Sri Kali and Sri Lanka
Posted on December 3rd, 2011

By Romesh Jayaratnam Kandy, Sri Lanka

 If one were to look at the map of Sri Lanka, one would see shrines dedicated to the Goddess Kali in all four directions. The veneration of the deity goes back more than a thousand years in the island’s history. 
The famed British archeologist of the late 1800s CE, H.C.P. Bell, had excavated 16 small Hindu shrines between the Jetavanaramaya and Vijayaramaya Buddhist monastic institutions in the northern enclave of Anuradhapura. He termed these the ‘Tamil ruins’. One was dedicated to the Goddess Kali. These shrines could be tentatively dated to the 9th century CE. Hindu iconography, that included a statue of Bhadrakali, was unearthed. The temples of modest proportions were built of brick in the Pallava style of architecture. There were two Tamil language inscriptions which recorded a mercantile guild that had borrowed money from a Tamil trader to light a perpetual lamp.
In nearby Polonnaruwa, on the west of the road leading from the Thuparama to the Rankot Vihara, four Hindu shrines were excavated, one of which appears to be a Kali temple. These two sites were in Sri Lanka’s North Central Province. 
In the deep South of the island, one witnesses a cluster of Hindu shrines of unknown antiquity in Kataragama/Kathirkaamam next to an age-old Buddhist temple. King Rajasinghe 1 of the 16th century had patronized the Hindu shrines, one of which was a Kali temple behind the more famous main shrine dedicated to the God Skanda. 
On Sri Lanka’s West coast, one likewise observes the presence of a noteworthy Siva Temple of some antiquity known as Munneswaram, next to which is a much sought after Kali temple. Parakrama Bahu VI had patronized this Siva Temple in the 1400s CE. The Portuguese had destroyed the Munneswaram complex in 1600 CE and transferred the temple lands to the Jesuits. However, King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe rebuilt the temple complex around 1753 CE. While the Siva temple belongs to the realm of high Hinduism and is patronized by the old landed Tamil establishment, the Kali temple is frequented by the upwardly mobile and entrepreneurial mercantile and artisan castes of more recent antecedents. 
An earlier Kali temple in Bentota in the South West of the island was consecrated by King Parakrama Bahu II in the 1200s CE. This too was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
Sri Lanka’s East Cost had the famed Siva temple in Trincomalee or Tiru-koneswaram that perhaps dated back to the 4th century, if Sanskrit literary evidence is to be accepted. A kilometer or two away lies an equally sought-after Kali temple that adjoins the Trincomalee  Hindu College. This is known as Nagara Kali or the guardian deity of the town. Legend, albeit unsupported by inscriptional evidence, traces the origins of the latter temple to the Chola era in Sri Lanka. 
Sri Lanka’s far North had the Vira Ma Kali Amman temple on Point Pedro Road in Nallur. This was reportedly constructed either by Magha of Kalinga between 1215 and 1240 CE or by Pararajasekeram between 1471 and 1518. The Vira Ma Kali Amman Temple was the location of an early battle between King Sangili and the Portuguese, one that the Portuguese initially lost. The Portuguese subsequently captured Jaffna and destroyed the temple in 1621, a place of worship which was rebuilt in the 1800s. 
So what accounts for the pervasive popularity of the Goddess in Sri Lanka since early medieval times? The Goddess is referred to in the Sri Lalita Sahasranama, chanted to this day in several of the island’s Kali temples, as Sri Maharajni, the Great Empress, as Kama-dayani, one who grants all prayers, as Bhaya-paha, who dispels all fear, as Dukkha-hantri, who puts an end to all sorrow, as Dharma-adharma vivarjita, who transcends both good and evil, as Anadhi-nidhana, who exists without a beginning or an end, and as Vijaya who is ever-victorious.
Kali grants us protection while we are in danger and shows us a way out when we are trapped in a quagmire. Often situated on the margins of high Hinduism, she remains much sought after by those in distress. Her petitioners include women and men in all walks of life, throughout the Hindu world, be it in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka or elsewhere. Kali negates conventional day to day morality and responds to the instinctive pleas of the dispossessed, the sidelined and victims of injustice. She is the solace for those who have no option where all else has failed. In short, she is the last resort for a person in need of a respite during the harsh trials and tribulations of life.
Kali did not derive Her power or authority from any male consort. Her iconography and religious practice refused to concede male conceptions of propriety, hierarchy and restraint. Her strength lay in a directness of approach, not to mention an immediacy of succor provided to the defeated.
The Sadharma Ratnavaliya, a 13th century Sinhalese translation of the Dhammapada Attakatha with popular stories conveyed to illustrate a Buddhist moral, in turn recasts the fierce Goddess Kali to embody Buddhist concepts of redemption. This illustrates that Dharmasena Thera, the medieval Sri Lankan monk-author of the poem was familiar with the veneration of the Goddess in the Sinhalese heartland and sought to transform her into a guardian deity guided by Buddhist principles.
May Sri Kali continue to direct and guide the residents of this fair isle as they navigate life’s manifold and often treacherous currents.

9 Responses to “Sri Kali and Sri Lanka”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    It is wrong to say any of these are/were Tamil.

    There was absolutely no Tamil connection. Sinhalese venerated these shrines throughout history. Sinhalese believe in 330 million gods and goddesses guarding the nation.

    Even today within Buddhist shrines there are four “Hindu” kovils. That is enough proof of Sinhala worship of these places not Tamils.

    Nallur temple and Munneswaram was built by king Parakramabahu the Sixth who destroyed a temporary South Indian Tamil separate rule in the north.

    Compared to the veneration of male gods, the worship of female goddesses is far low in this country unlike in South India. It is the result of the local patriarchal society which is widely opposite to South Indian matriarchal society.

    Ancient Lanka had a few goddesses who were not all Kali. For instance history talks of a goddess by the name Swarnamali. After agreeing to leave her abode for the Ruwanweliseya with King Dutugemunu, the great temple was named after her.

    Agree with the writer that throughout history goddess Kali and other “Hindu” gods and goddesses had served Buddhism and not the other way round.

    Although God Kataragama is also known as Skanda, he is actually an ancient warrior king by the name Mahasena (not to be confused with Mahasen who is also venerated as a god – Minneriya God) who defended the people of the south. Praises and chantings for this great god even today uses the name Mahasena.

    Veneration of local gods has always unified people and there never was any caste discrimination in these temples which is markedly different to practices in South India.

  2. Wickrama Says:

    It is high time we dump these mythological rubbish!

  3. Dilrook Says:

    Pattini is a more venerated goddess than Kali.

    These names mean the same goddess according to some. Others argue they refer to two different deities. Practices associated with them are totally different.

    No attempt should be made to claim Pattini shrines that are older and more in number as Kali shrines.

  4. Ariya Says:

    Oh, the minister Mervyn Silva is more powerful than Kali Amman, as he stopped the animal sacrifice. Then the tamils had a puja against him, but she didn’t have much power in Lanka…

  5. Fran Diaz Says:

    Greeks removed their pantheon of Gods & Goddesses over 2,000 yrs ago. But, India has kept up her similar ancient traditions & practices even in modern times. Whatever religious practices Indians have, especially in Tamil Nadu, it affects Sri Lankan thinking. But, I have met educated Sinhala people who pray direct to the Buddha and not to ‘deities’, as with Parinibbana, the Buddha became one with the Eternal Force/Truth/God/Allah, etc. Why not ?
    I do not mean to offend anyone’s beliefs or concepts, merely stating facts. I am interested to know what other readers have to say about praying direct to the Buddha. I am supposing that prayers are answered or not answered, depending on one’s Karma at any given time.
    Meditation is thought to be as a person listening to God/Truth, whilst prayer is thought to be a person talking to God/Truth.

  6. Christie Says:

    There is no question people from Indian subcontinent and the island nation moved from one to the other. Those who came from the over populated subcontinent setteled in ths Island and lived with the locals and ended up as Sinhalese. These people always expeleedl any group from the subcontinenent who tried to establish their own regime.

  7. Dilrook Says:

    National hero Arumuga Navalar was the person who introduced the “vellahla” caste to the north. Until then there were Pattini temples widely spread in the Jaffna peninsular. Rituals of these temples were performed by people of all castes not Brahmins as it is the case elsewhere in the island. He converted these to Kali temples going by the South Indian tradition. Caste was introduced as a key element of religion for the first time. He also found fault with the Nallur temple since it was built by a Sinhalese king according to ancient Sri Lankan and not South Indian traditions. He argued it was not built according to “argamic” traditions which are South Indian traditions. What we see today is the residue of these actions.

    It is also need to mention that there was a major Pattini shrine venerated by both Buddhists and Hindus in modern day Holy Madhu shrine. The initial location of the Holy Madhu shrine was not where it is today. It clearly shows the intention of King Wimaladharmasuriya who allowed the establishment of the shrine to be separate from the pre-existed shrine.

    Both shrines must be developed.

    Replacing shrines should stop forthwith. Historical evidence based shrines should take precedence.

  8. Ariya Says:

    Dilrook Says: …National hero Arumuga Navalar…, Never heard of Tamil national hero in Lanka!

  9. Christie Says:

    There is no question that there were Hindu-Dravidayan and other religious influence on the beleifs of the people of the Island nation. But those beleifs wrer subservient to Buddhism.
    Definitely arrivals, were they temporary or long term brought their trinkets from thaier own origins.

    The Sinhalese never allowed these arrivals to settel down and set up their own regimes. Most of them were driven away if they tried to settle and set up their own regime. But who stayed and from the time they became part of the locals were accepted and these new comerrs enriched the lacals with theor skills, knowledge and beliefs.
    This was the case up to the arrival of British and Indians in 1792 take over the Dutch posseions of the Island by force.

    So started the problems of the Island nation as well as in other like Kwas Zulu Nata, Fiji. Kenya, Uganda, West Indies, Mauritius, Malaya to name a few.

    The Island people beleived in in people who were local heros and who died after serving the community, not gods of Hindu concepts. These beleifs started to change after the arrival of Indians on the back of the Brtish.

    And ofcourse the massive changes on loacal beleifs started to take place after the crowning of SWRD with Indian money followed by Sirimavo.

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