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Saivite temples of Sri Lanka

In this interesting travelogue, REMA DEVI R. TONDAIMAN describes her pilgrimage to Tiruketheeswaram and Tirukonamalai, in Sri Lanka.



Thirukoneeswaram temple ... where fascinating tales abound.

TIRUKETHEESWARAM AND Tirukonamalai temples in Sri Lanka are in the heart of the northeast and northwest coastal regions.

We set off towards Ketheeswaram through Chilaw, Negombo and Puttalam. The neglected roads and the battle-scarred countryside from Anuradhapura onwards, presented a gloomy picture of devastation. Railway stations at Murunkan and Ketheeswaram had been razed to the ground and the tracks removed. Some effort is now being made to restore these stations. If one expected to see an ancient temple in all its structural glory, he would be disappointed. But we were aware that the temple had not only been ravaged by cyclone but had also been pillaged and wiped out by Portuguese invaders.

However, the Temple Restoration Committee headed by Namasivayam, Tirunavukkarasu and the trustees Kailasapillai, Thiyagarajah, Arunasalam Chettiar, Subramaniam Chettiar, and Pon Wignarajah have done a commendable job of systematically restoring the temple.

Around the main sanctum are the usual goshtamurthis — Sri Dakshinamurthi, Lingothbhava, Brahma, Durga, and Chandeswara. Chandrasekhara, Bhairava, Bikshadana, Sandhyatandavamurthy, Skanda, the panchalingas, the Navagrahas, Chandra and Surya have their own niches in the prakaram. A special shrine houses the all-important Kethu. A two-ton temple bell is housed in a colourful belfry. The peals are surprisingly clear and pleasant. The old, damaged flag post is being replaced by a 42-feet teak one obtained with great difficulty from the adjoining teak forests under the control of the militants. Stone pillars and components for the completion of the temple are being sculpted at Mahabalipuram. Soon, it is hoped, the vestiges of antiquity and ancient grandeur will be restored.

Foraging around for legends, we came across a few that were vital to the temple. The Asura, Kethu, stealthily swallowed a portion of the Divine Nectar obtained by churning the Ocean of Milk, which would confer immortality on him alone. Vishnu beheaded him and Kethu wandered headless until Brahma took pity on him and transformed him into the planets Rahu and Kethu. Restless with the burden of sin, Kethu came to Ketheeswaram, propitiated Lord Siva and obtained moksha. Thus the place came to be known as Tiru — Kethu — eeswaram.

Another legend states that Twashtr, the divine craftsman, prayed to Lord Siva for progeny to carry on his art and his son Viswakarma, the divine architect, was born. Lord Siva commanded Twashtr to form a settlement of craftsmen at Ketheeswaram to build His temple around the Sivalinga. From then on the area was called Twashtrapuri or Maha-Twashtr, which later became Mathotta. It is also said that Mandodari, the chaste wife of Ravana and daughter of Mayan, one of the craftsmen, and her mother faithfully worshipped Lord Siva. They were blessed with the vision of Uma Maheswara and the elated Mayan constructed the exquisite temple at the sacred spot.

We moved on to Trincomalee. The roads lie neglected and the drive through the dense, deserted jungle and hilly countryside skirting Vavuniya was scary to say the least.

The Kanniya springs are but seven km away from Trincomalee. The area, measuring about 600 sq.ft, is paved with bricks and has seven springs, the waters ranging in temperature from boiling hot to freezing cold — all within the small space!

Kanniya is supposed to be the place where the Divine Apsaras came down to the Earth to disport themselves. Despite the sanctity of the place, signs of battle and devastation surround it.

The next morning at the foothill of the Tirukonamalai temple we saw an early fort, now an Army garrison. We were allowed to drive right up to the temple steps, as my elderly Sri Lankan-born Canadian friend, Soundari could not have walked uphill. What was appealing was that the conch blower, the sekhandi player and other servitors were men in high stations. The temple teertham, the Mavaliganga, wells up in a cave on the western side of Konachalam, circumambulates the hill and enters the sea. Parvathi Devi, like all suspicious wives, examined the matted locks of Lord Siva when she heard a rustling sound and fleetingly saw the face of a woman. The terrified Ganga froze into an ice drop, which Siva covertly scooped up and catapulted into the ocean. He secretly commanded Ganga to well up from the marks of His feet on Sivanolipada Hill in North Lanka and flow toward Trincomalee as the Mahabaliganga, towards Ketheeswaram as Manikka Ganga and towards Kathirgamam as Kaveri Ganga. These are the rivers we see today.

The creation of Konachalam occurred when Lord Siva allocated the tasks of creation, protection and destruction to Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra respectively. Adisesha was directed to support the Earth. This incensed Vayu who picked up a quarrel with Sesha. Siva agreed to a contest between them on condition that Vayu would wrest at least one of the peaks of Mt. Kailash from under the thousand hoods of Sesha. The fierce tussle between Vayu and Sesha caused the universe to tremble and grind to a halt. The petrified Devas appealed to Lord Siva who immediately commanded Brahma to replicate His Kailash abode on the southern peaks of the Mahamer. Siva and His Consort Uma then descended to the newly created Kailas.

The Lord asked Sesha to lower his hood to receive secret instructions. Taking advantage of this moment of distraction, Vayu snatched away three peaks from Meru, including the Trikona peak. The Lord commanded Vayu to set down one peak in Kalahasthi, one in Tiruchirapalli and the Trikona in Eezham. This is the Konachala Dakshinakailasam.

Aeons later, Ravana in an effort to become unconquerable, obtained a Sivalinga from the Lord of Mt. Kailas for installing in Sri Lanka. The frightened Devas appealed to Vinayaka who tricked Ravana into setting the Lingam down in Gokarnam (Karnataka). Unable to lift it, the dejected Ravana returned to Tirukonamalai and prayed in vain for another lingam.

Enraged at the lack of response Ravana unsuccessfully tried to uproot the Konachala Hill. Provoked to anger, Siva crushed Ravana under the hill with His toe and pushed him into the sea. Dasagriva realised his error. The pleased Lord Siva restored his devotee to his normal form. The Trinity appeared before Ravana and gave him three Sivalingams to be installed at each angle of the Trikona with the one given by Siva at the crest of the hill. The temple around the lingam is supposed to have been constructed by Kulakkottu Cholan.

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