Jaffna Library rises from its ruins
by V. S. Thurairajah
Large holes in the dome of the former building caused by shells
The Jaffna Public Library rises from its ruins after twenty one years since its burning in 1981. It has now risen from its desolate state: re-vitalised with an enhanced glory – dignified, elegant and imposing. Utmost care has been taken in its renovation to retain every detail of its former decorative embellishments that are characteristic of its Dravidian architectural style, which was the pride of the North.
Those who saw the building before it was burnt, see the renovated building now and wonder whether it was ever burnt. The original appearance of this impressive building has been meticulously reproduced by the skilful hands of the craftsmen of the North.
While keeping its external facades identical to the original edifice, several modern amenities have been provided within its interior to meet the international standards of a modern library. Most floors within the building are covered with hard-wearing yet quiet vinyl flooring to ensure that disturbance within its precincts is minimised. The lobbies are paved with durable granite tiles. A modern lighting system suited to reading and study by users has been provided.
The Archives section, Catalogues and Bibliography section, Auditorium, Audio Visual section, Internet and Computer rooms are provided with air-conditioning. Provision has been made for 25 computer users and ten direct telephone lines dedicated to internet users. Libraries around the world in addition to other information sources can be accessed through this facility.
In conformity with international standards and the needs of a considerable number of disabled users who may use the library, consideration has been given for disabled persons to access the facilities within the building. Ramps for wheelchair users and an elevator have been provided so that all floors can be accessed. A separate area in the ground floor has been allocated for disabled users of the library.
The ground floor of the building accommodates a spacious lending library, reading room, acquisition and processing section, children’s section and catalogue and bibliography section. A new block of toilets for ladies and gents has also been located at the ground floor level.
The first floor of the building accommodates the archive section, exhibition area, audiovisual cubicles, study carrels, computer room and an auditorium which could accommodate about eighty persons.
The second floor of the building has, at its front wing, large open decks affording a panoramic view of the surroundings in four directions of the compass and an art gallery under the main dome.
Considering the popularity of the ubiquitous bicycle in the northern region, a sizeable bicycle parking facility has been included with a separate canteen block, within the premises but away from the main building. Special attention has been given to landscaping of the premises. Trees large and small are suitably placed over the turfed area that surrounds the building. All of the magnificent trees that had originally been on the site have been preserved. Macadamized roadways have been provided within the premises.
The original perimeter wall that encompassed the library premises had been destroyed, yet care was taken to ensure that the rebuilt wall would be identical to the original. The damaged image of “Saraswathy ” – goddess of learning has been repaired and the broken statue of Reverend Father Long has been sculptured to the original form and re-erected. These now adorn the approach to the library on entering its gates.
All furniture including bookshelves, book cabinets, writing and computer tables, mobile bookracks, conference tables, computer tables, chairs and study carrels have been manufactured by the Jaffna Municipal Council Workshop according to the architect’s designs. The chairs for the auditorium have been imported.
The work was delayed due to difficulties in obtaining building materials in Jaffna. Despite all these difficulties, the construction work on the main building went ahead and today it is nearing completion with work presently being done internally which is related to the telephone, air-conditioning, computer cabling, fire and lightning protection systems. More construction work is envisaged that is needed for the facility to be operative as planned.
This includes a lift shaft and lifts attached to the main building as well as a canteen independent of the building near its rear boundary. A standby generator has yet to be installed within a suitable building on the site. The completed facility will then hold its own with any other library in the region.
A review of the eventful history of the Jaffna library is relevant since it had very modest beginnings. The idea of a library for the people of Jaffna germinated in the mind and heart of a learned gentleman named K. M. Chellappah in 1933. His desire to share knowledge with others was first expressed in a tangible way when he started a small library in his house. It was a free library with no admission fee being charged. Anybody could walk in and read available publications in Mr Chellappah’s collection.
The following year some lovers of learning, who appreciated Mr Chellappah’s magnanimous venture, decided to establish a fully-fledged library. They met on 9th June 1934 and formed a committee and elected C. Coomarasaway, the then-District Judge as its chairman, Reverend Dr Isaac Thambiaiya as Vice Chairman and K. M. Chellappah along with C. Ponnambalam as Joint Secretaries.
The restored Jaffna Public Library building
This fledgling committee worked tirelessly and collected books, periodicals and valuable ancient documents (inscribed on palmyrah leaves using a pointed metal instrument) and established a library in a rented room along the Jaffna General Hospital road on 1st August 1934. At the inception, the library had only about 844 books, 30 newspapers and periodicals. Mr Chellappah’s untiring and persistent efforts resulted in collecting donations amounting to rupees one thousand one hundred and eighty-four and twenty-two cents, which constituted the capital for the library. This very modest library was patronized by young and old and became very popular among the public of the entire peninsula and not just the inhabitants of the town of Jaffna.
The library committee decided to shift the library to a building near the Municipal building and Town Hall in 1936. It was at these premises that lending of books to members only began. Anyone could become a member by paying a nominal fee of three rupees. Many people, including students, enrolled as members, borrowed books.
At a meeting held at the Jaffna Central College on 9th June 1936, it was decided to search for valuable Ola leaf manuscripts and purchase them and preserve them in the library. A large collection of Ola leaf manuscripts were gathered from the nooks and corners of villages in the Jaffna peninsula, Vanni, Mannar, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Mullaitivu.
The library became very popular and soon there was a demand for a fully-fledged library with all modern facilities in a permanent building. A conference of all interested parties was convened under the chairmanship of the then-mayor of Jaffna Sam Sabapathy who was Jaffna’s first mayor. The aim of the conference was to explore means of collecting funds for a new library building.
A decision was made to organize a carnival, featuring Indian artists to perform dance and music recitals as well as to sell lottery tickets etc. Large sums were collected, beyond the expectations of the organizers.
Thereafter in 1953 a new library committee was formed comprising educationist, learned persons and prominent citizens including Revered Father Long, who was the Rector of St. Patrick’s College at that time. Father Long’s contribution was so great that his statue was erected in front of the library.
The library committee decided to build a library in close proximity to the Municipal Council building. A well-appointed parcel of land in front of the old Dutch Fort was selected for the building. A well-appointed parcel of land in front of the old Dutch Fort was selected for the building. A decision was taken that the building’s design should be Dravidian in character reflecting the culture of the local people.
At that time there were no Ceylonese architects who were conversant with Dravidian architecture, which moved the committee to seek assistance from India. A Madras based architect S. Narasimhan; an authority on Dravidian architecture was commissioned to design the Jaffna library building.
The committee also invited a leading specialist in library science; Professor S. R. Ranganathan from Delhi to advise on the formation of a library conforming to international standards.
Narasimhan prepared a master plan of the facility that had two blocks-one in front and the other behind with a connecting link and each block consisted of a central hall with wings one on either side. A decision was taken to first build the front block and connecting the link with available funds. The Mayor of Jaffna; Sam Sabapathy laid the foundation for the first stage on 29th March 1953. The foundation laying ceremony was attended by several eminent educationists, well-wishers and political leaders from all over the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and from India as well.
The first stage of the building consisted of a central dome rising over three storeys from the ground with two-storeyed wings on either side and a single-storeyed link at the centre with a mezzanine floor.
The construction of the first stage was completed and it was ceremonially opened on 11th October 1959 by Alfred Duraiappah who was the Mayor of Jaffna at that time.
A children’s section was opened on 3rd November 1967. In 1971 an auditorium was opened for the purpose of holding lectures, seminars and cultural programmes. Books started pouring in by the thousands from well-wishers, foreign embassies, charitable organizations and the library committee also collected valuable books and documents. Soon the library became full-fledged and became known not only in Ceylon but in neighbouring India as well. Indian scholars, researchers and students made use of the facility.
There were more than one hundred thousands rare books and documents and manuscripts and those written on palm leaves and stored in sandalwood boxes. There were newspapers and journals published hundred years ago in Jaffna. There were about 10,000 hand-written documents; Roman Catholic books published in 1586 (some in Spanish).
There was a copy of the 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 Baiudius 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; 850 books donated by Rev. Isaac Thambiah; 100 books donated by Kathiravel Pillai.
There were a number of encyclopedias from various countries and publishers, dictionaries, atlases and maps, books on astrology and astronomy. The children’s section had miniature editions of Ramayana epics. The library functioned in a well-organized manner meeting international standards and was considered as one of the finest in South East Asia.
The facilities included a reading room, children’s section, lending section, document section, auditorium, bindery and exhibition section.
The Jaffna Public Library stood as a veritable treasure house of knowledge, imparting wisdom to all without distinction of caste, creed, race or religion from its opening on 11th October 1959 till June 1981 when it was set ablaze by some inhuman perverts. The priceless treasures collected during half a century of toil and dedicated effort have been reduced to mere ashes: a tragedy of stupendous proportions.
The entire literary world was shocked and grieved at the colossal loss. A devoted member of the library; a Roman Catholic priest Rev. Fr. David dropped dead on hearing of the atrocity. Those who lit the cruel fire did not realize that it is not only a loss of Jaffna but also a loss to the entire island as well as to the entire wide world of learning.
After the burning of the library, the Municipal Council of Jaffna did not want to repair the building. A decision was made to allow it to remain as a memorial to the ethnic vandalism it experienced, and construct the second stage of the master plan which is a replica of the original building behind the damaged building. The construction work on this building was nearing completion in 1983 when war broke out and the second calamity took place. This building too was damaged, not by man-lit fires but by bullets, shells and bombs of the savage war.
The building was left submerged in its rubble for nearly two decades when in 1996, the Government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga came to the rescue and started renovation work, which work is nearing completion. The Jaffna Public library has risen from its ruins in its former glorious garb, but can its precious contents ever be replaced?
(The author of the article was associated with the Jaffna Public 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 present restoration of the building.)