Prior to the Sri Lankan Civil War, it was Sri Lanka's second most populous city after Colombo. The 1980s insurgent uprising led to extensive damage, expulsion of part of the population, and military occupation. Since the end of civil war in 2009, refugees and internally displaced people began returning to homes, while government and private sector reconstruction started taking place. Historically, Jaffna has been a contested city. It was made into a colonial port town during the Portuguese occupation of the Jaffna peninsula in 1619 who lost it to the Dutch, only to lose it to the British in 1796. During the civil war, the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) occupied Jaffna in 1986. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) briefly occupied the city in 1987. The LTTE again occupied the city from 1989 until 1995, when the Sri Lankan Army regained control.
The majority of the city's population are Sri Lankan Tamils with a significant number of Sri Lankan Moors, Indian Tamils and other ethnic groups present in the city prior to the civil war. Most Sri Lankan Tamils are Hindus followed by Christians, Muslims and a small Buddhist minority. The city is home to number of educational institutions established during the colonial and post-colonial period. It also has number of commercial institutions, minor industrial units, banks, hotels and other government institutions. It is home to many historical sites such as the popular Jaffna library that was burnt down and rebuilt and the Jaffna fort rebuilt during the Dutch colonial period.
Jaffna is known in Tamil as Yalpanam and earlier known as Yalpanapattinam. A 15th century inscription of the Vijayanagara Empire mentions the place as Yalpaanayanpaddinam. The name also occurs on copper plates issued by Sethupathi kings of the same era. The suffix -pattinam indicates the place to have been a seaport town.
The origin of the name can be traced to a legend about the town's etymology. A king (supposedly Ukkirasinghan) was visited by the blind Panan musician, who was an expert in vocal music and one skilled in the use of instrument called Yal. The king who was delighted to the music played with the Yal by the Panan, presented him a sandy plain. The Panan returned to India and introduced some members of his tribe as impecunious as himself to accompany to this land of promise, and it is surmised that their place of settlement was that part of the city which is known at present as Passaiyoor and Gurunagar. The Columbuthurai Commercial Harbor situated at Colombuthurai and the harbor known as ‘Aluppanthy’ situated previously at the Gurunagar area seem as its evidences.
Jaffna is a corrupted version of Yalpanam. The colloquial form of Yalpanam is Yappanam. The Ya and Ja including pp and ff are easily interchangeable. As soon as it went into foreign language, it lost the Tamil ending m and consequently stood as Jaffna.