Eminent history professor S Pathmanathan recently explained the origin of the name Jaffna to me. He said: "It is derived from the name or designation of a chieftain of a community of musicians who specialised in playing the lyre (an antiquated string instrument).’’ A small community of musicians in the far north, they were pushed out of the region. The music died but the name Jaffna remained.
Over time, Jaffna became the heart of Sri Lankan Tamil culture, literature and society. In 1972, it was from Jaffna that the militant Tamil student movement begun against a biased education policy.
The Jaffna library, a priceless repository of knowledge, was burnt down in 1981; in 1983 the ethnic war was triggered after 13 soldiers were killed there.
The peninsula’s repeated trysts with violence went on. It was wrested from the Tamil Tigers by the military in 1995. A heavily militarised Jaffna – still out of bounds for foreign journalists – remained with the government till the war ended in 2009.
Jaffna is now readying for a new battle – one for the ballot.
In the 2005 Presidential election, the Tigers called for a boycott and voting was negligible. This time, it could be different.
Presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka, for one, knows Jaffna well. He was the Jaffna area commander once and was there last week to campaign.
Fonseka worshipped at a Hindu temple, met the Bishop and indicated that he would remove the `high security zone’ tag from Jaffna if he won. Reports said that he attracted only patchy crowds.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be visiting Jaffna next with the twin campaign tunes of stability and forging a link between the Tamils and Sinhala in a post-conflict Sri Lanka.
Both belong to the majority community and the Tamils need to be convinced about their intentions. According to Pathmanathan, more than 50 per cent of the population of six lakhs are voters and would prove crucial in the fight for the Presidency on January 26. It remains to be seen for whom the lyre plays.