Posted on May 27th, 2019


It is only after it was burned down that Jaffna Public Library rose to world attention. This otherwise obscure library suddenly became a great library. The world was told of the magnificent collection it once held and how Jaffna was grieving about the burning.

There was genuine grief as well. That night one of our distinguished teachers at St Patrick’s College, and a well-respected linguist, Rev. Dr. H. S. David died of a heart attack on being informed of the terrible tragedy, reported Santiapillai. Fr. T.M.F. Long who worked so tirelessly and contributed so much to establish the Jaffna Library reacted with intense grief and suffered a heart attack and died a broken man in Australia, he added.

One would expect that the chief  librarian of the Jaffna public library, who would have been safely asleep while the library was burning, would have been interviewed  later  and asked what valuable resources the library had held. But he does not appear once in the story. He has not been interviewed. We do not even know his name.

Charles Santiapillai (1944-2014) and V.S Thurairajah (1927 –2011) have described the research collections held in the Jaffna Public Library. They both lived in Jaffna and went to secondary school there. Within a square mile of where I lived in Jaffna, there were six churches, six colleges, six cinemas and just one Public Library,” said Santiapillai, wryly. Santiapillai and Thurairajah went on to become highly respected professionals, one in Zoology and the other in architecture. For the purpose of this essay,   I am accepting their description of the research collections held in the Jaffna Public library.

There were about 97,000 books and over 10,000 manuscripts in the library, said Charles Santiapillai. The library had in its collections, several old manuscripts, some of which were written on dried palm leaves and stored meticulously in special sandalwood boxes. There were also hard to replace books on herbal medicine, miniature editions of the Ramayana epic, copies of the now extinct Tamil language newspapers, microfilms of the Christian Missionary journal The Morning Star” (Udhaya Tharakai) published in the early 20th century. Some of the books were priceless. There was a single copy of Yalpana Vaipava Malai, concluded Santiapillai.

There were thousands of rare collections held in the library, said Thurairajah,’ but he cannot enumerate them as there is no comprehensive record available. The library contained valuable books such as’ Periya puranavurai.’ There were books on astronomy and astrology, a ‘most important collection of ancient document in ola including Siddha prescriptions.‘There was also a book published on Catholic leaders in Tamil with front page in Spanish. A collection of books on Tamil culture edited and published by Rev Fr Thaninayagam and Abithana Kosham by Muththu Thambipillai. There were many donations such as the Vanniasingham collection, Kathiravelupillai collection, Isaac Thambiah collection, said Thurairajah,.

 The library also contained newspapers given free to it by the publishers of Veerakesari, such as Eelakesari, Hindu Organ, Catholic guardian, Sunday Catholic Times, The following newspapers were bought, ‘Madras Hindu,’ ‘Thamil polil,’  ‘Thamil nadu’, also magazines such as Navasakthi, added Thurairajah.  This is not surprising, this was a public library.

Karthigesu Sivathamby, Professor of Tamil, University of Jaffna, recalled, As one who used it, I know how meticulously it was planned and how effectively it worked. I remember the steel cupboards containing donations from various learned men of Jaffna.  There was the collection of Cumaraswamy, the renowned father of the late TULF Leader C. Vanniasingam. Two other cupboards contained all the known literary source materials of the Tamils of Sri Lanka. There were also cupboards with books gifted by Christian priests. If I remember right, there was also some material on which Rev. Fr. Gnanapragasar worked. Rev. Fr. H.S. David was usually seen brooding carefully over those volumes.

S. Piyasena has give two instances to show that Jaffna Public library had valuable research material. He said that in 1973 he had interviewed Ven Parakandeniye Dhammawansa, who was a Ph D student at the Benares University for the Sinhala Service of All India Radio in New Delhi. . Ven Dhammawansa had said that he had found three volumes on Lalitha Vistharaya of Pandit Ashwaghosha (sic) at the ‘Jaffna Library’. (Sunday Island 18.10.15 p 16)

The Lalitavistara Sūtra is a Mahayana Buddhist sutra that tells the story of Gautama Buddha from the time of his descent from Tushita until his first sermon in the Deer Park.It would have been in Sanskrit.  Asvagosa was a Mahayana scholar.

The second incident was in 1979 when Piyasena, as a member of Kelaniya University Board was on the interview panel to select lecturers. One young candidate, a Buddhist monk, produced copies of some important Sanskrit documents used for his research. Examining them, Prof Jayawickrema of Kelaniya University, asked how he came across those documents. The monk said he obtained one of the documents through a friend from Sorbonne University in France and the others were copied from the original volumes available at the Jaffna Library.

I am satisfied that Jaffna Library’ means Jaffna Public Library and not Jaffna College library. I assume that Piyasena is speaking of two separate bhikkus and two separate sets of documents. If not, Piyasena would have said so. However, it is surprising to hear that a rare Mahayana manuscript was found in Jaffna Public library. It is not surprising to hear that no one knew about it. 

The Jaffna Public library was not an outstanding library, either as a research library or as a public library. Ishwari Corea had visited the Jaffna Public Library, when she was Chief Librarian, Colombo Public Library. She was very dismissive about the Jaffna library.  She told me, in a personal communication, that it had only a lending section, reference section, childrens’ section and an American section, nothing more. 

 H.A.I. Goonetilleke visited many libraries to obtain data for his Bibliography of Ceylon” (1970). He listed five libraries as the principal libraries he used in Sri Lanka. They are the libraries of the University of Ceylon, National Museum, National Archives, Department of Agriculture, Royal Asiatic Society,  the  Colombo Public library, and Jaffna College Library. Jaffna Public Library, considered one of the best libraries in Asia, is not mentioned!!

Neville Jayaweera went as Government Agent to Jaffna in the 1960s. He had gone to the Jaffna Public  Library to research on caste distinctions in Jaffna. If the library was a wonderful one, with a magnificent collection, he would not have hesitated to say so. He did nothing of the sort. He merely said He had ‘poured over Hindu religious texts’ in the Jaffna Public library. He said the library was later burnt, that was all.

The Colombo Public Library, under the editorship of Ishwari Corea, issued three books to celebrate milestones of the Colombo Public Library. They were ‘Colombo Public Library,’ ‘Libraries and people ‘(1975) and Roads to wisdom “(1980). The contributions were wide ranging but the emphasis was on libraries.

 Jaffna Public library is only mentioned once in these three books.  Roads to Wisdom,” said that the ‘libraries of Jaffna, Kandy and Anuradhapura are worthy of mention,’ (p 35).  T.G. Piyadasa in his essay on ‘Public libraries in Sri Lanka’ does not mention Jaffna Public Library at all. The three Tamil essays in these books do not refer to Jaffna Public library either.

If the Jaffna Public library had been outstanding, Goonetilleke and Corea would have told me so. My primary interest as a librarian is in public libraries. I trained in one and know what a great service a public library   provides. If the Jaffna Public library has been any good, Ishwari would have told me to go and see it. Goonetilleke, in his many conversations with me, in the 1970s,   about the research collections in Sri Lanka libraries, would have at least mentioned that the Jaffna Public Library had a wonderful research collection. He never did. He   told me to go to Library of the Agriculture department at Gannoruwa, instead.

The Jaffna Public Library could not have burst into bloom by 1981. It was a very late starter. In   contrast, the Colombo Library was established in 1925 merging the Colombo Library and the Pettah Library.  The Kandy Public Library started as Central Town Library in1841 and was taken over by the Kandy Municipal Council in 1920. Jaffna Public Library only opened in 1959.

Jaffna did however have one good library, Jaffna College library (est. 1910), which became the library of the University of Jaffna. This library seems to have functioned simultaneously as a public library, a school library and a research library.  It had two dedicated librarians, Mr. K Selliah, followed by R.S. Thambiah. Selliah was sent for training in librarianship to Calcutta in 1933.  He also underwent training in Britain later on.

These two succeeded in developing over the years a very good library, way above usual school library standards, said Kulendran. The Jaffna College library contained rare books and archival material, and rapidly reached the level of a research library.  In 1969 it was subscribing to 111 periodicals, and was used by outsiders as a research library due to its wide scope and valuable stock.

 It catered to the general reader too.  In the 1950s, It had Life” and Illustrated weekly of India”, it was open till 10 p.m. and students could come in casual clothes.  The under graduate section prepared students   for University of London degrees.  It was the best school library for years, a grateful reader recalled.

However, after the burning, Jaffna College library was forgotten, it was Jaffna Public Library that people were talking about. Exaggerated statements about its importance were bandied about and at least one howler emerged. Here is a selection.

  •  Jaffna library is one of the finest and largest libraries to be found in South and South East Asia.”
  •  One of South Asia’s finest libraries at that time, the Jaffna Public Library was known for its precious archival material and manuscripts.
  • it was one of the biggest libraries in Asia
  • It was the biggest library in Sri Lanka at the time.
  • It was considered the best collection of Tamil literature in Sri Lanka, if not the world.
  • Researchers from India and other countries began to use it for their research purposes.
  • Numerous culturally important and irreplaceable manuscripts were destroyed. [
  • The destroyed articles included memoirs and works of writers and dramatists who made a significant contribution toward the sustenance of the Tamil culture, and those of locally reputed physicians and politicians.
  • Among the destroyed items were scrolls of historical value and the works and manuscripts of philosopher, artist and author Ananda Coomaraswamy. This is a howler.  Ananda Coomaraswamy was in Sri Lanka from 1903-1910. He died in Boston in 1947. His papers would have been donated to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Jaffna Public library was holding the papers of Coomaraswamy, the father of C. Vanniasingam.

The Jaffna public library was rebuilt twice.  The library was fully renovated in 1984, with donations from well-wishers around the world.  But the LTTE took up residence inside it and it was bombed. The second reconstruction began in 1998 and the library opened in 2004.  I went to see it and found the design ridiculous. Among other things, it has two identical entrances, back and front, with portico, and open verandah, with open access to stairs in the front entrance. Such entrances are more suitable for palatial houses than a library.  But such houses would not have had two entrances back and front either.

The new library got much support. Samantha Power, Permanent Representative of the USA to the United Nations, visited the library, in 2015 and   said the United States will fund ‘the restoration of ancient Tamil manuscripts in Jaffna’.’ After a welcome from a traditional Tamil Inniyam band, the ambassador met with staff members, signed the library guestbook and viewed some of the 1000-year old palmyrah manuscripts that have survived to this day.”

National Library Board of Singapore helped with funds and also books. Library of Congress and Library Association, London, also helped this otherwise obscure library. The National Library of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lanka Library Association also helped. National Development Bank, Sri Lanka donated a large number of books as an attempt to ‘revive this great landmark of Jaffna.’

Two private collections were donated, the Pieter Keuneman collection and the library of R.L.   Spittel and his daughter, Christine.  Christine Wilson donated her library to the Jaffna Public Library at the suggestion of Goolbhai Gunasekera.

In 2009 there was a fresh call for donations. The Jaffna public library was one of the outstanding libraries of Asia, and in order to develop it public are invited to donate books and send them to Gangarama, Kocchikade church, Kadiresan kovil, and Devata gaha palliya in Colombo, said the announcement.

The Swarna Purawara National Awards given by the Local government and Provincial councils Ministry awarded the Best Local Government libraries award in 2014 to the Jaffna Public library in 2014.  

This essay concludes with comments in Trip Advisor by foreign tourists who visited the library.

  •  Frankly it wouldn’t be a tourist attraction in many other cities but Jaffna doesn’t have many [tourist attractions].
  • Couldn’t get very excited about this place. It is rather dull.”
  • There’s nothing unduly special about it, but it has great atmosphere and tradition.”
  • The building is quite impressive. You can feel the enormous wealth of knowledge and history this place would have stored.”  ( concluded)

2 Responses to “THE JAFFNA PUBLIC LIBRARY Part 2”

  1. Christie Says:

    First of all I remember there was a Commission appointed to probe the Jaffna Library issue headed by Justice Sansoni.
    From what I have come across it was another well planned event by India and Indian Colonial Parasites that is Tamils like the 1983 killing of unarmed soldiers.
    The Jaffna Library was burned to show the world that Sinhalese are uneducated, uncivilized Barbarians to the world. This was done by Indian interests with their massive coverage of the international media.
    It housed a lot of docs and bools about the work of American Baptist missionaries and their work. By burning them Indian colonists that is Tamils managed to get consoled by the World Council of Churches and get them to hate Sinhalese.
    Those days when ever I brought up the Indian terrorists issue with the Uniting Church priests in the West one thing they said was you burnt the Library.
    All those Indian Parasites who got asylum and refuge in the West always mentioned about the burning of the Jaffna Library.
    It was another Indian and Indian Parasites’ job well done.

  2. Lionel Says:

    Who ever the culprits, burning of a library is a unforgivable crime!

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