This week Dateline invites you inside Jaffna's public library, a building with a tortured history that echoes Sri Lanka's long civil conflict.
Sunday, May 10, 2009 - 21:30

This week Dateline invites you inside Jaffna's public library, a building with a tortured history that echoes Sri Lanka's long civil conflict.

The library was once one of the largest in Asia and a source of enormous pride for the Tamil community.

But the building was torched in 1981, during riots following the shooting of three Sinhalese police at a Tamil political rally. As result, almost 100,000 books were destroyed, including irreplaceable manuscripts written on palm leaves. A treasure trove of Tamil culture and history was lost forever.

Almost 20 years later, the library was fully rebuilt by the government.

However the restoration itself is generating controversy. Many local Tamils feel it is an attempt to whitewash the past, and believe the ruins should have remained as a permanent memorial.

twitter badge 3


As Dateline has reported here in recent weeks, the end looks to be in sight for one of the world's longest-running conflicts - the 25-year war between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers. After months of heavy fighting, Tiger remnants are currently trapped in a tiny corner of the country along with tens of thousands of civilians. When the history of that brutal conflict is eventually written, oddly it may turn out that the destruction of a Tamil library almost 30 years ago was one of a number of incidents that sparked a conflict that's raged on until today. Here's Amos Roberts.

REPORTER: Amos Roberts

Every building and every monument in Jaffna has been scarred by battle - None more than the town's public library. Although the physical damage has now been repaired, what happened to this beautiful building nearly 30 years ago helped spark Sri Lanka's civil war. Locals treat the library with reverence, almost as though it was some kind of temple - visitors are required to remove their shoes before entering. This is one of the library's oldest users. Sabaratnam started borrowing books from Jaffna's first public library almost 60 years ago - His membership number - 471.

REPORTER: You were one of the first members, weren't you? When did you first join the library?

SABARATNAM: 1951, I became a member.

REPORTER: So that's 58 years now?

SABARATNAM: 60 years! After that new building was put up, I was here almost a weekly regular visitor. Thousands of books and especially the latest magazines - 'Times Literary Supplement', London 'Times', 'The Hindu' - all these are collected here. So I was so happy. We had a wonderful time.

When it was built, the library was one of the largest in Asia and a source of enormous pride for the Tamil community. But its golden age came to an abrupt end in 1981. At the end of May, rioting broke out after the shooting of three Sinhalese police at a Tamil political rally. Tamil houses, shops and offices were all torched in revenge and there were reports that police were among the rioters. Then Jaffna's most-loved building was set alight.

C.V.K. SIVAGNANUM, FORMER MUNICIPAL COMMISSIONER: I was able to see the library going up in flames. So my feeling was that we are losing a treasure.

When former municipal commissioner Sivagnanum went to investigate, he says police stopped him.

C.V.K. SIVAGNANUM: I was threatened, and if I refused to abide by the orders I may be harmed or I may even be shot, he said.

97,000 books were destroyed, including many irreplaceable manuscripts written on palm leaves. The Tamil community's cultural treasures went up in smoke, leaving only a lasting bitterness and anger.

C.V.K. SIVAGNANUM: Seeing those collections in flames, and realising that the whole thing can not be retrieved, it was terrible trauma in my mind when I was standing and looking at this. It was really a cultural genocide. The burning was a cultural genocide.

In a recent Tamil documentary, Sri Lanka's former foreign minister said that Sinhalese also felt the library's loss.

MANGALA SAMARAWEERA, FORMER FOREIGN MINISTER: This was not only a blow to the Tamil people and the Tamil intellectuals. It was a blow to the whole country because it was one of our national prides - having such a library in Sri Lanka. So burning this library, I would say was a massive psychological blow to our whole country.

Rebuilding started the following year, but the library soon found itself on the frontline of a civil war, used as a sanctuary by Tamil rebels under constant attack by the army. It was finally abandoned in 1985.

SABARATNAM: When the library was shuttered and there was no-one, I used to wander along and think of the old days when it was the intellectual centre for all of us.

KPOAYSIVAM, HINDU SCHOLAR: This is one of my books - it is a religious book.

Kopaysivam is a Hindu scholar and the author of several books held by the library.

REPORTER: Oh, so this is you!

He's thrilled the library was re-opened in 2003. Now a new generation is finally getting the chance to discover Jaffna's public library.

KPOAYSIVAM (Translation): This is called the archives, old newspapers from the old days; as well as magazines, are kept here. Collected and safely preserved.

The Sri Lankan government of the time said it rebuilt the library according to the original plans as an act of reconciliation.

MANGALA SAMARAWEERA: Restoration and renovation of the library was basically a symbolic gesture, I would say. That was a way of Chandrika Kumaratunga's government as well as the people of Sri Lanka saying, we are very sorry for what happened.

But the restoration turned out to be controversial. Many local Tamils felt it was an attempt to literally whitewash the past. They thought the ruined library should have been left as a memorial.

C.V.K. SIVAGNANUM: They had made a clear, planned effort to eradicate the historic event of destroying the library in 1981.

But the wounds are not all from the past. The ongoing war and tense political climate mean Jaffna feels like an occupied city. The new library suffers as a result - it's in the middle of a high-security zone, ringed by army checkpoints, and for many locals it's not worth the time and hassle to get here.

C.V.K. SIVAGNANUM: The place has lost its importance due to the conflict. It has come to a certain place of oblivion in a way.

KPOAYSIVAM (Translation): Go and get one book each, you can get them here or there, any book you like.

But unlike their parents, today's children seem less enthralled by old books than they are by new machines.

LIBRARIAN (Translation): The librarian says kids must read for an hour; before using the computers, but they stare at us impatiently. Games; that is what they want. How long can we keep shouting at the kids? When the librarian comes and asks me if they have read yet, I say yes. I tell them "œThe books are laughing at you."

REPORTER: How do the books that are here compare to what was in the library before?

C.V.K. SIVAGNANUM: You know, there are latest books both from India and other places and all the books are there. That is conceded. But the historical record of the Tamil community, collected from the elder people, senior people, and our ancestors who lived here, are no more. Our cultural heritage is not available.







Translations / Subtitling


Original Music composed by


Additional footage courtesy of Somee Tharan