Revisiting the Jaffna Public Library

The burning down of the Jaffna Library is fresh in public memory on its anniversary today as it was 41 years ago
Last Updated 31 May 2022, 06:01 IST

In 2021, when Jaffna is at peace, I visited the refurbished Jaffna Public Library to assess its current state. I could see soldiers with guns almost every 200 metres. They repeatedly stopped me but treated me kindly once they saw my Indian passport.

The Jaffna Municipal Council-operated Jaffna Public Library was built in 1933 and burned down in 1981. It was one of Asia's most important libraries, with over 97,000 books and manuscripts. A Sinhalese mob went on a rampage leading to over a million books being burned in the horrific arson attack. Historical scrolls on herbal medicine and the writings of notable writers were among the many documents burned. The burning down of the Jaffna Public Library was the flint that set fire to the Sri Lankan civil war.

In 2022, the facility was refurbished with new furnishings, books, and computers.

The majestic pearl-white structure of the library is located opposite Durayappah Stadium in the Tamil-speaking capital city of Sri Lanka's Northern Province. A gate framed by cement columns leads to it, now flourishing with a well-manicured garden and quiet reading spots.

"Jaffna library has long been an iconic attraction. The library helps visitors get an idea of the higher level of literacy and the love for the arts in Sri Lankan society," said Chaminda Munasinghe, Assistant Director of PR, Sri Lanka Tourism Board. "This one-of-a-kind heritage monument is an important landmark in Sri Lanka."

The Jaffna Public Library began as a private collection of scholar K M Chellapha, who began lending books from his home in 1933, the same year that Nazis burned 25,000 volumes of "un-German" books in front of Berlin's State Opera.

The Jaffna Public Library's Indo-Saracenic style building was planned by S Narasimhan of Madras, India, with S R Ranganathan, a famous Indian librarian, who served as an advisor to ensure that the library met international standards.

The library began with 1,000 volumes of newspapers and journals in a small room, but as the collection grew, it was moved to a building on the main street and opened to subscribers.

Even though it served as a cultural centre for the Tamil population, the Jaffna Library quickly became a favourite of international intellectuals. Father Long, a British clergyman, was instrumental in the library's early success and the formation of the Jaffna Library Society, securing support from the British Library and Delhi University.

The library housed priceless items like the only surviving copy of the "Yalpanam Vaipavama" written by Tamil poet Mayilvagana Pulavar in 1736, miniature editions of the "Ramayana," old Tamil newspapers, microfilms, thousands of Tamil books, and rare manuscripts such as early colonial descriptions of Ceylon and commentaries on "Tolkappiyam," an ancient Tamil grammar manual.

(Veidehi Gite is the founder of KrazyButterfly and a former advertising professional who writes on travel, luxury, food, fashion, and fitness.)

(Published 31 May 2022, 06:01 IST)

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