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Context

The burning of the Jaffna Public Library was a case of ethnic biblioclasm and cultural eradication of Tamil history. At the time of its destruction, the library was one of the biggest in Asia, containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts.

As per Wikipedia:

Over 97,000 volumes of books along with numerous culturally important and irreplaceable manuscripts were destroyed.[7] Among the destroyed items were scrolls of historical value and the works and manuscripts of philosopher, artist and author Ananda Coomaraswamy and prominent intellectual Prof. Dr. Isaac Thambiah. The destroyed articles included memoirs and works of writers and dramatists who made a significant contribution toward the sustenance of the Tamil culture, and those of locally reputed physicians and politicians.

Main Questions

  1. What were those irreplaceable books and manuscripts that were destroyed (i.e names)?
  2. Is there any idea of what history those manuscripts (palm-leaf and others) and books contained?
  3. What works of Ananda Coomaraswamy and Prof. Dr. Isaac Thambiah lost? (Again names and content)
  4. Are there any books and manuscripts that have been subsequently reconstructed from memory?

My research till now:

  1. One of the books which were permanently lost is called Yalpana Vaipava Malai (Tamil: யாழ்ப்பாண வைபவமாலை) which contained the early history of the city of Jaffna (Yaazhpaanam) and the rule of Aryachakravarthis.

  2. Miniature editions of the Ramayana (I suppose they were one of a kind).

  3. Microfilms of the Udhaya Tharakai, a bilingual journal published by missionaries in the early 20th century was also lost.

  4. Among these were remarkable historical materials such as early colonial accounts of Ceylon and commentaries on Tolkappiyam, the oldest grammar text in the Tamil language (Ambiguous on whether they exist in other places).

Source for 2, 3, and 4

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    "Amongst some of the collections housed in the library were 700 books on the famous art critic and Sri Lankan Tamil Savant Dr Ananda Coomarasamy donated by Mr Thurairajasinham of Malaysia" nakkeran.com/index.php/2021/05/31/…
    – Avery
    Sep 28 at 3:04
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    I may have located a record of what this "700 books" refers to. It will take a few days for me to write an answer as I am busier than I used to be
    – Avery
    Sep 28 at 3:10
  • @Avery That's great! Please do write as soon as you are able to. And do you have any idea about the remaining points/books I have mentioned? Anyways, Thanks a lot! Sep 30 at 15:50
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    I found a webpage that suggests that no one made a full inventory of the lost books. But it seems the donor or the Coomarasamy books may have had something to say. I've ordered his text by mail and it will arrive soon
    – Avery
    Sep 30 at 17:41
  • @Avery Great! Do let me know if there is anything conclusive. Thanks a lot! Sep 30 at 19:47
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Update: I located an article listing a few more documents which were burned.

Some rare documents were: (i) Miniature editions of the Ramayana epic, (ii) The only existing copy of the Yalpanam Vaipavama, a history of Jaffna, (iii) Records of the Morning Star, a periodical publication of the missionaries in the early 20th century, (iv) Microfilms of important materials, and (v) Antique collection of Newspapers of Tamil language.

The Morning Star is extant on microfilm.


A 2014 article in Himāl magazine names two publications which are said to include some kind of details, but I am skeptical.

In June 2001, N Selvarajah brought out a collection of articles and writings on the burning of the JPL titled Jaffna Public Library: a historical compilation. Later, in 2008, Someetharan released Burning Memories, a documentary recounting what was lost and the emotions of people in Jaffna.

Burning Memories is available online, here and here, but I could not find any description in this film of the missing books. (It does have some interesting photos of how the books were stacked.) Jaffna Public Library: a historical compilation is written in Tamil language, so I cannot read it even if I had a copy; the original title is யாழ்ப்பாணாப் பொது நூலகம் Yāḻppāṇap potu nūlakam: oru varalāṟṟut tokuppu. It is only 127 pages so I feel doubtful that it includes a full catalogue.

A 2006 article written by Sachi Sri Kantha states to the contrary that we do not really know what was lost.

In the features written about the 1981 torching of the Jaffna Public Library, “97,000” has become a statistic to lament on the number of books and manuscripts which went up in ashes. But, do we have an assembled catalogue of the lost treasures in hand now? Not that I know of. If such a catalogue has been assembled (even a partial list!) by Tamil librarians or bibliophiles who were associated with the library, it needs to be made public, even in an electronic medium.

He then quotes two local newspaper stories which mention some specifics:

"Among the destroyed were scrolls of historical value and the works and manuscripts of the universally acclaimed philospher, artist and author Ananda Kumaraswamy and prominent intellectual Prof. Issac Thambaiya. The destroyed articles included memoirs and works of writers and dramatists who made a significant contribution toward the sustenance of the Tamil culture and those of locally reputed medical physicians and politicians.” [Jayantha Seneviratne, ‘The reconstruction of the Jaffna library’, Colombo Daily News, Jan.20, 2002].

“There were newspapers and journals published hundred years ago in Jaffna. There were about 10,000 hand-written documents, Roman Catholic books published in 1586 (some in Spanish). There was a copy of ‘History of Ceylon’ written by Robert Knox when he was in the Kandy prison in 1660, as well as ‘Ceylon during the Dutch Rule’ by Philips Baldeus, written in 1672. Amongst some of the collections housed in the library were 700 books on the famous art critic and Sri Lankan Tamil savant Dr. Ananda Coomarasamy donated by Mr.Thurairajasinham of Malaysia; 850 books donated by Rev. Isaac Thambiah; 100 books donated by Kathiravel Pillai. There were a number of encyclopedias from various countries and publishers, dictionaries, atlases and maps, books on astrology and astronomy. The children’s section had miniature editions of Ramayana epics.” [V.S.Thurairajah, ‘Jaffna Library rises from its ruins’, Colombo Daily News, Dec.12, 2002].

I can tackle these in order:

  1. "10,000 hand-written documents", "scrolls of historical value": I put this at the top as it is the most serious claim, but no details are given.
  2. "memoirs and works of writers and dramatists", "newspapers and journals published hundred years ago in Jaffna": It is hard to know what these are without any pointer to further details! Are they one and the same with the two writers named below?
  3. Books and "manuscripts" of Coomaraswamy: I located a period publication by S. Durai Raja Singam, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, a bibliographical record: being a comprehensive bibliography of all his publications from 1895 to 1981 (Kuala Lumpur: privately published in an edition of 200 copies, 1981-84). This book does not mention that Durai Raja Singam possessed any private writings of Coomaraswamy's, and I doubt this is the case, because it mentions that Durai Raja Singam first thought to start studying Coomaraswamy in 1942 when he was a prisoner of war in Malaya and saw his Japanese jailer reading one of Coomaraswamy's books in Japanese translation, and tried to strike up a conversation (in broken Japanese) but also felt guilty he did not know more about his Ceylonese countryman. He then wrote to Coomaraswamy asking for permission to write a biography in 1946 and had a small correspondence, but the latter died in 1947. There is little room here for any "manuscripts". I suspect that the 700 items donated included mainstream publications, and photostat copies of journal articles, which Durai Raja Singam mentions that he has made. The bibliography is a sort of scrapbook, and one can see from paging through it that Durai Raja Singam assembled an encyclopedic span of publications by and about Coomaraswamy; not private correspondence. A 2017 Facebook post states that the University of Malaya has many of Durai Raja Singam's books which it considers equivalent to his lost donation.
  4. 850 items by Isaac Tambyah (1869-1941): He was the editor of a periodical, The Ceylon Review, which is preserved at the British Library. His publications, Psalms of a Saiva saint, Foregleams of God, The planters' legal manual, and A Garland of Ceylon Verse, are also extant. A collection of 850 items might include personal papers which would then be lost with the burning of the library.
  5. 100 items by N. Kathiravel Pillai (1874-1907): A Tamil instructor from Jaffna. Unclear if such a small collection includes personal papers.
  6. History of Ceylon by Robert Knox: This has been reprinted in 2015.
  7. A Description of the East-India Coasts of Malabar and Coromandel and also of the Isle of Ceylon with their Adjacent Kingdoms & Provinces by Philip Baldeus: This has been reprinted in 1996, and has also been digitized.
  8. "Roman Catholic books published in 1586" This sounds like Flos Sanctorum, a 1586 Tamil-language publication by Henrique Henriques. There are other copies of this rare book.

In conclusion:

I cannot find any full record of the 97,000 lost items. Most of the titles given in these two newspapers do not seem to be unique items that were lost forever. We do learn that the lost books include the personal libraries of two local Tamil writers, but it seems we have lost the specifics on what these libraries included. I am inclined to believe the account of "10,000 hand-written documents" -- not because I know and trust the person making the claim, but because tens of thousands of irreplaceable medieval manuscripts are rotting away as we speak in unfunded libraries throughout South Asia, so it does not at all surprise me that the librarians were unable to save such manuscripts in Sri Lanka. However, I find no evidence that these thousands of manuscripts were ever catalogued. Possibly they were taken from local [edit]Hindu temples, etc. to the library in great bundles, then were destroyed by the mob without ever being looked at.

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  • Thank you for the answer! It's a bit late here, so will add a more comprehensive comment later. About point 2, I have no idea about the memoirs of Tamil dramatists, but I do not think (just a guess) they mean the works of Ananda Coomaraswamy or Isacc Thambiah because both of them were people who seem to have written about Philosophy, Religion, etc. One of the newspapers might be the Udhaya Tharakai which I have mentioned in my question. But, likely there would have possibly been many many more which might have been lost. Oct 1 at 19:18
  • Also, for your last point, while it might have contained Buddhist manuscripts, the political situation in that time would likely have not entertained much of Buddhist/Sinhalese works and, as evident, the supporters of the library were predominantly Tamils (of which majority were Hindus and a minority of Tamil Christians) makes it likely that the library mostly contained Tamil works. Oct 1 at 19:19
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    Thank you for adding these points, I am doing my best to assemble a bibliography with the sources that I can locate online and at private libraries, but not knowing much about the local situation as I'm sure you understand :)
    – Avery
    Oct 1 at 19:21
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    Seriously, Thank you. I am attempting to do the same and it's wonderful to know someone else contains the same passion. While I am not from Sri Lanka, I am ethnically Tamil and I do know quite a bit about the local situation due to the war leaving such a deep scar on Tamils worldwide. I am moderately proficient in reading and writing Tamil, but I am quite doubtful whether I possess the necessary skill level to digest Jaffna Public Library: a historical compilation although I might be able to procure some outside help in figuring it out. Oct 1 at 19:29

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