Posted on June 29th, 2016


Research into the subject of ‘Hinduism in ancient Ceylon’ started early in the British period.  Simon Casie Chetty’s contribution on the origin and history of the ‘Trincomalee temple,’ was published in Ceylon Government Gazette, 1831. (H.A.I. Goonetileke Bibliography of Ceylon item no 6873). There was much discussion on the subject at the meetings of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon branch.  Ponnambalam Ramanathan spoke in 1887 on Thirukeetheswaram (Goonetileke Item no 6904).

Hindu researchers wished to prove that that there was Hinduism in Sri Lanka before Buddhism arrived and that it   continued to prosper thereafter. They relied heavily on a presentation by P.E.Pieris who declared in 1917, at a meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch), that: “Long before the arrival of Vijaya there was in Lanka five recognized Ishwarams of Shiva which claimed and received adoration of all India. These were Thirukeetheswaram which was near Mahatittha, Munneswaram dominating Salawatte and the pearl fishery, Thondeswaram near Mantota, Thirukoneswaram near the great Bay of Kottiyar in Trincomalee and Naguleswaram near Kankesanturai”.  This quotation   has been cited over and over again and is the basis for all later historical speculation. But the reference to this quotation is never given. There is nothing about this in the Journal of Royal Asiatic Society for 1917. I have looked. Significantly, historian S Pathmanathan does not mention this quotation, in his bookHindu temples of Sri Lanka’ (2006).

Arumuga Navalar (1822-1879) is considered the first Tamil layman to undertake as his life’s career the intellectual and institutional response of Saivism to Christianity in Sri Lanka and India. The Saivite revival in Jaffna is dominated by him. He was born in Nallur, Jaffna as Arumugam Pillai. He received the title ‘Navalar’ (learned) in 1849 from a Saiva monastery in India. His father was a Tamil poet and he mother a devout Hindu. Arumugam studied at the Jaffna Central College, a Wesleyan mission school. K.M. de Silva says he was educated in both the Saivite and Christian traditions but never converted to Christianity.

Arumugam started to question Christianity early. He published a seminal letter in Morning Star under a pseudonym in September 1841. It was a comparative study of Christianity and Saivism, targeting the weakness in the argument Protestant missionaries had used against local Saiva practices. His letter admonished the missionaries for misrepresenting their own religion and concluded that in effect there was no difference between Christianity and Saivism as far as idol worship and temple rituals were concerned.  In 1842 Arumugam reported in the Morning Star that a group of about 200 Hindus, including himself, had decided to start a Hindu press and also open a school to study Hinduism.



He learnt from the missionaries their techniques of organization, specially the importance of education. He founded Vannarponnai Saiva pragaska vidyasalai in 1848.  He also had, says K.M. de Silva   ‘a plan for several other Hindu schools.’ He wanted to establish Saiva schools in every village, where Hindu education could be imparted   in a Hindu environment with the aid of school textbooks specially written for the purpose. He saw the value of an English education and in 1872 founded the Saivanagala Vidyasalai where English was also taught. This school later became Jaffna Hindu College, the premier Hindu English School in the island.

The Vannarponnai School did not follow the traditional Tamil teaching system, in which each student worked on his own pace and the pupils were small in number. Instead Navalar developed teaching methods based on what he had seen in his mission school. Pupils were grouped into classes. He wrote guides for teaching Saivism to the different grades in a school. These were also used in India. His schools, in imitation of Christian mission schools, taught both secular and Hindu religious subjects. The staff were mainly volunteers.  The schools were only for Vellala Tamils.

The schools he founded in Sri Lanka was replicated and over 100 primary and secondary schools were built based on his teaching methods. The schools flourished. They produced pupils who were well versed in Hinduism and could successfully defend Saivism against Christian charges. They could also function effectively in a western oriented world.

Arumuga Navalar revived the moribund Saivite religion of the upper caste Tamils of Jaffna peninsula. He realized that the Hindus of Jaffna needed a clearer understanding of their religion if they were to stop Christian conversion.  He provided an authoritative restatement of the Saiva doctrine and a systematic compilation of its ideas.  He gave the Hindus confidence in themselves and their religion which they had previously lacked.

Arumugam also helped in the formation of secular organizations devoted to the propagation of Hindu ideals. He established   the Saiva Pragasa sabai in 1853 and was instrumental in setting up Saiva Paripalana sabhai of 1888. Its members had been educated in Christian schools and were also influenced by the Hindu revival in India. Along with Hindu College Board of Management, this Sabhai came to control more than    150 schools, primary and secondary.

Arumugam modeled himself on the open air style of speech of the missionaries. He started platform speaking in Tamil. Using the preaching methods popularized by the Methodist preachers, he became a circuit preacher starting with Vaideeswaran Temple, Vannarponnai on 31 December 1847. The lecture series and the circuit continued regularly for several years and produced a Saiva revival. He was helped by his friend Karttikeya Aiyar of Nallur and the students from his school. He gave weekly sermons in the Hindu temples and wanted to improve Hindu practices.   He also attempted to reform Saivism and this led to confrontations with Saiva priests.


Arumugam established a printing press in 1849 at Vannarponnai and another in Madras. In Madras, Arumugam published two texts,   a teachers guide Cüdãmani Nikantu and Saundarya Lahari, a Sanskrit poem geared towards devotion. These were the first efforts at editing and printing Tamil works for Saiva students and devotees.  The American Mission had printed Bible tracts and translations of Tamil works and Arumugam   issued similar items in Tamil. He   poured forth a succession of tracts and pamphlets for the public, expounding the principles of Hinduism and meeting the criticisms of the missionaries.  His writing was respected by the missionaries who admitted that the he adroitly anticipated every possible objection and replied them. He showed a first rate mind.

One of his books ‘is doing much damage’ they said.  This was Saiva dusana parihara, (the abolition of the abuse of Saivism) published in 1854, a training manual for the use of Saivas in their opposition to the missionaries. A Methodist missionary, who had worked in Jaffna, described the manual thirteen years after it had appeared as displaying an intimate and astonishing acquaintance with the Holy Bible. [The author] labors cleverly to show that the opinions and ceremonies of Jehovah‘s ancient people closely resembled those of Saivism. The notion of merit held by the Hindus, their practices of penance, pilgrimage, and lingam-worship, their ablutions, invocations, and other observances and rites, are cunningly defended on the authority of our sacred writings! That a great effect was thus produced in favor of Saivism and against Christianity cannot be denied”. This manual was widely used in Sri Lanka and India. It was reprinted at least twice in the 19th century and eight times by 1956.

Arumugam published many polemical tracts in defense of Saivism. He   also sought and published original palm leaf manuscripts. He published literature of controversial nature as well.  Along with Centinatha Aiyar he published examples of indecent language from the Bible as Disgusting Things in the Bible (Bibiliya Kutsita).  This book together with other such publications, led to calls by local Christians to shut the printing press down.

Arumuga Navalar’s contributions to Saivism, although begun in Jaffna, spread to South India as well, thus establishing two centers of reform. He had two schools, two presses and worked against Christian missionary activity in both countries, as well as against Hindus whom he thought were unorthodox, said K.M. de Silva. There were two biographies written in Tamil on him during British rule, by V.Kanakrattina in 1882 and T. Kailasapillai in 1918.

K.M. de Silva observed that the recovery of Hinduism, in Sri Lanka,   in the 19th century by Arumuga Navalar predates that of Buddhism by a whole generation.  That could be debated. Arumugam was trying to speed up the process of making Jaffna well and truly Hindu, in the face of competition from the  long standing Catholic Church and now the Protestants. One strategy was the quickly started Vannarponnai school. The Buddhists, though deeply concerned about conversion, did not have that urgency. There was no need to   wake up the Buddhists or upgrade their   knowledge. Buddhism was firmly entrenched in the island. Their problem was to set up schools which   were dead equal to the Christian ones. That could not be done in a hurry. (http://island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=143834)

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