THE JAFFNA PUBLIC LIBRARY Part 1 (Revised)
Posted on May 27th, 2019

KAMALIKA PIERIS

2nd version 20.9.21

No one had heard of the Jaffna Public Library until it was burnt down in 1981. Then it suddenly became the greatest library in South and Southeast Asia.

The Jaffna Public Library began as the private collection of K.M Chellappah, of Atchuvely,  who worked in the district court in Jaffna. He started lending books from his home in 1933. This collection of 844 books and 30 magazines was transferred to a small room at Hospital Road, in 1934,  then in 1936, to a rented house  owned by the Puthur Mallawarayar family  on Main Street near the Town Hall. Books could be borrowed on a payment of a nominal sum of Rs. 3 as membership fee. It had a starting capital of Rs. 1,184 and 22 cents largely from the efforts of Chellappah.

Chellapah circulated an appeal in English and Tamil for A Central Free Tamil Library in Jaffna”, and approached labourers, unions, teachers, authors, business people and prominent retirees for support. He insisted that the library would house not just a Tamil collection, but would also hold books in other languages. The idea caught on, and soon a seminal meeting of interested individuals passed a resolution agreeing that a Central Free Tamil Library Association be formed with the original subscribers and others who are present at this meeting as original members of the Association”.

A committee was formed on June 9, 1934 with the District Judge as Chairman Rev. Dr. Isaac Thambiah as Vice-chairman, K.M. Chellappah & C. Ponnambalam as Joint Secretaries. The committee decided to collect or buy as many ancient ola leaf manuscripts as possible from the villages of Jaffna and other areas where Tamil culture thrived.

In 1938 yet another committee was formed to set up a library in Jaffna.  Jaffna mayor A. Sabapathy was Chairman and Rev.  Fr.  Timothy Long, Rector of St Patrick’s College Jaffna was Vice Chairman.  .

In 1949 it was decided to build a modern spacious building for the library. The foundation stone was laid on 29.3.1954, by Fr Long, British High Commissioner Sir Cecil Sayers, US Ambassador Philip K. Crowe and First secretary of Indian High Commission, Siddhartha Chari. These foundation stones can be seen even today.

The first stage of the building was completed and the Jaffna Public Library declared open on 11 October 1959 by the then Mayor, Alfred Thuraiappah.  A Children’s section was opened on 3 November 1967. Asia Foundation donated books to the childrens section. The Reference section had 30,000 books by 1981. There was an American section which contained the books and journals earlier housed in the American Information Centre in Jaffna.

The building was designed by V.M Narasimhan, Government architect of Madras. The architecture was in Indo-Saracenic style,  not Dravidian. S.R Ranganathan came from Delhi to develop the library to international standards.

Rev. Fr. Timothy Long made a tremendous contribution to the library.   Fr. Long worked tirelessly to obtain funds for the library. He even asked the cartoonist Collette to do a sketch of him with a begging bowl. The one million rupee Library fund was entirely Fr. Long’s idea.I was just eight years of age and I remember well the fabulous Yarl Vinotha Carnival that was held in 1952 to raise funds. It was a great success and brought in Rs. 68,000 – a huge sum then – for the Library fund,” recalled Charles Santiapillai, former Professor of Zoology,  University of Peradeniya.

Fr. Long contacted the American Ambassador, Mr. Philip K. Crowe and British High Commissioner, Sir Cecil Sayers, who provided funds generously. Fr. Long was also able to successfully negotiate with Mr. W.G.F. Gunstone of W.H.Smith & Sons, and got books at special discount varying from 25% to 50%. The Asia Foundation also donated books.

Fr Long was able to secure for my late father, Mr. S.F. Santiapillai who taught Latin and English at St. Patrick’s College, a Fulbright Scholarship in 1955 that enabled him to go to the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio (USA) for advanced training in library science, said Santiapillai.  In recognition of the untiring efforts of Fr. Long, the grateful public honored him by erecting his statue in front of the library.

The library had the usual services of  lending and refrnece. Reference  had 30,000 books.,there was a  children’s section..Asia foundation  donated books to the childrens section.. There was also an American section which contained the books and journals earlier housed in the American information centre in Jaffna..

The library  held 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.

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. Thurairajah was associated with the rebuilding of the library, from the time the first stage of the Library began in 1959. He was the Honorary Architect for the second stage of the building and the final restoration of the building.

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 was a copy of History of Ceylon written by Robert Knox when he was in the Kandy prison in 1660. As well as Ceylon during the Dutch Rule by Philips Baldaeus written in 1672. Amongst some of the collections housed in the library were 700 books on the famous art critic and Sri Lankan Tamil Savant Dr. Ananda Commarasamy donated by Mr. Thurairajasinham of Malaysia  There were many donations such as the Vanniasingham collection, Kathiravelupillai collection, Isaac Thambiah collection, said Thurairajah.

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, and Colombo Public Library, and Jaffna College Library. Jaffna Public Library, though 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. The Jaffna College library was one of the 7 Sri Lanka libraries listed as principal sources by H.A. I Goonetilleke in his highly acclaimed ‘Bibliography of Ceylon’. 

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. Emily Ganeshan (b.1904) and her daughter Vimala had used the library. The American Mission stocked it well, they said. 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, they gratefully recalled.

However, after the burning, Jaffna College library was forgotten, it was Jaffna Public Library that people were talking about. All sorts of flattering comments were made about the Jaffna Public library, soon after it got burned down. There was not one     squeak about it before. This indicates some sort of prior media planning.

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.
  • The library became the pride of the local people as even researchers from India and other countries began to use it for their research purposes.
  • This Jaffna library was a national treasure.  Its burning broke the cultural heart of the people of Jaffna.
  • 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. ( continued)

One Response to “THE JAFFNA PUBLIC LIBRARY Part 1 (Revised)”

  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.

    Some of the documents and books

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