Compared to many bombed out homes and churches in town, the Jaffna Library is housed in a starkly and stately, milk-white building.
A statute of goddess Saraswati in the courtyard and armed Sri Lankan army patrols outside the walls keep watch as students, retired government servants and academics step inside the library’s noiseless reading rooms with high ceilings to pour over books and journals.
“You need to take your shoes off (before entering) as this is a ‘temple of knowledge’’, former head librarian S. Thanabaalasinham said.
The library building was inaugurated in 1959 by mayor, Alfred Durayappah, assassinated in 1975 by slain Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, his first high-profile murder.
But for all the coats of white paint on the façade, the scars of a violent night in 1981 remain like a torn book in the dusty, dark corner of a shelf.
“We can’t replace them,’’ Thanabaalasinham said about the thousands of rare books and Palmyrah leaf manuscripts destroyed when the library was burnt down by a drunk, rampaging mob of policemen on the night of May 31, 1981.
Around 97,000 books and manuscripts were turned to ashes.
The library building was re-built; then, after a second attack, abandoned. It moved to neighbouring Nallur.
For years, the scorched building remained empty with bullet-marked walls wrapped in the lingering smell of burnt pages.
Rebuilding began in 1998 and the new library building was reopened in 2003. It now has more than 100000 books and 200 regular users.
“We are getting books from all over the world. Last month we received 1000,’’ Thanbaalasinham said, adding that library’s website was ready to be inaugurated. He expects that more students and researchers from across Sri Lanka would gradually start using the library.
He spoke about the library’s India connection. The High Commission of India’s first secretary Siddharth Chari laid the foundation stone of the building, targeted in ’81, in 1954.
“After it was burnt down, the Tamil Nadu government with MGR as chief minister sent books worth Rs 5 million to the library,’’ Thanbaalasinham said.