The Jaffna Library

History, Home Remedies | September 9, 2016 | By

Rebuilding of the Jaffna Library Wikipedia: Creative Commons

Rebuilding of the Jaffna Library
Wikipedia: Creative Commons

As much as I love cooking, I love reading and writing. Part of the reason I started my blog was to document an important part of Tamil culture, food. I also value the importance of documentation and preservation in general. So, I digress a little and write this post about the Jaffna Library.

The Tamil community has been regarded as one of best preservers of knowledge for many years. The Jaffna Library was a world renowned library. At the time it was built, it was one of the biggest libraries in Asia and held many, many rare collections. The Jaffna Library has always been a point of fascination for me. I would imagine myself perusing the shelves and shelves of books, and finding some secret treasure hidden in the library among a very rare book. I think these imaginations were partly induced by my fascination with libraries and my wild imagination (and maybe a little by the library in Beauty and the Beast).

Tamils value the preservation of Tamil culture, history and language. Many people may not be aware of this, but the Father of Library Science, was a Tamil man. He was mathematician and librarian, S.R. Ranganathan. His lessons and principles are taught in international universities at the Masters of Library Science program today.

There are other impressive library related facts about Tamils. The Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL) in Chennai has some of the world’s most impressive private library collections of Tamil publications. When Muthiah passed away in 1992, the University of Chicago bought the entire collection and now conduct research on the materials. This library collection is said to have many ancient Tamil manuscripts that have yet to be translated and having writings in more ancient forms of Tamil that are in the works of translations. (Sometimes I secretly imagine myself decoding some of the many rare collections from its holdings).

When I first learned about the burning of the Jaffna Library, I was shocked. I wondered, how could such a beautiful and magnificent library be burned? But I later learned, that libraries and museums have always been a highly valued part of preserving culture, and as a result, they have always been one of the first physical targets in ethnic cleansing and genocide. The Jaffna Library was burned on May 31st, 1981. The burning of such impressive libraries and holders of culture and history is not new phenomena.

Tamils say the food is medicine and medicine is food. You can only imagine how many books would’ve been there that were references to Tamil cooking that would have been burned, especially all the information about the health benefits of particular dishes and medicinal benefits of these foods.  Other than the books that were circulating, the rest would’ve all been destroyed.  This is why we need to preserve Tamil cooking.

Books have been targeted for over 55 centuries, with the earliest burning of books being traced back to between 4100 and 3300 BCE. Egypt, China, Armenia, Bosnia, Bagdad and many more examples can be seen throughout history.

 The Jaffna Library, founded in 1841 was burned on May 31, 1981. At the time, the Jaffna Library housed 100,000 books and manuscripts that were relevant to the Tamil culture. Irreplaceable manuscripts on palm leafs were also destroyed. The copy of Yalpanam Vaipuavama, a historical chronological account of Jaffna was also burned. The Jaffna Library served much historical and symbolic significance for Tamils and their culture.

Libraries and museums are the epitome and embodiment of culture.  We must begin to see value in these cultural institutions, invest in them, and find multiple ways to preserve, protect and safeguard our beautiful Tamil history, culture and traditions.


Baez (2008). The Universal Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq. New York: Atlas and Co.

Coloroso (2007). Extraordinary Evil. Canada: Nation Books.  

Knuth (2008). Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century. Westport: Praeger.




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