It was on the night of June 1, 1981 that the Jaffna Public Library with its
priceless collection of books and some rare manuscripts was turned to ashes.
a century of toil and dedication by several individuals and institutions
that built up the reservoir of knowledge, was to be the target of some vandals. Would
it be realised that the loss is not just to the North of Sri Lanka, but to the whole
of Sri Lanka and the international community of learning?.....
....At this time, it is relevant to study the history of this world renowned
library. In 1933, a wellwisher named K. M. Chellappah, out of his desire
to share knowledge with others was conducting a free library in his house.
Appreciating the idea of Mr. Chellappah, some lovers of learning got together and
formed a committee and met on June 9, 1934 to establish a Library. Issac
Thambiah, who was the High Court judge of Jaffna at that time, was elected chairman
and K. M. Chellappah was elected secretary.
Due to the effort of this committee, on August 1, 1934, a library was opened in a
small rented room on Hospital Road, Jaffna, in front of the electrical station.
At inception, this library had only 844 books and about 30 newspapers and magazines,
yet it was patronised by all citizens, young and old, with yearning for
The library grew a large number of books and more space was needed. In January
1935, it was shifted to a rented building on Main Street, Jaffna. In 1936,
the present municipal building and Town Hall was built (it was razed to the ground).
This library was shifted to a building near the Town Hall.
At that time the membership fee was only Rs. 3/-. With this
subscription, lending of books started. The popularity of the library was
such that there was a demand for a permanent building with all modern
A conference was held under the chairmanship of the first Mayor of Jaffna Sam
Sabapathy, to find ways and means of collecting fun ds to build a new
library. It was decided to conduct a carnival, music and dance recitals by
Indian artistes, sale of lottery tickets etc., Large sums beyond the expectation of
the organisers, was collected. A library committee was formed in 1953,
Rev. Fr. Long, who was the rector of St. Patrick's College at that time,
was also a member in this committee (it should be noted here that Fr. Long died
of a heart attack when he heard of the burning of the library).
The contribution made by Fr. Long was so great that his statue was erected in
front of the library by the public. The library committee invited a
leading specialist in library science, Prof. S. R. Ranganathan from Delhi,
to advise on the formation of the library to international standard. It also
invited K. S. Narasimman, who was at that time the architect t o the Madras
government, an authority in Dravidian architecture.
A master plan was drawn and the front wing was to be built as stage one and the
rear wing to be built later as stage two. The foundation was laid for stage
on March 29 1953, in the p resence of several educationists and wellwishers, not
only from Jaffna, but from all over the island and from India.
The first stage of the building was completed and on October 11, 1959, the
building was ceremonially opened by the then mayor of Jaffna, Alfred
Duraiappah. A children's section was opened on November 03, 1967.
Asia Foundation donated books worth Rs. 9,500/-. At that time this amount was a
An auditorium was opened in the first floor in 1971 for the purpose of holding
lectures, seminars, literary and cultural performances. Valuable books and
centuries - old ola manuscripts were collected from the time of Mr. Chellappah in
There were about 97,000 valuable books, old newspapers and magazines up to
the torching of the library on June 01, 1981. Alas! all these rare collections were
set on fire by some insane human beings. The burnt building remained
without repair as a monument to the vandalism of man.
In 1981, the Municipality of Jaffna, under the leadership of the then Mayor, Rasa
Viswanathan, obtained the advice of engineers to ascertain whether the building
was structurally sound to renovate it. The engineers advised against the renovation
as they were doubtful about the strength of the building. Then the Municipality
decided to build stage two of the master plan. The same year, I was appointed
architect to design stage two of the building.
It was decided to keep the same details of Dravidian architecture found in stage
one. The estimated cost of the building at that time was about 11
million rupees. The Jaffna Municipal Council decided to start a
fund-raising and book collection campaign in Colombo. The mayor appointed a
committee with myself as its chairman.
The Colombo committee decided to organise a "Jaffna Public Library
Week" from May 15 - 21, 1982 and a flag day on May 21, 1982. The press in Sri
Lanka gave tremendous publicity to these events. On the first day, within an hour, a
sum of Rs. 90,000/- was collected. Several businessmen, social service
organisations, religious organisations and members of the public came in the hundreds
and donated cash and books.
It was like a week of solemn devotion and dedication that people of all walks of
life disregarding differences of caste, creed, community or religion converged on
Saraswathy Hall, as in a pilgrimage to hand over their gifts for the restoration
of the house of knowledge. Thousands of books were collected and sent to
With the funds collected the construction work on stage two commenced in June
1982. The building was nearing completion by June 1983, when the second calamity
took place. The war broke out and this building received a severe beating
by bullets, shells and bombs. What remains today is a structure with shell and
bullet holes and blackened walls with the smoke of burnt books. ..... can anyone
bring back the valuable ola manuscripts and books which have turned into