I spoke to Nishath Kaleel, a Grade 2 librarian who has worked in the library for 8 months, and he suggested I talk to Sabaratnam Thanabalasinham, the retired Chief librarian, who nevertheless still comes into work everyday. Mr Thanabalasinham, 62 years old, wasn’t far away. He has worked in Jaffna library for over twenty years and said he also served in Trinco library. He told me about the place as he showed me around:
‘The library was established in 1934 by Father Long, a Christian, from a private collection. It was built in several stages and much expanded in the 1950s by Narasimhan, a famous architect from Madras. Currently there are about 100,000 books, some of which have been donated. In 1981 the library was set on fire by unknown people and badly damaged. 96,000 books were destroyed, including some very rare books.
In 1983 and 1985 it was attacked again, by soldiers who set off bombs. Thousands of books had recently been donated by the local community but these were all destroyed. After this, nobody tried to repair the building – it was left abandoned. Before these attacks it was the number one library in SE Asia because of the quality of the collection.’
‘What kind of works were lost?’
‘Books about Tamil culture by Dr Ananda Coomara Swami, a researcher who is known throughout the world. Also many palm-leaf manuscripts recording Tamil culture, including local history and information about folk medicine. There is no one left alive who has this knowledge anymore, and there were no copies.’
‘Why did it happen?’ I had to ask.
‘Politics,’ Mr Thanabalasinham said simply, not wishing to start unravelling the ethnic disputes that ultimately led to violence, and misery for so many people.
The government began to rebuild the library in 1998, but it was seen by many locals as a PR effort to mollify international opinion and whitewash the past. In spite of opposition by the LTTE, the library was reopened in 2003, very similar in style to how it had been before. It’s a big, bright, airy new building and outside there’s a statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning. You have to take your shoes off to enter, just as you do in a Hindu temple.
‘Where were the new books donated from?’
‘All over the world, but India was particularly generous. About 60% are in English and 40% in Tamil. There are also some in Sinhala, French and German. We get a lot of visitors but not so many of them are readers. Most people come here just to browse the internet.’
Near the library is a clock tower that was restored and reopened in June 2002, with digital clocks donated by HRH Prince of Wales; but the clocks are no longer working so the tower just has four, oddly blank, dark faces.
The central market sells all manner of items, including food, clothes and DVDS. You can buy locally made cigars, Jaffna coffee, and crafts made out of palmyra (palm leaf), such as bags, hats and even jam.
Jaffna’s Archaeological Museum is worth a look, although there’s not a lot in it. I was accompanied by two men who switched the lights on in each room as I came to it, then off again as I walked out. There’s a dusty old portrait of Queen Victoria with a bullet-hole in it, right through the queen’s forehead! Not far from here, just west of Kandy Road, is the Catholic church of St John the Baptist, a large, airy building with a peaceful interior.
The city is famous for its classic cars, such as the Austin Cambridge or Morris Minor. Many of these are now run as taxis and you can hire one, together with driver, at the taxi rank on Hospital Rd.
Poignantly, the old railway station built by the British is now a hulking, roofless, shell. The flower bushes on the old traffic circle in front have grown into trees, and there aren’t even any tracks left. The LTTE ripped them up and used the iron bars for bunkers. The last train to Jaffna, the Yal Devi, ran in 1990, but was forced to stop before it reached its destination. Previous to this, most visitors to Jaffna travelled by train, and the Yal Devi was a household name in Sri Lanka. There is good news however, because the northern track is currently being rebuilt from scratch, section by section. In May 2011 a train reached Omanthai, a town just north of Vavuniya, for the first time in over twenty years. The project is only partially government funded but they definitely have a vested interest in re-establishing the railway. Tellingly, the line is scheduled to end at the enormous military base at Kankesanturai.
Apart from the statues on Beach Rd, the Lonely Planet mentioned the Thileepan Memorial, a monument to the LTTE’s former political officer, Rasiah Parthipan Thileepan. Thileepan went on a public hunger strike on 15th September 1987, in essence to protest against the treatment of the Tamil people, and the presence in Sri Lanka of the Indian Peace Keeping Force, which was anything but peaceful. He fasted sitting opposite the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil and ended up dying for his beliefs, aged only 26. There was widespread grief among the Tamil people, and even the Sinhalese still regard him with respect. Sadly, however, I arrived at the site near the Kovil to discover that the memorial has been unceremoniously toppled and was lying broken on its side, near the new Rio ice-cream building. The base of the memorial was hidden behind ramshackle stalls and advertising hoardings. Either this is a temporary state of affairs and there are plans to build a new memorial, or it’s a very clear attempt to censor the past.