INDICTMENT AGAINST SRI LANKA
The Charge is Ethnic Cleansing
NOTE ON HISTORY OF JAFFNA
- From a letter from V.S.Thuriarajah, architect,
to the Sri Lanka Government controlled Ceylon Daily
News, 17 July 1996
[see also Destruction of Jaffna Public Library -
May/June 1981 ]
It was on the night of June 1, 1981 that the Jaffna
Public Library with its priceless collection of books
and some rare manuscripts was turned to ashes.
Half a century of toil and dedication by
several individuals and institutions that built up the
reservoir of knowledge, was to be the target of some
vandals. Would it be realised that the loss
is not just to the North of Sri Lanka, but to the whole
of Sri Lanka and the international community of
....At this time, it is relevant to study the
history of this world renowned library. In 1933, a
wellwisher named K. M. Chellappah, out of his desire to
share knowledge with others was conducting a free
library in his house. Appreciating the idea of Mr.
Chellappah, some lovers of learning got together and
formed a committee and met on June 9, 1934 to establish
a Library. Issac Thambiah, who was the High Court
judge of Jaffna at that time, was elected chairman and
K. M. Chellappah was elected secretary.
Due to the effort of this committee, on August 1,
1934, a library was opened in a small rented room on
Hospital Road, Jaffna, in front of the electrical
station. At inception, this library had only 844 books
and about 30 newspapers and magazines, yet it was
patronised by all citizens, young and old, with
yearning for knowledge.
The library grew a large number of books and more
space was needed. In January 1935, it was shifted to a
rented building on Main Street, Jaffna. In 1936, the
present municipal building and Town Hall was built (it
was razed to the ground). This library was shifted to a
building near the Town Hall.
At that time the membership fee was only Rs. 3/-.
With this subscription, lending of books started. The
popularity of the library was such that there was a
demand for a permanent building with all modern
A conference was held under the chairmanship of the
first Mayor of Jaffna Sam Sabapathy, to find ways and
means of collecting fun ds to build a new library. It
was decided to conduct a carnival, music and dance
recitals by Indian artistes, sale of lottery tickets
etc., Large sums beyond the expectation of the
organisers, was collected. A library committee was
formed in 1953, Rev. Fr. Long, who was the rector of
St. Patrick's College at that time, was also a member
in this committee (it should be noted here that Fr.
Long died of a heart attack when he heard of the
burning of the library).
The contribution made by Fr. Long was so great that
his statue was erected in front of the library by the
public. The library committee invited a leading
specialist in library science, Prof. S. R. Ranganathan
from Delhi, to advise on the formation of the library
to international standard. It also invited K. S.
Narasimman, who was at that time the architect t o the
Madras government, an authority in Dravidian
A master plan was drawn and the front wing was to be
built as stage one and the rear wing to be built later
as stage two. The foundation was laid for stage on
March 29 1953, in the presence of several educationists
and well wishers, not only from Jaffna, but from all
over the island and from India.
The first stage of the building was completed and on
October 11, 1959, the building was ceremonially opened
by the then mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah. A
children's section was opened on November 03, 1967.
Asia Foundation donated books worth Rs. 9,500/-. At
that time this amount was a large sum.
An auditorium was opened in the first floor in 1971
for the purpose of holding lectures, seminars, literary
and cultural performances. Valuable books and
centuries - old ola manuscripts were collected from the
time of Mr. Chellappah in 1933.
There were about 97,000 valuable books, old
newspapers and magazines up to the torching of the
library on June 01, 1981. Alas! all these rare
collections were set on fire by some insane human
beings. The burnt building remained without repair as
a monument to the vandalism of man.
In 1981, the Municipality of Jaffna, under the
leadership of the then Mayor, Rasa Viswanathan,
obtained the advice of engineers to ascertain whether
the building was structurally sound to renovate it. The
engineers advised against the renovation as they were
doubtful about the strength of the building. Then the
Municipality decided to build stage two of the master
plan. The same year, I was appointed architect to
design stage two of the building.
It was decided to keep the same details of Dravidian
architecture found in stage one. The estimated cost of
the building at that time was about 11 million rupees.
The Jaffna Municipal Council decided to start a
fund-raising and book collection campaign in Colombo.
The mayor appointed a committee with myself as its
The Colombo committee decided to organise a "Jaffna
Public Library Week" from May 15 - 21, 1982 and a flag
day on May 21, 1982. The press in Sri Lanka gave
tremendous publicity to these events. On the first day,
within an hour, a sum of Rs. 90,000/- was collected.
Several businessmen, social service organisations,
religious organisations and members of the public came
in the hundreds and donated cash and books.
It was like a week of solemn devotion and dedication
that people of all walks of life disregarding
differences of caste, creed, community or religion
converged on Saraswathy Hall, as in a pilgrimage to
hand over their gifts for the restoration of the house
of knowledge. Thousands of books were collected and
sent to Jaffna.
With the funds collected the construction work on
stage two commenced in June 1982. The building was
nearing completion by June 1983, when the second
calamity took place. The war broke out and this
building received a severe beating by bullets, shells
and bombs. What remains today is a structure with shell
and bullet holes and blackened walls with the smoke of
burnt books. ..... can anyone bring back the valuable
ola manuscripts and books which have turned into ashes?