between two warring Naga kings.
This important temple has a number of distinctive features. As well as the large shiny silver pagoda, keep an eye out for the giant “footprints” of Buddha carved in stone, and the statues of snakes (some with several heads).
Whether or not you’re Buddhist, visiting Nagadeepa Purana Vihara is a special experience. It offers a chance to see and feel part of something ancient and important.
For me, the outside world fell away for a while, leaving just the whisper of the wind and the quiet prayers of pilgrims.
The fact that two such important temples – one Hindu, the other Buddhist – are located so close to each other shows how extraordinary Nainativu is as a place.
I didn’t sense any hostility from one group of pilgrims toward the other either. People seemed to get along happily side-by-side, despite their different religions. It was really positive and powerful to witness.
Culture and Community
Visiting Nainativu gives you a front-row seat to this cultural richness. It’s also not just the historic sites that make Nainativu special.
From observing the detailed temple rituals to chatting with pilgrims and locals over a snack by the side of the road, visiting this unique island is a memorable experience.
Children play in the temple grounds while elders sit nearby, chatting and watching over them.
The sense of community is evident in the way people interact with each other and how they maintain their traditions with pride and joy.
When you come to Nainativu, come ready to participate and learn. The island is an open book of culture and beauty just waiting to be discovered.
It’s a place that’s stamped itself quite vividly into my memory.
Annual Festivals and Events
There are various religious and cultural festivals held on Nainativu throughout the year.
The most famous annual event is the Nainativu Festival at the Nagapooshani Amman Temple. This 27-day event happens yearly in June and July and is a whirlwind of colour, music, and devotion.
The festival kicks off with the hoisting of the temple flag and builds up to a grand chariot procession. The chariot, adorned with flowers and lights, carries the statue of the goddess through the streets.
Devotees walk barefoot, some carrying pots of milk and sweet rice as offerings. Others perform dances and play music.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to coincide my visit to Nainativu with this festival. I can only imagine how electric the whole place must feel.
Rules Around Dress Code, Photography, etc.
When you’re visiting places as sacred as Nainativu, it’s important to show respect. This means taking off your shoes before entering temples and keeping your voice down.
If possible, wear loose comfortable clothes that cover your knees and shoulders. Men and women should both cover their legs. Men also need to remove their shirts before entering Hindu temples.
It’s fine to take photos of the outside of temples. With Hindu temples, photography generally isn’t allowed inside the temple itself. If in doubt, ask someone.
Remember, these are sacred places of worship, so acting politely and respectfully is key.
Food and Accommodation
There aren’t many restaurants on Nainativu, but the stalls near the temples serve samosas, packets of rice and curry, and a range of sweet treats, which are perfect for a snack on the go.
Nainativu doesn’t have any hotels either, but there’s a good range of options in Jaffna.
I stayed at the (mid-range) Jaffna Heritage Hotel which was very comfortable. The staff here were great too and helped me plan my trip to the island.
Other Things to See on the Way to Nainativu
The Jaffna Archipelago is made up of several different islands. Many of these are connected to the mainland by a series of bridges and causeways, and you’ll pass through a few of them on the way to Nainativu.
If you have your own transport, there’s a beautiful baobab tree on Punkudutivu island that’s well worth stopping off at to see. It’s a wonderfully calm and peaceful spot.
It’s not clear how or why this baobab tree ended up here. But it seems incredibly old and was probably planted many centuries ago.
Another notable island worth exploring is Kayts. This is another interesting place, with a few well-preserved Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines.
You’ll also see the remnants of various other ancient structures dotted around the landscape. Many of these were damaged extensively during the civil war and some are still being reconstructed.
The People of Nainativu
The residents of Nainativu are known for their hospitality and friendliness. They take great pride in their cultural heritage and are often eager to share their traditions and customs with guests.
The enthusiasm and warmth of the people on Nainativu left a lasting impression on me. Everybody I spoke with seemed genuinely welcoming.
Priests offered to show me around the temples, and even the food sellers wanted to give me lots of things to try for free, whether I bought something or not.
Additional Information for Visiting Nainativu
There’s a Bank of Ceylon ATM on Nainativu, located close to the Nagadeepa Vihara Buddhist temple. However, I still recommend bringing enough cash with you for the day, in case it’s not working.
Also, a note on the ferries: they vary, a lot.
On my way out to the island, the ferry was fine. I mean, it was old and rickety, but otherwise fine.
On the way back, it was a different boat. A considerably worse boat. The sort of boat you can imagine sinking and killing everyone onboard.
If at all possible, I recommend either sticking to the “upstairs” cabin or staying out on deck. Do not go below deck. I made this mistake on the way back and really regretted it.
I don’t usually suffer from claustrophobia, but I did then. Crammed in with more than 100 other people in the dark and airless bowels of the boat, below the water level. It was horrible and felt incredibly unsafe.
Do yourself a favour and stay up top instead.
Or on the deck.
If you can, try to grab the seat next to the pilot. It’s the best one in the house!
FAQs: Visiting Nainativu (Nagadeepa) Island
Here are answers to some commonly asked questions about visiting Nainativu (Nagadeepa) Island.
How big is the island of Nainativu?
Nainativu isn’t very big. It’s only 4 kilometres long and 1 kilometre wide (so approximately 4 square kilometres in area).
How to reach Nainativu?
To reach Nainativu, first, you need to head to Kurikattuwan Jetty. From here, you can catch one of the regular ferries to Nainativu.
Why is Nagadeepaya important?
Nagadeepaya is important because it’s a sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site in Sri Lanka, believed to have been visited by Lord Buddha himself.
What is the history of Nagadeepa Temple?
The history of Nagadeepa Temple dates back to ancient times. It’s known for its association with Lord Buddha’s visit, making it a significant religious site for Buddhists.
Why did Lord Buddha come to Nagadeepa?
Lord Buddha is believed to have come to Nagadeepa to resolve a conflict between two Naga kings, Chulodara and Mahodara, who were vying for a gem-studded throne. His visit is seen as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.
Do people live on Nainativu?
Yes, a small number of people (approximately 3,000) live on Nainativu.
When is the best time to visit Nainativu?
The best time of year to visit Nainativu is February–April and August–September when it’s dry but not too hot.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Nainativu Island
I really can’t stress enough how unique and unusual Nainativu is as a place to visit.
The atmosphere throughout the island is ethereal and mysterious. Nainativu offers an intimate glimpse into a world steeped in history and spirituality.
For those who love exploring offbeat destinations, it’s well worth making the effort to visit Nainativu.
As well as being incredibly rewarding in its own right, you’ll also get the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve journeyed far, far off the beaten track.