Home » Poetry and Photography Reveal the North’s War Trauma

Poetry and Photography Reveal the North’s War Trauma


Photos courtesy of Sarath Chandrajeewa

Sarath Chandrajeewa’s first impressions of Jaffna came from his father’s stories about the north where he was stationed as a police officer. His father spoke of the friendliness of Jaffna people, their openness, honesty and simplicity as well as the cultural beauty of the area. Sarath went on several trips to the north as a child on the train and has vivid recollections of the changing landscape as the Yal Devi sped on, and then of the Jaffna railway station, Jaffna fort, palmyrah trees and Nallur kovil. Later on, as a visual arts educator, artist and institution builder between the North and the South, Sarath developed friendships and connections with Jaffna.

Sarath’s long association with the north of the country has culminated in a book called Jaffna Doors and Windows comprised of multilingual poems, each written in relation to a specific photograph of the devastated buildings of Jaffna during the civil war. Fourteen photographers and 86 writers participated in the project creating 108 poems.

The project began in January 2021 when the Sinhala poet Lal Hegoda sent his friend Hiniduma Sunil Senevi a poem and he wrote one back. Lal sent both poems to Sarath, who decided to send a photograph from his collection of Jaffna’s destroyed buildings to several poets and asked them to write a poem in any of the three languages in relation to the image. Other photographers also contributed their images of destroyed buildings, houses, kovils, mosques and churches.

“At a glance the Jaffna ruins feel like a vast overgrown archaeological site, intertwined with wild creepers, tangled roots, green foliage, trees, teeming with vitality…The Jaffna Doors and Windows have stories to tell, stories of fear, terror, death and destruction and systematic, well-planned theft, during the civil war years, of these valued, detachable artefacts from Tamil and Muslim homes. The Tamil title, ‘Displaced Doors and Windows’, captures this history precisely. It is this aspect of war profiteering that has galvanised many to reflect and write a poem, even though some have never done that before,” wrote Laleen Jayamanne in a review of the book.

Sarath answers questions from Groundviews on why he did the project, the significance of doors and windows and whether objects taken from the North should be returned.

What motivated you to do the book?

Observing the social events that shocked me from childhood, especially the prolonged war in the North and the terror in the South, inspired me to do the book. Jaffna Doors and Windows symbolises a profile of the sad story of the people in the North, which I saw when I was working at Jaffna University. I heard a lot about the horrifying details of war from our Tamil students. They talked about losing their families, houses, properties, their valuables – practically everything they had accumulated over the years.

What is the significance of doors and windows?

The first thing that caught my eye when I went to Jaffna in 2010 after the civil war was the houses without doors and windows. I was curious to know what had happened to the doors and windows of these Jaffna houses and to the wooden beams of the roofs. It was as if they had freed themselves cleanly, frames and all, from their original places and had gone somewhere else. This was how I felt because though most of the walls were damaged and had signs of war they still stood erect. Only the doors and windows were not there. People’s feelings and emotions were etched on some walls. But the first thing that caught my attention, the doors and windows, persisted and started to nag me. I found answers to my first curiosity, the gaping holes of Jaffna houses. The answer came in as information about antique doors and windows. Some students said that there were places in Colombo where they sell antique doors and windows and that these were being sold as Jaffna doors and windows. They said there was a great demand in Colombo to acquire antique doors and windows, mostly by architects. The mindset of the majority is such that they think it’s not a crime to rob the minorities and that it’s acceptable.

How does the symbolism of doors and windows differ in the North to the South?

When building a house in the South, putting doors and windows to the house under construction is a special event of that process. The same is true in the North. Moreover, it has more cultural ties than the South. The doors and windows of Jaffna houses are designed to suit their culture with unique architectural motifs and colours. Various rituals such as hanging mango leaves above the doorway, drawing coconut leaf decorations and tightening banana trees on both sides of the doorway are very special in the North. Also, the shape, length, width, height and decoration of the doors and windows in the north, as well as painting, is a craft with a separate identity. These are cultural properties. They have their own values ​​and principles.

Do you believe artifacts and parts of houses that were taken from the North should be returned?

It is impossible to think that this will happen in a country without the rule of law. But 86 Sinhala, Dravidian and Muslim poets have written poems for this book. Also, there are more than 100 people who helped with this along with photographers and translators. It will be clear to everyone what the message of this group is. Sensitive people demand a developed country with justice, morality and law.

What impact do you hope the book will have?

Sensitive people or people with a warm heart will get the message from this book. Those who are not cannot believe that the message of this book is communicated. The first thing I can say is that the trauma I had inside of me was released into society with artistic subjects. Second, the abhorrence of living a cruelty experienced in our time. Third, if we ever achieve a rule of law society that values ​​humanity documenting contemporary empathies that are thought to be important to it. The subtitle of the book, empathy on the fragmentation of ethnic harmony, reflects these objectives.

How did doing this project change you as a person?

My vision for this book is contained in the book itself. I would like to quote it here with my poem.

Fragile pieces of the jasmine garland

Once so fragrant and pure

Raised their tiny heads and kept staring

From where they lay, strewn,

To witness those runnels of red blood

Wasting away along the dusty earth…..

“Thou shalt not steal; Thou shalt not kill”.

Strong words of Moses in Ten Commandments

“Being human is priceless;

It is a synonym for Light

Therefore, do not ever,

indulge in heartless killing”.

Sublime words often heard

In the preaching of Zoroastrian faith

“Being born human is a rare gift

All beings are scared of death

All beings adore life

So, dare not, ever, harm a precious life

Do not, ever, scheme to kill

Put yourself in the victim’s shoes”

Lord Buddha said.

“Love thy neighbor”, said Jesus Christ

Whilst shedding crimson blood

On the Holy Cross

“Do not hide the energies of Truth

And conform it with falsehood’

You may bring forth a million reasons

To blame someone else in your place

For, dear God, divine and omniscient

Can see it all crystal clear”

Can anyone deny those great words of Sage Nabi

No! They would not change now or ever

“Clutching on to endless desires

Hatred and belligerence

And submerging one’s self in extreme patriotism

Certainly resembles

Carrying poisonous snakes in his own pouch

One such person will

Lose his prudence

And sense of judgment and humanity;

Sure signs of monster qualities

 Deep within a man….”

A word of wisdom


Fragile pieces of the jasmine garland

Once so fragrant and pure

Raised their tiny heads and kept staring

From where they lay, strewn,

To witness those runnels of red blood

Wasting away along the dusty earth….

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