Jaffna Protestant Digital Archive (EAP971)

Aims and objectives

This major research project seeks funding to digitise six collections of print and manuscript materials of the Tamil Protestant community of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, created between 1796 to 1948. In total, the collections comprise roughly 800 items held by the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (CSI) Bishop’s House in Vaddukoddai, the college libraries of Jaffna College, Chundukuli Girls’ College, St. John’s College, the Evelyn Rutnam Institute, and one private collection. All of these items have been located and surveyed through pilot project EAP835. In addition to digitising and depositing copies with the British Library and our local archival partner, we will feature the items on a purpose-built community archive website (jaffnapdl.org), enabling both scholars and the community itself access to these rare and critically-endangered artifacts of Jaffna’s past.

The Tamil Protestant community of the Jaffna Peninsula has left an indelible mark on the modern social, religious, literary, and economic history of Sri Lanka and South India. During the island’s British period (1796-1948), the encounter between Jaffna’s Tamil literati and Protestant missionaries from England and the United States produced a deluge of printed material. Enabled by the establishment of the peninsula’s first printing presses, remarkable amounts of Jaffna-based Tamil printed material circulated through the region, including myriad Protestant religious tracts, the island’s first Tamil-language newspaper, and important Saivite publications that helped catalyze the so-called Hindu Revival. By 1840, the American Ceylon Mission press was working two shifts of pressmen, morning and night. Over seventeen years, the press printed more than 500,000 copies of dozens of Tamil evangelical tracts.

The Tamil-language materials produced by and circulating around the Jaffna Protestant community of the nineteenth century range from translations of American tracts and regionally-produced polemical essays on Saivism, to Tamil epic literature, minor poetry, ethical treatises, pedagogical works, and devotional literature. Polemical mid-nineteenth-century Christian-Saivite exchanges make up a large percentage of this material. Arumuga Navalar (1822-1876), a critical propellant for what would later be termed the Saivite Revival, was inspired to import a printing press into Jaffna in 1849 to respond to the mounting challenges Protestants leveled against Saivism.Though most new work was being printed and widely distributed by the mid-nineteenth century, examples of Saivite and Christian writing on ola (palm leaves) still circulated on the peninsula. All these sources contribute to how we understand ritual, textual, and embodied Christianity in Sri Lanka and South India, providing critical detail on the intermixing of Tamil Christian and Hindu communities, their variegated relationships with Protestant missionaries, and the role British power played in the exchange. Though many of Navalar’s Saivite texts were reprinted into the twentieth century, the Christian materials remain rare and it is unclear how many still exist. While relevant printed and manuscript materials collected and curated by missionaries have made their way into library collections in Europe and North America, nineteenth-century manuscript journals, letters, and other writings of Tamil Protestant converts are almost entirely unknown.

The most significant challenge to the preservation of these works has been Sri Lanka’s civil war. A considerable amount of printed and manuscript materials was held in private collections lost to war-related displacement, migration, and the widespread destruction of family homes. The shelling of St. John’s Church in Chundukuli, one of Jaffna’s Anglican churches, caused the destruction of a collection of historical documents stored in the church’s attic.7 Jaffna’s Tamil Protestant archive was also scarred by the 1981 razing of the Jaffna Public Library. At the time, the library was one of the largest in Asia, containing tens of thousands of volumes including irreplaceable ola manuscripts. The loss is made even more devastating as the catalogue itself was lost, and scholars cannot confidently state the exact extent of the loss. Today, the rare documents that have survived face dramatic preservation challenges, including a lack of infrastructure to securely house fragile materials, limited awareness of the significance of historical materials, and aggressive environmental damage from mould, insects, and rodents.

The documents that remain are a valuable cultural resource that should be adequately collected, catalogued, and digitized. As a reference point, John Murdoch’s 1865 Classified Catalogue of Tamil Printed Books with Introductory Notices provides a range of Tamil Protestant printed materials against which known copies can be matched. Continuing a collaboration started with EAP835, the Sri Lanka-based Noolaham Foundation has generously accepted our request to act as the Archival Partner for this application. Noolaham has offered valuable guidance including digitisation training (that they received from EAP458 in Pondicherry, India), the use of digitisation equipment, and advice on successful local collection approaches. We have requested funding for a dedicated mobile digitisation kit, based on a design developed by Culture in Transit, a cultural heritage digitisation project of, among others, the Metropolitan New York Library Council and the Knight Foundation. Our kit has been designed to meet the environmental challenges of Jaffna, from its winter-time high humidity, constant dust, rough and unpaved roads, and unpredictable monsoon rains. As we have six digitisation sites and an extensive amount of digitisation to carry out, having a dedicated kit for the project would be a considerable asset and would reduce our reliance upon Noolaham’s technology.

Access to these materials will largely be based on the groundwork established by the current EAP835 pilot project. CSI Bishop Daniel S. Thiagarajah shares our commitment to digitising the community’s resources. The Bishop has kindly granted us full access to the archival materials at the Bishop’s House and the Evelyn Rutnam Institute. The three Principals of Jaffna College, St. John’s College, and Chundukuli Girls’ College have all offered their continued support, as has one private collector who wishes to remain anonymous.

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