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Burning memories

(June 01, Jaffna, Sri Lanka Guardian) Remembering the sad saga of Tamils in Sri Lanka, the burning down of the Jaffna library is a one of the biggest and finest in Asia, on the night of May 31, 1981. On that fateful night Sri Lankan paramilitary forces set ablaze this grand library as part of the pogrom against Tamils of Jaffna. Some 97,000 volumes of books, excluding rare and important Ola manuscripts, went up in flames.

These included works of Ananda Coomaraswamy, the famous Lanka-born Tamil Indophil and eminent intellectual Professor Issac Thambiah. In the massacre that followed over next two days statues of Tamil cultural and religious icons were destroyed or disfigured.

The library was built in many stages starting from 1933, from a modest beginnings as a private collection. Soon with the help of primarily local citizens, it became a full fledged library. The Library also became a repository of archival material written in Palm leaf manuscripts, original copies of regionally important historic documents in the contested Contest, political history of Sri Lanka and newspapers that were published hundred of years ago in the Jaffna peninsula. It thus became a place of historic and symbolic importance to the local minority Sri Lankan Tamil people.

Eventually the first major wing of the library was opened in 1959 by then Jaffna mayor Alfred Duraiappah. The architect of the Indo-Saracenic style building was one Narasimhan from Madras, India. Prominent Indian librarian S.R. Ranganathan served as an advisor to ensure that the library was built to international standards. The library became the pride of the local people as even researchers from India and other countries began to use it for their research purposes.

Braving its first destruction in 1981, the Tamil community pooled thousands of books, to rebuild the library when the civil war caught up in 1983. In 1985 again, the semi-built library bore assault of Sri Lankan Army.

Of all the destruction in Jaffna city it was the destruction of the Jaffna Public Library was the incident which appeared to cause the most distress to the people of Jaffna.

After, Jaffna was wrested from the LTTE in 1996 the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga got it rebuilt the library. But the lost inflicted was irreparable. One side of the people argue it should have been kept as a memorial and it was rebuild to whitewash the Sinhala pogram against Tamils.

The library was reopened in 2003, twenty two years later, Mayor of Jaffna Nadarajah Raviraj still grieved at the recollection of the flames he saw as a University student. He was later killed by unknown gunmen in the capital Colombo in 2006.

For Tamils the devastated library became a symbol of "physical and imaginative violence" of majoritan extremists. The attack was seen as an assault on their aspirations, value of learning and traditions of academic achievement.

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