Jaffna is the capital city of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. It is also the administrative headquarters of the Jaffna District located on the peninsula.
The Jaffna Public Library began as the private collection of the scholar K.M. Chellappah, who started to lend books from his home. On August 1, 1934, a library was opened in a small rented room on Hospital Road in Jaffna, in front of an electrical station. From a historical perspective, this library had originated in 1942. At the start, this library had only 844 books and about 30 newspapers and magazines, yet it was patronized by all citizens, young and old, with a thirst for knowledge. The library grew larger as members of the community started to donate their books and resources which ultimately led to more space being needed to contain all this knowledge. In January 1935, the library was shifted to a rented building on Main Street, Jaffna. In 1936, the present municipal building and the Town Hall was built.
Prominent members of the Jaffna community including Rev. Fr. Timothy M.F. Long, Rector of my Alma Mater, St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna started to raise funds to build a permanent and modern structure. A greater group of people assembled to help build up the oasis of knowledge and collect the memories of the Tamils. V.M. Narasimman, architect to the Madras government and an authority in Dravidian architecture, designed the new building, while the Indian librarian S.R. Ranganathan served as an adviser to ensure that the library meets international standards. Distinguished members of the Tamil community donated books. The main building was opened in 1959 by Alfred Duraippah who was the then-mayor of Jaffna, which soon became a landmark of Jaffna and its people.
During the first two decades the Library has developed rapidly, its book stock including such collections as the Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Collection and the Dr. Isaac Thambiah Library collection. Jaffna Public Library, then became at its time, one of the largest and best-equipped libraries in South Asia. The library has emotional significance for all of the island's Tamil minority as their cultural capital resided in the library. It eventually housed close to 100,000 Tamil books. Irreplaceable documents were written on dried palm leaves and stored in fragrant sandalwood boxes for protection. However, over 95,000 unique and irreplaceable Tamil palm leaves (ola), manuscripts, parchments, books, magazines and newspapers, were destroyed during the burning. Some texts that were kept in the library, such as the Yalpanam Vaipava Malai was a rare book that held the history of Jaffna, that was literally irreplaceable, being the only copies in existence which burned to ashes.
Sinhala librarian and bibliographer H.A.I Goonetileke wrote in an emotional private letter, “The gutted building is a grim testimonial to savage and bestial tendencies of communal hate.”, he also expressed that the, “Complete destruction by an act of calculated and cold-blooded vandalism of the Jaffna Public Library is the most wounding to the sensibility of our brethren in the North and must outrage the humane feelings of every person in the land, whatever his political, racial or religious persuasion,".
Fr. Timothy Long
There was a rally held by TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) that went out of control during the confrontation between the protesters and police officials, which resulted in the deaths of three police officers. Infuriated government officials started a feud which ultimately led to the Tamil cultural and religious figures being defaced and destroyed. Prominent politicians from the TULF like Vannai Ananthan went into hiding. The Sri Lankan police targeted political opponents who were against the background of this orchestrated attack on the Tamils, “I think that, when libraries are targeted, the idea was to destroy an entire culture and to deny learning.
There is a famous Tamil saying, that to look at one’s own reading is to know one’s mind and culture. It extremely hurts us. We love our books, and we lost most precious ones," a tearful Rohini Pararajasingam, the University of Jaffna's former chief librarian, painfully recalls. The fires and violence spread through many homes and shops across Jaffna, including the TULF headquarters and the office of the Ealanadu newspaper. Many Tamils who lived in the peninsula witnessed the attack, allegedly carried out by police and Sinhalese gangs, and most are unable to come to terms with it. The government then claimed that the library burning “was an unfortunate event, where a few policemen got drunk and went on a looting spree all on their own.”. For Tamils, the library became a symbol of physical and imaginative violence. The attack was an assault on their aspirations, the value of learning and traditions of academic achievement of not only the Tamils present during that time but also for the future generations of Tamils. The attack also became the rallying point for Tamil rebels to shed light to the Tamil population that their race was targeted for annihilation.
On June 1st 1981, after 9 pm the Jaffna Public Library, famous for being the crucible of Tamil literature and heritage, was set ablaze. The burning has since been marked by Tamils as an act of genocide.
Who was Involved?
An organized Sinhala mob carried out an arson attack on the library, it was not an ignorant, anonymous group of frustrated vigilantes, They were a larger group of a hundred officers of the Sri Lankan police force, who were taken to Jaffna by two senior Sri Lankan cabinet ministers, Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake, to observe and disrupt a rally organized by the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).
TULF was the most important political party representing the Tamil minority in the Sri Lankan parliament in Colombo. This narrative of lone looters and rioters became a constant justification in post-colonial Sri Lanka, echoed by Sinhala leaders and Sinhala media. A reader and resident of the Jaffna Peninsula said, "I saw the popular Jaffna Public Library was in flames in 1981, from my home, It was heartbreaking for me to witness the library in flames, but I had no way to go anywhere near the library during the attack, in order to store books”. Many Tamils who lived in the peninsula witnessed the attack, allegedly carried out by police and Sinhalese gangs, and most are unable to come to terms with it.
The library was rebuilt in a program initiated by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who was Sri Lanka's president between 1994 and 2005, with the 700 million Sri Lankan Rupee restoration. In a bid to win Tamil support, the library was rapidly rebuilt even while the civil war continued between Sri Lanka's government and the freedom fighters Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are popularly known as the Tamil Tigers. It was reopened in 2003, during a ceasefire between the government and Tamil Tigers. Since the end of the war in 2009, Jaffna Public Library has become an attraction for tourists, many of whom are travelling to the north for the first time, but many Tamils are still upset by the loss of the contents, rather than the building itself. In 2010 the library was again vandalized by a group of Sinhalese tourists.
The group had attempted to break into the library while it was closed for a Medical Association seminar that was being held that weekend. When denied entry the tourists decided to run amok, breaking some of the shelves and throwing the books on the ground. They also vandalize a statue of a veteran Tamil politician. In December 2016, an ‘apology’ for the burning was sanctioned, by the current Sri Lankan Prime Minister at the time Ranil Wickremesinghe, which was given and criticized by the public after initially receiving praise as it was a step towards reconciliation with both opposing people on the island. The off-hand manner in which it was delivered revealed a marked disregard for how deeply the Tamils on the island continue to mourn the burning of their precious library. There is no doubt that the destruction of the library will leave bitter memories behind for many years and generations.