Ilankai Tamil Sangam

28th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Is There War in Your Ur?

by S. Sumathy, Himal, October, 2008

It hardly resembled the bustling city that I knew as a teenager, when I trundled around on a beat-up bicycle; or later in the mid-1980s, when I nonchalantly but carefully negotiated the many checkpoints that had sprung up all over, of the Sri Lankan army, the IPKF and the militants. But my nostalgic memory is not of a promise of a future, potent and portent. It is of a dying moment.

My memory of return is overlaid with the shock of discovering a city overgrown with shrub vegetation, roads that had shrunk to narrow alleyways. As I landed in the town centre I was completely disoriented, like the returning expatriate in In Search of a Road. As the three-wheeler wended its way down Main Street, I fumbled with my directions, not knowing where I was. Main Street, the busy thoroughfare that connected the city to Kandy Road (the highway built by the British to connect Jaffna to the south), was inextricably deserted. So, in my inability to recover the Jaffna of my war, I go back to memories of happier times and sadder times.

JaffnaThe title is taken from a query articulated by a young participant at a workshop last year for displaced youths, both Tamil and Muslim, from the north and the east of Sri Lanka. The workshop was part of an ongoing research project, during which participants had to interview a partner on the other person’s place of birth or dwelling. For this young man from Jaffna, the northernmost city in Sri Lanka, the question encompassed all that he could ask of life. In Tamil, ur means land, one’s own place. Is there war in your place? But is that all that Jaffna is? What do I recall of Jaffna, which is my ur as well? What could I recall that could have meaning for those who see themselves as Southasian? Is there war in your ur, too? In other Southasian countries? In other countries in the world? Will they recognise Jaffna in their own cities?

My recollection of Jaffna city is multi-tongued; it records a historical narrative, culled from memory, both dominant and marginal. Jaffna to this day is known as a Dutch city by the historian, while for me it is just home. It is historically a colonial city. Architecturally, it resembles other Dutch cities of the island – Galle at the southernmost tip and Puttalam, on the northwestern coast. “This is doubtless owing to the architecture of its most prominent building – the fort and the bungalows,” wrote H W Cave, a prominent Britisher in Sri Lanka, in 1908. “Other remains of the Dutch architecture in Jaffna are the buildings in Main Street where the gables and the verandas will especially claim notice.” Colonial history actually goes back another century or more.

The Kingdom of Jaffna itself is said to have been in establishment from the 11th century or so. The seat of the kingdom skirted today’s city’s limits. As schoolchildren out on vapid educational trips, everyone is taken to see the palace ruins. Actually, the only thing remaining is an ornamental arch, called the Sangili Thoppu, bearing the name of Sangili, the last king of Jaffna. While doing some desultory historical research, I stumbled upon an account suggesting that the arch probably belonged to the headquarters of one Poothathamby Mudaliyar, an administrator during the Dutch times – thus quickly demystifying one’s dreams of a magnificent past, a glorious heritage of royalty and ruins, castles and forts. But the disillusionment is not totally of recent origin. To this day, my hazy recollection of the Thoppu is mixed with the image of a noisy, dirty and cluttered garage that served motorists and cyclists as a repair shop, just behind the Thoppu. For me, a determined cyclist as a schoolgirl, the garage was vastly more useful than the ruins of a distant Tamil king.

The ashes of the past
Of course, the story of Sangili – and there had been historically more than one king with this name – has caught the imagination of writers and activists in the area. During the 1950s, K Kanapathipillai, a longtime professor with the Department of Tamil at the University of Peradeniya, wrote a thoroughly anti-colonial play about the conquest of Jaffna by the Portuguese in 1621. In line with the anti-colonial sentiments of the time, his play was self-consciously written in a Jaffna dialect, replete with all the signs of conventional patriotism, the heroic, the treacherous and the sexual.

In our time of war, from the 1970s to the present, the more insistent demands of increasing militancy and the military creates another idiom of martiality. The war in my ur, in my city, is in poetry and in memory. One of the foremost poets of the resistant nationalist era, V I S Jeyapalan, writes in his poem “Rising from the ashes of the dead”:

Mother of mine,
my dear city, Yalpaanam,
the vultures circle over
your body, laid out like a
deadened corpse.
The spine of the vine
of alien root sprouting
from your body,
could it be stronger than the
umbilical cord that for thousands of years
spread across and over, and
birthed me, and reaching out,
the edge of the
vast end of the world?

We set our imprint on the land
growing tall making our history
It will erase from this earth
the footprints of those
who marched in line;
Of Senbahap Perumal, the Ferengeez
Commander, the Hollanders and the white man…

(Translation by the writer)

The Sangili story is hydra-headed, and belongs to the story of other intimacies with war. The lived reality of Jaffna is subversive by very nature. Near Sangili Thoppu, the Three Point Junction sports a statue of a man on horseback. This very modern work overlooks the hugely popular Kandaswamy Temple, of God Skanda and St James Church, pockmarked today by incessant firing. We used to pass that statue every Sunday on our way to church, giving no thought to this king’s equestrian skills. Another of the Jaffna kings, also called Sangili, had during his reign slaughtered 600 Christians from Mannar, a coastal town on the southwest of Jaffna, to this day a predominantly Catholic city. Of course, our church was Anglican, and had obviously been a Dutch church that was converted to suit the Anglican Order. Its frightening austerity bore testimony to the parsimony and the Puritanism of the Dutch Protestants.

This statue of Sangili oversaw other poignant happenings during the war. Between 1990 and 1995, when Jaffna was under LTTE rule, the administrative centre was shifted to Three Point Junction. People flocked there to haggle, fight and bargain with the administrators of the LTTE regime, in fear and apprehension, to obtain passes to be able to travel to southern Sri Lanka. They would also bargain with the LTTE officials over ‘taxes’, the ‘one sovereign gold’ they had to pay to the Tigers. Three Point Junction and the statue of Sangili are just points in the narrative of wartime history. I lived not far from there – in Nallur, just within the city limits.

Not far from the church is the world-renowned Kandaswamy Kovil. The church itself was built on temple land appropriated by the Portuguese, and then taken over by the Dutch in their persecution of Catholics in the area. But the temple grew in prominence during British times, particularly with anti-colonial Shaivite and Tamil revivals, spearheaded by the reformer Arumuga Navalar. Jaffna saw a campaign to open up the temples to ‘untouchable’ castes during the 1960s, and Kandaswamy subsequently opened up as well, unlike other temples set deep in the interior of the Jaffna peninsula. But the dominant Vellala caste would still hold the reins of power.

In wartime, both Kandaswamy temple and St James Church would serve as refugee camps. When in October 1987, at the height of the war between the Indian Peace Keeping Force and the LTTE, Rajani Thiranagama wrote in her poem “Letter from Jaffna” – “And thousands and thousands of people/always more than ten thousand/are herded into kovils, churches, and schools/The beautiful sandy precincts of the temple/become nothing/but one big shit dump” – she was referring to Kandaswamy. I sometimes wonder to what extent caste barriers were broken in the proximity brought about by war, by the sense of solidarity brought about by suffering.

The fort
But we are still on the periphery of Jaffna city. The heart of the city is half in ruins. While government propaganda today displays row upon row of the bazaar here bustling with life, it is the memory of the kachcheri, the secretariat, with its imposing colonnades and columns in ruins, that is etched in the public’s memory. One of the most searing images of Dharmasena Pathiraja’s recent semi-documentary In Search of a Road was the image of an older Jaffna man, an expatriate from Canada on a visit home, looking up in wonder at this monumental modern-day ruin. He later says to his daughter, also from the diaspora, “There are no people any longer – only refugees, displaced people. I went looking for the Kachcheri, but it’s not there. It’s in ruins. These are our symbols, of our existence; when they die, we die too.”

The memory of war goes a long way back in Jaffna. It precedes our current war, spilling over into memories of other wars, other people’s struggles. Jaffna Fort: what does its memory evoke? The fort is not part of the lived reality for many people, unless of course one thinks of prisoners incarcerated in the prison that was housed inside the fort. The Jaffna Fort, reconstructed by the Dutch from an old Portuguese fort, is considered to be the finest of the Dutch forts in all of Asia. The original structure was built by the Portuguese, seemingly in defiance of the king of Jaffna, who had given permission only to construct a building – but had not bargained on what would become a well-fortified garrison. After the capture of Jaffna by the Dutch, this structure was reconfigured as a Dutch fort, housing residences and a church serving the Dutch rulers.

The market lay off to one side of the fort. During British times, from 1872 onwards, the market area began to take over the fort in importance, replacing the British and the Europeans with the overflowing humanity of the ‘natives’. Up until the intensification of the war, during the 1990s, the market remained a central point, a place marked by ‘low life’, the chatter and cursing of fisherwomen, and a place of adventure for a middle-class teenager setting out on rather timid expeditions into city life. But nothing was more shocking than the realisation that the imposing structure of Our Lady of Miracles, near the fish market, was actually built on land belonging to a mosque that is no longer there.

Still, the fort was in many ways symbolic of Jaffna city. As children during peace time, we were taken on tours to see it. But it also housed a modern prison, housing inmates from the local population as well as those from far away. On the night of 4 April 1971, I was returning with my parents from the esplanade encircling the fort, after watching a passion play performed by the local Catholic community. We watched from afar this gruelling pageant, the entourage following Jesus winding its way up to Golgotha. It was my first experience of watching a passion play live, and my last.

On our way back home, we were stopped by a passing neighbour who gave us more pressing news, more exciting than the passion of Christ. At that time, I did not realise the import of the message: the prison housing Sinhala political prisoners – notably Rohana Wijeweera, the leader of the militant Marxist party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – had been attacked by insurgents. But the police had turned the floodlights, which had been used to illuminate the passion play, onto the fort, and had been able to quell the attack. Between 30 and 40 insurgents, who had travelled from Colombo for this mission, had been killed in the attack. We would later realise that this marked the beginning of the insurrection of 1971, the southern uprising of the Sinhala youth. Jaffna too was part of it, though it watched from the sidelines. Wijeweera was later killed by state forces in a raid on his hideout in 1989, in the days of the second JVP uprising.

The esplanade would be witness to many other events, too, all part of a conflict that would eventually sneak up on the Jaffna public. In January 1974, the International Tamil Research Conference was held in Jaffna city. The conference itself was a tame and vapid affair of international scholars meeting to ponder matters of great unimportance. But we also witnessed a carnival of emotion, a great outpouring of nationalist sentiment by the people, as they voluntarily adorned the streets with pandals and other decorative paraphernalia. On the final day of the conference, 10 January, at a public rally held at the esplanade, for no apparent reason the police suddenly opened fire and tear-gassed the crowd, creating a stampede and an accidental electrocution in which several people died. The incident, though today consigned to the dust heap of history, became one of the cardinal points in the narrative of ‘our war’. This was soon to be overtaken by the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, in 1981.

The library
The library, along with its 97,000 volumes, including rare manuscripts, was burned by state forces over the course of two nights, on 31 May and 1 June. The entire war became immediately fixated on this event, and its importance was only equalled two years later, with the horrendous anti-Tamil riots down south of July 1983. Soon after the torching of the library, the University of Jaffna was galvanised for a massive fundraising mission to rebuild the library, which the student union and supporting staff executed with machine-like efficiency. Today my memories of these events are not only of the excitement generated by the passionate and idealistic youthfulness of the venture, but also of its disquietudes.

Burned Husk of the Jaffna Public Library 1981
Flashpoint: the burned husk of the Jaffna Public Library, 1981

Why has this act of aggression become so much more important than many other such incidents, by either the state forces or the militant movements, namely the LTTE? Are the story and its telling somehow linked to the political economy of the city and the peninsula? Jaffna is a non-industrialised agricultural area, and in its heyday it was dependent on remittances from its (lower-) middle-class workforce in the south. Surrounded by agricultural lands, the city’s main focus was educational. The schools of Jaffna, initiated first by American missionaries during the 19th century, were eventually taken up by revivalists and liberal leftwing anti-colonialists, such as the Jaffna Youth Congress. Soon, these institutions began to attract students from southern Sri Lanka, particularly from elite families.

Jaffna took great pride in what it saw as its legacy to the country – education. Its middle classes prided themselves on being both cultured and educated. The burning of the Jaffna Library was seen as state aggression, hitting out at precisely this focus of community pride. A Catholic priest collapsed and died in shock upon hearing of the event, and the act likewise became a pivotal emotional point in the history of victimisation of our war. While cultural activity surrounding the burning has been manifold, I would like to cite just one piece by the celebrated poet and scholar M A Nuhman, who at the time was a lecturer at the University of Jaffna.


Last night
I dreamt
Buddha was shot dead
by the police,
guardians of the law.
His body drenched in blood
On the steps
Of the Jaffna Library.

Under cover of darkness
Came the ministers,
“His name is not on our list,
why did you kill him?”
they ask angrily.

“No sirs, no
there was no mistake.
Without killing him
It was impossible
to harm a fly –
Therefore …,” they stammered.

“Alright, then
hide the corpse”
The ministers return.

The men in civvies
dragged the corpse
into the library.
They heaped the books
ninety thousand in all,
and lit the pyre
with the Cikalokavadda Sutta.
Thus the remains
of the Compassionate One
were burned to ashes
along with the Dhammapada.

(Translated from the Tamil by S Pathmanathan)
Despite the iconic status that the burning of the library has achieved, its narrative is not without discomfiting undersides or detractors. In 2003, during the second term of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, both as a goodwill measure and as part of establishing normalcy and redressing old grievances, the government initiated the grand opening of the rebuilt Jaffna Public Library. While the burning of the library had given birth to a unified history of victimisation, the ‘rebirth’ of the library opened up some notable fault lines. For one, the LTTE stood against the opening ceremony, and thus it was called off. Also, the mayor of Jaffna at that time was not of the Vellala caste. Was that too a point of contention? A scholar from Jaffna told me recently that “The library was in a dilapidated state, and its celebrated collection of rare books was in shambles, falling to pieces. If not the police, then some one else should have burnt it down.”

The eviction
Memories are of the old and the new. Recently flipping through the Silver Jubilee souvenir of Jaffna municipality from 1974, I was surprised to see the names of many Muslim leaders as mayors or deputy mayors. The frontispiece of the souvenir is an address by the then-mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappa, who had also inaugurated the formal opening of the Jaffna Public Library in 1959. In 1975, he was killed by the LTTE, accused of being a traitor. The volume also carries an address by the first woman elected to the municipal council – though, while her address stresses the historical importance of being the first woman elected to the post, her name does not appear anywhere. She has not signed the speech, as have her male counterparts.

The old spills over into the new. The old and new structures of the Jaffna Library are Mughal in form, with, interestingly, a statue of the Hindu goddess Saraswathi in front. This inevitably conjures up memories of the Muslim areas of Jaffna city, replete with their Mughal mosques, high domes and arches. This also brings me to one of the most troubling events of ‘our war’ – the LTTE’s eviction of Muslims from the city, the peninsula and the entire Northern Province in 1990. (In a chilling ‘reenactment’ five years later to the month, in October 1995, the LTTE would drive out about 500,000 Tamils from the northern peninsula and the city at the approach of the Sri Lankan Army, now referred to as the ‘exodus.’)

Jaffna city, like many others, was a city of minority communities, made up of a majority of Catholics, while the majority of Muslims on the peninsula were concentrated largely within the city premises. At the same time, though, our memory of war (and peace) has blocked out the memory of how the Muslim community had also originally settled near the Kandaswamy Temple. During the Dutch period, those who had worshipped in the area were tricked and ousted by their Hindu neighbours. In all of the stories of victimisation that children in Jaffna grew up with, one would never hear about how, for instance, slaughtered pigs were maliciously thrust into Muslim wells. I was alerted to this by a young Muslim woman who was evicted from the city in 1990. “It has happened before,” she told me. “What is the guarantee it will not happen again?”

Nationalist history has no place for these unseemly happenings. Nor does it have a place for Muslims in the record of memories, of victimisation and victories. The Muslims were eventually pushed to the margins of Jaffna city, on the other side of Navalar Road, named after the Tamil revivalist Arumuga Navalar. Notorious for his religious hostility and hide bound casteism, Navalar is in many ways a discredited figure in Tamil literary circles today. Nonetheless, a statue of Navalar still adorns the corner of the street near the temple. For me, that statue is a potent part of the dominant narrative of history making – the rebuilding of the Jaffna Public Library, the Saraswathi statue and attendant stories, and the eviction of the Muslims in 1990 at two hours’ notice. Jeyapalan’s vaulting nationalist poem cited above includes compulsive writing on the eviction:

Not our foes,
my mother, but we,
who with our own hand
felled you down
in the front yard of the Masoodi …

(Translation by the writer)

The bombed-out present
2008: As I write, the war rages on in the north (and the east). Government forces bomb and shell the jungles of the north, where the LTTE has dug itself in deep. With the progress of the war, the fort would become the focal point of victory in the battle. Its ramparts pounded upon mercilessly by both factions, it has become another ruin of modern times. The lion flag flies high (I think) from its walls, as Jaffna city and the peninsula are under army control. It is a chequered story, this story of war. In the midst of it, though, I am thinking of something else altogether, of 1905. The railway line to Jaffna city was laid in 1905. But the 1905 I remember is about something else, something more intimate and full of portent at the same time:

Then suddenly I remembered vividly an incident which seemed to explain … [we] were riding up on the main street of the town, and when we got to the top of the street I asked him [Price] to stop and look back down the street, for if he did so, he would see clearly how people had encroached upon the old line of the street by building verandas, and stoeps out onto the high way. I remembered the long straight street in the glare and dust, the white houses and verandas and women’s heads peering through blinds or round doors to see what the white men were stopping for.

A hallmark of the Dutch city is that of the long verandas in front, probably capturing what is called the thinnai, the porch, of a Jaffna home. This is a slightly raised platform that served as a seat of sorts for visitors and others. But a marked difference between a thinnai and a veranda is that the former is usually at the back of the house, initiating homely camaraderie. On the main street, the verandas open out to the road. This quoted material is the memory of Leonard Woolf, a colonial agent in Jaffna, in his autobiography covering 1904 to 1911. Woolf, husband of Virginia Woolf, was first posted to the peninsula as a 24-year-old in late 1904, where he served for two years. The autobiographical notes are repugnantly Orientalist and unabashedly so, given his youthfulness. Yet Woolf was also able to capture the isolation of the colonial agent in the middle of a city of men and verandas – of women who “peer through blinds”, ultimately, when all the men had left for foreign lands during wartime.

Why do I recall this when I sit down to write about Jaffna, a place that I still claim to be my own, though I left it 18 years ago, not knowing whether I would return? I have gone back only once since, a fleeting two-day visit during the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002. I went under cover of attending a workshop for academics. It hardly resembled the bustling city that I knew as a teenager, when I trundled around on a beat-up bicycle; or later in the mid-1980s, when I nonchalantly but carefully negotiated the many checkpoints that had sprung up all over, of the Sri Lankan army, the IPKF and the militants. But my nostalgic memory is not of a promise of a future, potent and portent. It is of a dying moment.

My memory of return is overlaid with the shock of discovering a city overgrown with shrub vegetation, roads that had shrunk to narrow alleyways. As I landed in the town centre I was completely disoriented, like the returning expatriate in In Search of a Road. As the three-wheeler wended its way down Main Street, I fumbled with my directions, not knowing where I was. Main Street, the busy thoroughfare that connected the city to Kandy Road (the highway built by the British to connect Jaffna to the south), was inextricably deserted. So, in my inability to recover the Jaffna of my war, I go back to memories of happier times and sadder times.

I think of the great Jaffna scholar, A J Canagaratna. For me and many other displaced peoples of Jaffna, A J signified the last strand of hope, of intellectual fervour, of cosmopolitanism, of quiet and undying dissent, and of the links between the past, the present and the future. When he died, I knew that my last tenuous link with Jaffna had snapped. I will go back to Jaffna someday. I will go back to Main Street again, but never to visit A J. And so, we can close this rumination in tribute to a friend, doing so in the hope of memorialising an ethos of dominance and displacement, to point to a liminality of a city besieged by war and hoping for peace.

to aj

aj, does it seem strange,
that i would write this to you,
about you, how you could survive
the gun man’s revenge and die
in a hospital bed, rest in peace
in mortality.

one sudden moment, i see you at my side,
on the long stone corridor of the arts
faculty, off to a wedding i was
uninvited to; and you bring back
a piece of the pie, the wedding cake,
a peace offering for the lost years, for
old times’ sake, the curfew hours, the
soft muffled tones, circling,
our literary talk on those
lamp lit nights on the porch.

the stillness of those heady days of long laughing nights
and full throated cry of the nation’s longing,
when jaffna woke up from its middle class slumber
into a murderous rampage of kith and kin,
friend and foe. the tear stricken face;
the umbilical cord, ripped, comes
apart, bloody, in our hands;
you sat on the side lines
a trickster figure almost, like in a painting,
tiny and smiling, suggesting silence.
i am writing
only of death these bomb-filled days,
of the dying and our undoing, and it
seems fitting
that i should write about
you, aj, for laughing at murder in its face.
there is nothing natural about death, or even
sunshine, alcohol and old age. there is nothing
natural about the quiet in the leaves on the
mango trees, the still night broken
by the dog barking in endless fear; there is
nothing natural about natural death,
frightening us with normality
that cannot be, dropped
into the nothingness begetting
the severance of our waking days.

S Sumathy is involved with theatre and filmmaking while teaching in the Department of English at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.

Descriptions of Galle & Madras


Printer-friendly version