Up From The Ashes, A Public Library In Sri Lanka Welcomes New Readers : Parallels The Jaffna library once held irreplaceable, ancient manuscripts, lost when it was torched in 1981. Fully restored, the beloved landmark today is filled with readers.
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Up From The Ashes, A Public Library In Sri Lanka Welcomes New Readers

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Up From The Ashes, A Public Library In Sri Lanka Welcomes New Readers

Up From The Ashes, A Public Library In Sri Lanka Welcomes New Readers

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to Sri Lanka for a visit to an architectural stand out - the Jaffna Public Library. It rose from the ashes of the country's nearly three-decades-long civil war. As NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, its renovations are as exquisite as its history is turbulent.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Flanked by bird-filled gardens, the Jaffna Public Library gleams white under the Sri Lankan sun looking a bit like a stately wedding cake. Constructed in 1959, it is beautifully proportioned - classical features within a modern structure. Oversized teak windows frame an airy reading room now packed on Sunday afternoons. In this provincial capital once wracked by battles, the library is a testament to restoration, Wi-Fi included. Looking at it today, you wouldn't know this three-domed landmark was gutted in a mysterious fire in 1981.

S. THANABAALASINHAM: It was completely destroyed, and at that time, nobody knows who was inside the library.

MCCARTHY: That's S. Thanabaalasinham, the retired chief librarian who says 97,000 volumes were lost.

THANABAALASINHAM: There were six rooms.

MCCARTHY: Six rooms...

THANABAALASINHAM: Yes.

MCCARTHY: ...Turned to dust, turned ashes.

THANABAALASINHAM: Yes, yes. (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Incinerated, he says, was the Tamil history, valuable books of Hindu philosophers, irreplaceable ancient texts, scrolls written on palm leaves. Sri Lanka's mainly Hindu Tamil minority suspects that police from the mostly Buddhist Singles majority set the fire that foreshadowed the bigger conflict to come - the civil war between government forces and separatist Tamil Tigers.

With donations from well-wishers around the world, the library was fully renovated in 1984. But within a year, Jaffna was engulfed in Sri Lanka's civil war, and the newly refurbished library sat at ground zero. Shells careened over the roof. Thanabaalasinham says before long, the building was assaulted head on when Tamil insurgents took up residence in what was left of the lending room.

THANABAALASINHAM: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: He's saying that it becomes the place where the opposition - the rebels - billet themselves. They operate out of here just yards from where the government forces are in an old Dutch Fort that sits along the coast here.

THANABAALASINHAM: Unmanned zone.

MCCARTHY: A no-man's land?

THANABAALASINHAM: Yes, no-man area.

MCCARTHY: It would remain a no man's land through much of the 1990s when fighting intensified and civilian casualties in the war climbed into the thousands. In 1990, Thanabaalasinham, who had studied at the library as a young man, returned as its librarian to maintain the collection that had been scattered to smaller branches to save it. Burned, rebuilt and then bombed into ruins, the library rose again a second time. Beginning in 2000, blackened floors were hauled away and gutted rooms repaired in a $1 million facelift. To public plaudits, Thanabaalasinham personally re-opened the doors in 2004.

The library, at the heart of so much turmoil, teams today with the young and the old. Fifteen and wide-eyed, Shareeq Ahmed marveled at how he just read the newspaper printed on the day he was born. Having a book in my hand, said one 75-year-old patron, is more than meditation to me. The restored gardens were the former library chief's sanctuary. There, he relaxed and instructed the ground staff on how to prune and replant.

So you were also the gardener.

THANABAALASINHAM: (Laughter).

MCCARTHY: Chief librarian and gardener.

S. Thanabaalasinham served the storied Jaffna Public Library for 22 years.

Thank you very much, sir.

THANABAALASINHAM: Thank you. Thank you.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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