Contested Memories: How Sri Lanka Dominates Tamil Ruins


Article published in The Funambulist 11 (May-June 2017) Designed Destructions. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

Architecture is a physical representation of the history of a particular region, reign and the social groups that inhabit this space. It can form a group’s consciousness and longevity; it can also be turned into a physical projection of both the material and immaterial conditions of a social group. During periods of violence, architecture often falls victim to various forms of destruction that either intentionally or arbitrarily subjugate a space and its people to violent domination. It can mark a landscape with physical scars that serve as lessons and reminders for decades, centuries and generations to come; it can equally be quickly plastered over and manipulate a people’s sense of history, memory and self.    

The choice between removing, replacing, abandoning or preserving signs of destruction then becomes a highly political one. It reflects the political climate of an affected region and people. While some power agents may prefer erasing a violent past to eradicate potential traces of injustices, others may choose the contrary in order to celebrate acts of resistance or domination. Often, signs of violent destructions are also partially or fully preserved as warnings to deter future conflict or violence.

02 Destroyed Col Thileepan Statue
Destroyed Col. Thileepan statue near Nallur Kovil, Jaffna Town

Sri Lanka serves as an interesting example of the collision of multiple interests. A non-coherent solution post-war can be found, becoming the default everyday reality of people who inhabit highly violated spaces.

Since British Ceylon gained independence in 1948, the country has been dominated by Sinhala supremacist politics which culminated in a genocide against the numerically smaller Tamil nation. From anti-Tamil discriminatory laws to racial pogroms, up until an all-out war that killed hundreds of thousands, mostly Tamils, and displaced more than half of the Tamil population, Sri Lanka holds a rich history of anti-Tamil violence and suffering. Resistance to Sinhala supremacy gave birth to a strong independence movement that aimed at creating a separate Tamil state, Eelam. In 2009, however, the guerilla-led independence project was brutally crushed, after a 26-year war, by an overwhelming and internationally-backed Sri Lankan Army. Today, Tamil’s demand for self-rule, whether in the form of independence or through autonomy, remain largely stifled.

08 Pannai Causeway
House fragments near Pannai Causeway, Jaffna Town (2017).

In the past eight years, other technologies of oppression have replaced war activities and continue to detrimentally affect the well-being and future of the Tamil people. Despite reconstruction works, much of the Tamil homeland in the north and east remain devastated by the violence. It renders Tamil regions into a space not just ethnically, linguistically, culturally and religiously distinct to the rest of the island, but also economically, socially and architecturally. Scorched earth methods practiced by the Sri Lankan Army with the blessings of Sri Lanka’s highest authorities (incl. one of its Presidents who asked for Jaffna to be burnt to the ground) left unmissable stains across much of the Tamil homeland. As a result, war tourism remains a popular industry for outsiders who flock into Tamil regions.

State-led destructions of Tamil villages, towns, cities and monuments weren’t always arbitrary. They were often designed and intended. One of Jaffna’s most prominent buildings and victims of engineered destruction in Sri Lanka’s war and genocide against Tamils was the Jaffna Public Library. The Tamil institution was at the time one of the largest libraries in South Asia and home to more than 90.000 books, manuscripts and irreplaceable palm scripts on Tamil history. During an anti-Tamil riot in June 1981, the library became the target of an arson attack by Sinhalese police officers and paramilitaries. The building and its many books were eventually burnt to the ground. The destruction of the library became a turning point in the history of postcolonial violence. It deeply stained the Tamil psyche. The ruins of the library emerged as a constant physical reminder of the impossibility of achieving Tamil rights and equality under Sinhalese leadership.