Sampanthan and The Five Ishwarams of Lord Siva
Posted on July 1st, 2020

Prof. S. Amaratunga

TNA leader S.Sampanthan in his letter to the President regarding the Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province makes reference to a statement made by Paul E Peiris about the five Ishwarams of Lord Siva which are to be found  in the coastal regions of Jaffna, Trincomalee, Mannar, Chilaw and Devinuvara (The Island, 18.06.2020). Peiris’ statement is as follows; Long before the arrival of Vijaya there were in Lanka five recognized Ishwarams which claimed and received the adoration of  all India”.

Peiris made this statement  in a treatise he wrote in the Journal of  The Royal Asiatic Society, Vol.XXVI No. 70, 1917.  It has two parts and the relevant statement that Sampanthan quotes appears in Part 1 Chapter IV.  However, these Ishwarams have hitherto not featured in serious discussions pertaining to the Tamil ethnic problem and connected issues such as the history of Tamil settlements, the first inhabitants in the island, etc. As this matter has now been raised not only by Sampanthan but previously also by the former Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council, C.Vigneshwaran and as there is an intended political implication in their claims the subject needs serious attention. Further a discussion of the subject  may be critical at this juncture as the TNA in these election times is making overtures to the government.

The absence of mention of these Ishwarams in serious discussions up to now could mean that there is no evidence to prove these kovils existed prior to the arrival of Vijaya. Eminent scholars of the calibre of  K. Indrapala, Silva, G.H.Peiris, K.N.O. Dharmadasa and others who had written about the early Tamil settlements, the Tamil Homeland issue, demographic changes in the Eastern Province, and the history of the claim that Tamils were the first inhabitants in Sri lanka do not mention these Ishwarams. They have not mentioned anything about these kovils though they do make reference to the work of historian Paul E. Peiris. 

In this regard first it may be pertinent and critical too to place  Peiris’ statement in its context. We must also see whether or not there is acceptable evidence that support his idea. Peiris’ extensive treatise was titled Nagadipa and Buddhist Remains in Jaffna”  and is an analysis of the findings of his archaeological explorations in the Jaffna peninsula. There cannot be any doubt about what Peiris found in Jaffna and his intention in writing about them. Peiris had found irrefutable archaeological and epigraphic evidence to show that Sinhalese and Buddhism were a strong presence in the North until the region was invaded by South Indians. In several villages listed in a document called Nam Potha” which gives the names of  places of Buddhist worship he had found ruins of dagobas, stupas and temples.  He says in summary  I think I have sufficiently outlined the intimate connection which existed through eighteen centuries between the Sinhalese and their religion and the North of Ceylon”.

The reason why Peiris mentioned these Ishwarams which have no bearing on his work in Jaffna was that he was looking for a seaport at the Northern tip of Jaffna peninsula from where the ambassadors of King Devanampiyatissa could have embarked on their journey to the court of King Dharmasoka in Pataliputhra in Northern India and also where Meheni Sangamitta could have disembarked on arrival with the Bo sapling. Peiris’ theory is that Naguleshvaram kovil which is one of the Ishvarams in Jaffna was built near a seaport in Kankasanthurai to cater to the religious needs of the merchants who used that seaport to travel to and from North India. Similarly all other Ishvarams have been built near seaports for the same reason. Those who travelled to South India used the seaport in Mannar and worshiped at the Kethiswaram kovil. Peiris’ reasoning regarding the geographical position of the Ishwarams may be acceptable but it does not prove that the Ishvarams existed before the arrival of Vijaya.

On what evidence does Peiris base his opinion about the Ishwarams? Of the five Ishawarams only Thirukoneshwaram at Trincomalee is mentioned in Mahawansa which was written in the 5th Century AD. Deepawansa which was compiled earlier does not mention these kovils.  Royal Kotte Kingdom inscriptions mention Munneshwaram at Chilaw and Tondeshwaram at Devinuwara. The Galle Trilingual Inscription also mentions the Tondeshwaram kovil. Kokila Sandeshaya describes Munneshwaram at Chilaw and Tondeshwaram at Devinuvara. Tondeshwaram is mentioned in Tissara Sandeshaya and Paravi Sandeshaya also. These Sandesha Kavya were written in the 15th Century AD and most of them by Thotagamuve Sri Rahula. None of these historical texts support the idea that the Ishwarams existed before the advent of Vijaya. Neither do they give any information regarding the history or the probable period of their construction.

Ramayana and Mahabharata the epics of ancient India make reference to Ishwarams in Lanka in their mythological tales. Mahabharata contains an abbreviated kind of Ramayana. It is in the story of Rama, Sita and Ravana in both these epics that Lanka is featured. Ishwarams are mentioned but their exact location cannot be determined from the descriptions and remains largely a matter of conjecture.

Further there are no epigraphic or archaeological evidence which supports the theory. On the other hand according to T.Sabaratnam (2004) there is archaeological evidence that shows there was a Buddhist temple at the site where Koneshvaram was built. No ancient ruins which resemble those at Anuradapura and Polonnaruwa are to be found at the sites of these Ishwaram kovils. Demala Seya for instance looks much older than these kovils. These Ishavaram kovils look more like modern kovils in Colombo. It is probable that the Ishvaram kovils in Jaffna were built after the Tamil invasions which started with the Chola invasion in 993 AD and they may have built the one at Mannar and perhaps at Trincomalee also. The Ishvarams at Chilaw and Devundera were probably built by Sinhala kings who had Tamil connections. Unfortunately these kovils has undergone much change due to repeated renovations and therefore their dating by modern methods may not be possible.

Yalpana Vaipava Malai, the earliest Tamil publication by a Sri Lankan, written by poet Mailvaganam in 1736  talks about the five Ishvarams and positions them accurately in the coast of the island. Though this book attempts to distort the history of Jaffna it indirectly establishes the fact that Sinhalese were inhabitants of Sri Lanka before the Tamils arrived.  Peiris may have been influenced by this work as it provides for a seaport at Kankasanthurai and moreover did not contest the fact that Sinhalese had arrived in the island before the Tamils.  Further all this would be in accord with the history of the country as described in the ancient chronicles and may have suited Paul E.Peiris’ mission quite well.

Prof. S. Amaratunga

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