A requiem for the Jaffna Library
Chronicling the fall and resurrection of the Jaffna Public Library, and mourning all that can never be recovered.
In 1933, the same year the Nazis burnt large numbers of books that they considered ‘anti-German’, the idea of setting up a library in Jaffna was born. The Jaffna Public Library (JPL) would have celebrated its golden jubilee in 1983 had it not been burned down in 1981. Instead, June 2012 marked the 31st anniversary of that tragedy.
1933 was a difficult time in Sri Lanka. The economy was slow and unemployment was very high. Amid the gloom, one K M Chellappah, who worked for the district court in Jaffna, circulated an appeal in English and Tamil for “A Central Free Tamil Library in Jaffna”, and approached labourers, unions, teachers, authors, business people and prominent retirees for support. He insisted that the library would house not just a Tamil collection, but would also hold books in other languages. The idea caught on, and soon a seminal meeting of interested individuals passed a resolution agreeing that “a Central Free Tamil Library Association be formed with the original subscribers and others who are present at this meeting as original members of the Association”.
With support in cash and kind flowing in from many quarters, the library was inaugurated on 1 August 1934 in a rented building on Jaffna’s Hospital Street. The initial collection was 844 books and 30 newspapers and periodicals. Professor S R Ranganathan, who at the time was the head of the library at Delhi University and considered the ‘Father of Library Science’ in India, advised the organisation of the collection and the library.
Yet, it was a British clergyman named Father Long who helped to determine the library’s early success. He helped form the Jaffna Library Society, and secured cooperation from as far afield as the British Library and the library at Delhi University. Father Long also came up with a plan to establish a central library in Jaffna town, and to open branch libraries in all of Jaffna’s towns, village and colleges. In addition, there would be mobile libraries to cater to those areas the branches could not reach. The central library moved several times as the collection grew, but after some disagreement over a permanent location, construction began in the centre of Jaffna town in 1953. The new building opened on 11 October 1959.
The library went from strength to strength, winning the support of successive Jaffna mayors and also raising funds through lotteries, carnivals and plays. The Jaffna Library had become more than an institution – it was a movement. By 1960, the library had amassed 16,000 books, a major collection of magazines in Tamil and English, and a large collection of manuscripts. Among these were remarkable historical materials such as early colonial accounts of Ceylon and commentaries on Tolkappiyam, the oldest grammar text in the Tamil language.
In 1959, the library occupied 15,910 square feet and was bigger than the Colombo Library of the Metropolitan Sabha. It had a reference section, a section dedicated to novels, a children’s section, an acquisitions section, a lending section, a conference hall, and an exhibition hall with art galleries. It also had 33 staff and more than 17,000 members, and enjoyed the support of prominent Tamil scholars such as P Kumaraswamy and Arumuka Navalar, a revered Saivaite scholar whose collection of manuscripts was housed at the library.
In the late-19th century the south of Ceylon saw the revival of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. In response, the Tamils in the north maintained a group consciousness by identifying themselves with their language, culture, territory and Hindu faith. The tensions culminated by the 1980s into an ethnic conflict that created tremendous hatred between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. On 1 June 1981, Sinhala police forces set the JPL on fire. Writing several years later, the scholar Nancy Maury recorded the extent of the damage:
With several high-ranking Sinhalese security officers and two cabinet ministers, Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake (both self-confessed Sinhala supremacists) present in the town of Jaffna, uniformed security men and plainclothes thugs carried out some well organised acts of destruction. They burned to the ground certain chosen targets – including the Jaffna Public Library, with its 95,000 volumes and priceless manuscripts, a Hindu temple, the office and machinery of the independent Tamil daily newspaper Eelanadu.
The Sinhalese police did not allow even a single sheet of paper to be rescued from the fire. Extremely rare items were lost, among them the only existing copy of the Yalpana Vaipavam (a history of Jaffna), miniature editions of the Ramayana, and microfilms of the Udhaya Tharakai, a bilingual journal published by missionaries in the early 20th century. The burning devastated all those associated with the library; Reverend David, an important scholar, reportedly died of shock upon hearing the news the next morning.
Following the burning, A Amirthalingam, leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front and leader of the opposition at the time, spoke in the Sri Lankan parliament to name those who had masterminded the carnage and substantiated his statement with strong evidence. Yet the government, then under the presidency of J R Jayewardene, showed no interest in holding a serious inquiry.
In Tamil Nadu, newspapers did not report the burning for several days, probably due to censorship by government officials in Jaffna. The Hindu noted on 6 June 1981 that “a public library with its entire collection of books has been burnt”, and on 13 June it quoted Amrithalingam saying that the library had held “95,000 volumes, some of which were rare and centuries old”. The Dinamani, a Tamil daily from Chennai, reported the burning on 3 June 1981, but that report was overshadowed by coverage of the riots and subsequent curfew in Jaffna, where many other buildings had also been set on fire. Only on 5 June did the newspaper give any significant attention to the loss of the JPL. But the coverage could never transmit the scale of the loss, and many Tamils outside Jaffna remained unaware of the massive blow to Tamil heritage.
But the disaster was destined to come to the public’s attention eventually. Further violence against Tamils followed in 1983, and Tamil issues gained greater prominence in the international press. Appa Pillai, the chief of the opposition party, commented that “burning the people was murder and the burning of the books was murder on the Tamil culture”. He said this at a function to re-open the library in 1984. Beyond this, several members of parliament, professors, non-resident Sri Lankan Tamils, district councils, and numerous secular and religious institutions united in support of rebuilding the library. President Jayewardene salvaged some honour by ordering the government to provide SLR 20 lakh for the reconstruction.
The benefits of these reconstruction efforts, however, were short-lived. In 1985, a police station nearby the library was attacked by Tamil rebels. Following this, government soldiers entered the partially restored library building and planted bombs. All the library’s materials– including 7800 books gifted by the Tamil Nadu government – were again set aflame. After the second fire, the library was abandoned, with the building a shell of its former self and its walls pockmarked with bullet holes. For the people of Jaffna, this was yet another hard blow to their culture and values. Tamils mourned, and are still mourning, the loss of their library. Responding to a question about the library recently, A R Venkatachalapathy, professor of history at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, spoke of the library’s destruction as “a cultural onslaught coinciding with military occupation”.
Repair and despair
At this point in history, there were two views on the reconstruction of the library: either restore the JPL building to its old glory, or leave the burned-out library building unchanged as a reminder of the ethnic sadism that destroyed it and raise a new building nearby instead. A large number of Tamil intellectuals, including artists, were of this second view, but the Sri Lankan government, eager to erase all trace of the tragedy and embarrassment it had brought upon itself, opted to repair the old building. The bullet holes were plastered over, the burn marks whitewashed out. Even with government funds flowing into the reconstruction effort, the restored building was only reopened in 2003.
But it is only the building, and not the library, that has been fully restored. V Arasu, head of the Department of Tamil Literature at the University of Madras, points out that the library can no longer be trusted as a repository of Tamil culture and history. For instance, in 2004 the Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL), a research hub in Chennai which houses one of the world’s best Tamil collections, donated 3000 unique items to the JPL, but today there is no record of those items ever reaching the library.
I visited the library on an invitation from UNESCO in 2002 to assess the state and the needs of the JPL. This was ‘peace time’ in Jaffna. When my flight landed in Pallaly, I waited on the runway – there was no airport – until a couple of army trucks arrived to take our bags and all the arrivals climbed aboard a bus. Within a few minutes we hit the first checkpoint, where I was met by the head librarian and transferred to a UNESCO jeep. We headed straight to the library. The entire way, I saw soldiers almost every 100 metres, with their rifles either resting on the floor or hanging on their arms. Most of them must have been in their late teens. They stopped us several times and asked for my papers, and treated me well after seeing my Indian passport.
Soon we reached a huge building, painted off-white. The Jaffna Public Library stood just a few metres from the sea, and the air was very humid. The building was recently renovated, and everything was new– new mahogany furniture, new computers, new books. They were just beginning to collect material. I wandered through the different floors and sections: children’s literature, engineering, medicine, social sciences, sciences.
The roads in front of the library were completely empty. When we went to have lunch, we took one of these roads and I found that the entire row of houses running beside it had been shelled. Many houses were vacant, and I found the tiled roofs had holes in them, like sieves. The librarian pointed out several places where the shells had landed, and described how the people had run away. I was given a tour of the town, the district office, and the gorgeous temples, and finally taken to where I was staying.
Everyone I met had similar stories – how a shell missed them by just a few inches, how they had to carry their children and loved ones and run into the darkness, not knowing what lay ahead. Some spoke of how they had lost people dear to them. I heard and shared their sadness, anger and helplessness. At the library, I got on with the job I had to do.
As I worked, I learned that Tamil scholarship and the library movement in Tamil Nadu owes a huge debt to the JPL. Roja Muthiah Chettiar, a private collector with one of the world’s finest Tamil libraries, had visited the JPL before it was destroyed. The burning left him deeply affected, and he began vigorously collecting more materials to build a collection like the one that was lost. His collection formed the core of the RMRL in Chennai, and inspired many other private Tamil collectors who have been crucial in promoting Tamil studies and identity.
I also heard many stories of how much the library and its loss meant to the people of Jaffna. In the midst of war, despite fearing for their lives, residents of Jaffna never forgot the library. Mrs Pararajasingham, who was the librarian at Jaffna University at the time, told me how she had helped save many documents even as shells fell nearby, hurriedly stuffing papers into sacks before throwing them onto a truck and fleeing the place. One frail, elderly, dhoti-clad man came up to me on the street one day, and when he found out why I was in Jaffna he started describing the JPL as he remembered it. He spoke of the days when “the library stood like a fort”, and told me about the open-air theatre adjacent to the main library building. The next morning, I climbed up to the library’s roof to see for myself. I saw a large wall that was once used to screen films. Every inch of it bore large holes: the marks of bullets and shells. I could only imagine what the library building must have looked like before restoration.
When I visited some smaller branches and collections in Jaffna, the locals’ enthusiasm for the library seemed undiminished despite the tragedy. Every branch was full of young boys and girls, fully engaged in their daily reading. Outside, large numbers of bicycles crowded the stands. When I enquired, the librarians said that people were serious about their reading, and visited their local library every day to read newspapers, magazines and books.
Back in India, I started collating information on other libraries that had been set on fire or vandalised. Generally, libraries are targeted as symbols of cultural identity and patrimony. That was – and still is – especially true in the case of the JPL. Torching such an important intellectual and cultural resource was a clear attempt to erase the cultural memory of an ethnic and linguistic group. The tragedy in Sri Lanka is particularly acute, with memories of the destruction of the library still fresh in the minds of the Tamil community, the Sri Lankan state began another major operation. And this time, it was the Tamil people themselves who were targeted.
More than a library
The Jaffna Public Library – its books, its manuscripts, its users, and its history – cannot be seen in isolation from Tamil culture and the literary culture in Jaffna. The JPL was a movement, one that continued long-standing Tamil traditions and cultural values. The people of Jaffna had high regard for libraries and a rich tradition of education and scholarship.
I was told a story in Jaffna which, though I cannot confirm it, captures the spirit of Jaffna’s relationship to the written word. In the past, there were tobacco-units where people were involved in making cigars. A raised platform built out of cardboard boxes stood in the centre of the hall. A volunteer would sit on top of this platform and read a newspaper aloud, in the style of a radio newsreader. Sometimes, if the paper did not arrive, the previous day’s paper was re-read. Workers would sometimes intervene to ask for certain articles to be re-read. All the while, the work would continue. The reader’s job was always respected, and as a volunteer, he would later be compensated by fellow colleagues.
V Arasu, head of the Department of Tamil Literature at the University of Madras, writes, “Sri Lanka was exposed to western culture and Christian missionary activities as early as the 16th century. Modern Saivaite intellectualism rose to counter missionary activities … There was severe competition. This created a collective consciousness of the Tamils.” In many ways, the JPL represented an integral part of that consciousness.
The library owed much to the enterprising nature of Jaffna’s people and their emphasis on community. Throughout the region’s development, locals took the initiative in pooling money and resources to bring roads, electricity, post offices, schools, hospitals and libraries to the region. Residents also voted strategically and held their officials accountable to ensure that they delivered on promises of development. It is this culture that built the JPL, and this culture that was targeted when the library was burnt.
The rise and fall of the JPL is also a reminder of the history of Tamils’ achievements in Sri Lanka, and of the ethnic tensions that have been part of that history. When Christian missionaries brought schools to Jaffna, locals established a Hindu Board to run their own schools. As one library user remembers it, “there was no jealousy but a healthy competition”; many Hindu students enrolled in missionary schools, and many Hindu teachers taught there. The Hindu schools sparked competition, and as a result education thrived. The same spirit of competition extended to libraries as well, as people started libraries in their own regions. Valuing literacy and education paid off, and soon the British administration began recruiting Tamils for government jobs, thus creating an educated Tamil middle class. It’s possible that this created jealousy among Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority. One researcher, who asked not to be named, said that the Sinhalese “could not digest the fact that minority people could take major roles in Government jobs and as lawyers”. When the JPL was at its height, there was no single Sinhala library that could rival its collection, both in terms of volume, and of the rarity and value of the holdings. The library was grit in the eyes of the Sinhalese.
People continued to tell me stories of the library and learning. I heard one of how, when preparing for their O-levels or other examinations, two or three students would rent a study-room. Students would not buy books, and would instead use the library collection for their needs. Later in life, they rarely bought personal copies of books, and would instead buy books for the library. Many personal collections were donated to the JPL. In fact, contributing to the public cause became part of Jaffna’s throng to the library and carry out a ritual of thanks. A retired assistant librarian remembers how, in front of the JPL, they would cook Pongal – a popular Tamil rice dish – and offer it to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of education. This ritual is customarily carried out at a temple. For the students and their mothers, the library was more than a building full of books; it was a temple.
Though the library may never return to its past glory, there is much work to be done in making the Jaffna Public Library a beacon of culture and learning again. The library’s personnel feel that the current card catalogue is adequate, but comprehensive cataloguing will require further staff training. The library also currently lacks the capacity to digitise its catalogue and many of its materials. Enormous support is required to put the collections in order and digitise them.
The JPL’s collection today is fairly large, and has been helped by gifts from various individuals and institutions, including the Government of Tamil Nadu. The fiction collection is strong, but in other areas the holdings are lacking. Especially in areas of science and technology, where there is a need for constant acquisition of recent editions and periodicals, the collections are obsolete. Science and medical students who use the library stress the need for a systematic and continuous acquisition programme.
As for the humanities and social sciences, the old books have their own value. But here the problem is two-fold: new volumes need to be added, and the old books, which are very few in number, need to be preserved. The JPL’s administration admits the need for training workshops on preservation and proper archival practices. The library receives materials published in Jaffna and in Tamil Nadu, but even these are not available in abundance, and there is a need to gather materials from farther afield. The library provides internet access to try and remedy the problem, but that alone is not enough.
According to Srikanthaluxmi, head of the Jaffna University library and an adviser to the JPL, perhaps the biggest problem with the current holdings is the haphazard nature of the collection. There are multiple copies of the same title, sometime as many as ten. There has also been no qualitative assessment of what books would be most relevant to the region, and to the needs of the library’s users. Srikanthaluxmi also points out that presently, the library environment and design does not encourage reading or research inside the building. The library needs guidance to rethink and reconfigure the physical space in order to motivate readers. There has been some progress in this direction in the children’s section, which received new furniture and English-language materials meant to transform the section into a space that encourages young readers to play with and explore the collection. The library would also like to set up a multimedia section to screen international cinema for its members. The JPL hopes to foster greater connections with other libraries in the region and around the world to help in these efforts.
Srikanthaluxmi also added that the most important step towards meaningful restoration would be to rebuild the JPL’s collection of rare materials. This would require collaboration with other institutions such as the Saraswathi Mahal Library and the Roja Muthiah Research Library – both in Tamil Nadu – which already hold rare Tamil material. However, no one can yet guarantee the safety of any new acquisitions.
Many other collections, including many outside Jaffna, have also been lost due to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. Sri Lanka’s minorities have faced a constant struggle to keep their identities intact. In the midst of this, the Tamils have taken the library movement online; there has been a major voluntary effort to digitise and upload important Tamil documents. Physical libraries can be burnt, virtual libraries cannot. Noolaham (www. noolaham.org) has emerged as the leader of this effort, with volunteers contributing from Canada, England, Australia, Japan and other countries, and is set to become the largest repository of Sri Lankan Tamil resources. The old spirit of the Jaffna Public Library remains.
And yet, it is impossible to recover all that was lost. The late Karthikesu Sivathambi, a professor of Tamil, once said that the Tamils “have lost an intellectual heritage.” As Professor Arasu reminds us, “the most important and the oldest Tamil materials were in the JPL.” In most cases, he says, the rare documents housed in the JPL “were the only copies”, and with the burning of the library, they were lost forever. Indeed, in many ways the JPL was almost a national library for a Tamil nation without a state.
Several people have recorded this loss. In June 2001, N Selvarajah brought out a collection of articles and writings on the burning of the JPL titled Jaffna Public Library: a historical compilation. Later, in 2008, Someetharan released Burning Memories, a documentary recounting what was lost and the emotions of people in Jaffna. Professor M A Nuhman wrote a powerful Tamil poem quoted in the documentary, which has come to be strongly associated with the library. In its English translation by S Pathmanathan, it reads:
Buddha was shot dead
by the police,
guardians of the law.
His body drenched in blood
On the steps
Of the Jaffna Library.
Under cover of darkness
Came the ministers,
“His name is not on our list,
why did you kill him?”
they ask angrily.
“No sirs, no
there was no mistake.
Without killing him
It was impossible
to harm a fly –
Therefore …,” they stammered.
hide the corpse.”
The ministers return.
The men in civvies
dragged the corpse
into the library.
They heaped the books
ninety thousand in all,
and lit the pyre
with the Cikalokavadda Sutta.
Thus the remains
of the Compassionate One
were burned to ashes
along with the Dhammapada.
~The writer acknowledges the help of Professor V Arasu, Mr Pathmanabha Iyer, Mrs Pararajasingham, Mr Someetharan, Mrs Srikanthaluxmi, Mr Thanapalasingham, Professor A R Venkatachalapathy, and the Noolaham Foundation.
~ Sundar Ganesan is an archivist. He has been with the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai since its inception in 1994, and is currently its Director.
~This article is from our series of articles on the state of archiving in Southasia.