A stroll through the Public Library of Jaffna, and some reflections on knowledge, culture and the open space to question, create and dissent

The sun burns the Jaffna peninsula. It devours every last droplet of moisture. If one seeks the feeling of pinpricks of heat as they visibly bake one’s skin to darker shades, or redder for some, I recommend a high noon walk on the ramparts of the Jaffna fort. I admit that afternoons are pretty, with its much-glorified auburn light, but there is something to be said for seeing the city and the sea slumber under a shimmering (and yes you can see the shimmering), blanket of heat. Of the few structures that pierce this blanket, the most imposing is the Dravidian style, crisp white dome of the Jaffna library. Set in the heart of the city of Jaffna, it is a palatial structure, dwarfing all other buildings around it. It dominates both the physical and the cultural landscape of the peninsula. There is much to be discussed when you take up this library, but for now let us stroll through the present institution…

As you cross a moat and walk past the statue of the Goddess of learning, to climb the steps and walk in the main door, a doorman will call out to you. He will make you take off your slippers, as if you were entering a temple. And so with reverently denuded feet, you will enter the Jaffna Public Library. It is very much a modern public library, or one of best attempts at one that the island has mustered. The entrance lobby, which is presided over by a statue of the Tamil saint Thiruvalluvar, leads to the periodicals room on your left and the lending section on your right. The corridors and stairs that follow will give you plenty to explore, but to avoid laborious reams in describing the library, I humbly ask of you to twiddle through the photography section of this article. But I must mention the sublime sight of the rows upon rows of books rebound in red cloth, which is so iconic of the Jaffna library.

Through a conversation with the Chief Librarian, I came to realise that this is no mere amassment of books, but a living expanding institution. On the day of my visit, there were 18326 registered as readers and 1622 as borrowers, with over 300 daily users. With a smile of maternal pride the librarian informed me that the main library possesses over 100,000 volumes, surpassing in number the collection that was lost to the flames. It also maintains four branch libraries and a mobile library to reach out to the community. Of its many functions the one that lies closest to its heart is the archiving, and hopefully in the future the digitising, of the Tamil newspapers and magazines of the North. Today, the library is as much of a dominant presence in the intellectual landscape of the region, as it was before 1981.

However, rebuilding the library in brick and book does not necessarily mean that its purpose is being fulfilled. To discuss this, we must understand the position of the library in the consciousness of Sri Lankans, and the Tamil people in particular. In order to do this we must turn to the past. Permit me to begin with a short recap of the life of the Jaffna Library. The institution traces its roots to a room in the house Mr K.M. Chellappa, a local resident who in 1933 opened his collection of books and periodicals to the public. The collection was moved Hospital Road, in the business sector, where it gained a wide readership. After the Urban District Council took over its administration in 1935, the library continued to expand, causing it to be relocated several times. In 1953 the Jaffna Library Association, under the leadership of Mayor Sabapathy and Rev. Fr. Long, commissioned V.M. Narasimhan to design a structure in the Dravidian style. Six years later, Mayor Alfred Duraiappah opened the Jaffna Public Library to the public.

On the 1st of June 1981, around 10 p.m. a group of Sri Lankan policemen broke in to the library. “They proceeded to collect all the valuable books, irreplaceable ancient hand-written documents and bundles of ola leaf treasures and set them on fire. Within minutes the entire building was in flames.” [i] Following the burning the Municipal Council of Jaffna decided to keep the damaged structure, while constructing the un-started, second phase of the library. Architect V.S. Thurairajah, brought Narasimhan’s original plan to life, in creating the central rear section of the building, as a replica of the original.  Completed and stocked with books collected from donors, the library reopened in 1984. However, six months after its completion, as the war entered Jaffna, the library had to be abandoned. The building stood empty, shelled and bullet ridden till 1997, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga moved to restore it. The library, completely restored in line with the original plan, was opened once again in 2003.

The discourse around the destruction and restorations of the library illustrate the position of the library in the collective historical consciousness. Naturally from that moment till today almost all articles take up the “Who dun it?” question. The incident was immediately identified as a state sponsored attack on Tamil culture and identity. The General Appeal by the Jaffna Municipal Council, released in 1981 reads,

“Seven times since the fateful year of the Island’s Independence (1948) have the Tamils of Ceylon suffered the humiliation of assault and arson, killing and looting, and the rape of their women, but the attempt to burn the repositories of their ancient manuscripts hurts beyond measure. It hurts the more since the perpetrators of this dark deed were no other than the custodians of law and order…”[ii]    

Librarian H.AI. Goonetileke states, “The gutted building is a grim testimonial to the savage and bestial tendencies of communal hate.” The burning was associated with attacks on Tamil libraries 1985, and hence it gradually became the symbol of a narrative of calculated state attacks on Tamil culture. An article in the Sunday Review, titled Libraries are for Burning (06/07/1985) reads,

“The ‘Security Forces have to their credit a hatrick performance. First it was the Jaffna Library destroyed in 1981. Then came the burning of the Hartley College Library this year followed by the burning of the collection of 500 odd books belonging to one Nagamani Vijayaratnam.”

Given the sheer prevalence of anti-Tamil rhetoric throughout this period, the event’s appropriation in to a narrative of communal hate and Tamil victimhood, is justifiable. For example, when the TULF MPs moved a vote of no confidence, as a result of the violence of 1981, Minister W.M. Lokubandara raved,

“If there is discrimination in this land which is not their (Tamil) homeland, then why try to stay here. Why not go home (India) where there would be no discrimination…It would be advisable for the Tamils not to disturb the sleeping Sinhala brother.”

As its destruction became a symbol of Tamil victimisation, its restoration became a symbol of Tamil cultural resurgence. In an article titled Library’s Baptism by Fire, (1981) K. Nesiah declares,

“It has often times happened that such deep tragic experiences in the history of a people have provided a turning point in their life where they turned a disaster into a triumph… If education seeks to implant a sense of heritage and impart a vision of the future in the minds of the young and continue through life to stress that sense of heritage and enlarge that vision of things to be, so does a modern public library.”[iii]

Almost two decades later, the reconstruction of the library brought its narrative to the fore once more. By this time it had become a debate on whether the library symbolised real reconciliation, empty gestures, or a wiping away of past un-vindicated crimes. An article on the reopening in the Sunday Observer, opens, “The best library in the region! Again. That’s what it is going to be.”[iv] An article in the Daily News, declares with more reserve,

“The Tamil community saw this mass scale destruction as a direct blow to Tamil culture, and to their intellectual development, which was the one mode of progress for the Tamil people given the lack of physical resources…I see this project as an element that would reconstruct humanity.”[v]

There were many voices that justly critiqued this project too. A library assistant at the Jaffna Public Library, N. Parameswaram writes,

“The present Government of Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, has said that, the burnt Jaffna Public Library would be renovated…She can if necessary provide a Library with computer facilities, but she cannot provide, the valuable Books and Ola Leaves that had been burnt to ashes.”[vi]

An article in the New York Times uses the library as a starting point for critiquing the hollow gestures of reconciliation of the then government,

“The tardy library project is a metaphor for the government’s peace initiatives. Everything has taken too long. The constitution that she said would give the Tamils greater autonomy to rule themselves in the north and east is unrealized…”[vii]

Thus over the years, the library came to symbolise the oppressed and victimised Sri Lankan Tamil.  Today the cannon, if not the pistol, is silent, the road is rebuilt, the hotel erected, and the library stands as if it had never been touched by the flame. Even now one must search in an archived file to find the above discourse. Like all else it is fading into history.

Then why are we digging it up? During these last thirty years, the conflict has often been framed within rhetoric of cultural struggle by both sides. Sinhalese and Tamil identities have been woven from notions of distinct cultural systems. During this process, education has been transformed in to a tool for cultural preservation. No institution better illustrates this than the Jaffna Library, which functions as a symbol of education and Tamil culture. The more prosaic manifestation of this mechanism is the classification of Sri Lankan schools along ethnic and religious lines. Education should not be seen as a vehicle for cultural preservation. Learning, and the library, should be seen as an open space for questioning, for dissent and hence a ground for creativity.

If the Jaffna library is seen as a symbol for the space for free inquiry, its life becomes far more revealing. On the one hand it highlights the burning as a calamitous event in a long narrative of state attacks on the freedom of speech. Nesiah notes, “It was a symbolic assault on a community’s freedom to come together, exchange ideas, and collectively enrich a robust civil society.”[viii] On the other hand, we can also see the constriction of the space for questioning, by notions of ‘culture’. One aspect of the ethnic conflict being inevitably framed as an inter-cultural struggle is that all space for challenging ideas, norms and institutions within these cultural systems is lost. The assertion of a cultural identity is a complex process involving religions, historical narratives, customs, language but most importantly power. It is always the dominant groups within these systems of belonging who define its ‘culture’ along particular ideas and symbols. What we need is not a sweeping away of ‘culture,’ but the act of questioning it, and of creating alternative interpretations of the same cultural identity. Perhaps this alone would permit ‘our cultures’ to continue through dynamic revival, rather than slipping, well preserved, into the fossil record.

Questioning is not easy. It is difficult, within our education systems, where the contents of our bookracks and syllabi rarely permit alternative discourse. It is harder within our minds, where our surroundings, our media, and our figures of authority propound a narrative of strength in unity, and hence tacit assent. However, this space must be created, in our minds, in the classrooms and the library, in the theatres, in the newspapers, and most importantly in the common conversation. The value of our education, and the library, is in creating the space. And the power of the individual is in asking a question.

[i] Thurairajah, V.S., The Jaffna Public Library Rises From Its Ashes, (2007), pg. 28

[ii] Selvarajah, N. ed., Jaffna Public Library- A historic compilation (2001)

[iii] Selvarajah, N. ed., Jaffna Public Library- A historic compilation (2001)

[iv] Fernando, Vimukthi, Sunday Observer, (12/01/2003)

[v] Dr. Jayantha Seneviratne, Daily News (30/01/2002)

[vi] Selvarajah, N. ed., Jaffna Public Library- A historic compilation (2001), pg.98

[vii]Dugger, Celia W., New York Times (19/08/2001)

[viii] Nesiah, Vasuki, Public Space and the Jaffna Library


The author was a Summer intern at Groundviews in 2013.