Posted on April 10th, 2024


The Tamil settlers   brought in by the British administration in the early 20th century, to colonize the north and east, entrenched the Hindu religion in those two areas. Then they started to say that Hinduism had been in the north and east from ancient times.

They said that according to legend there were five ancient temples dedicated to Lord Shiva in the littoral regions of Sri Lanka. They are called ‘Pancha Easwaram’, the five abodes of Siva as Easwaran. The temples are Naguleswaram at Keerimalai, Koneswaram in   Trincomalee, Munneswaram near Chilaw, Thirukitheswaram at Mantota and Thondeswaram in Devundara. These temples are all by the sea, at strategic locations, in all four cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west.

The Tamils said that these temples were already there when Vijaya came. The source they cite is Yalpana Vaipava Malai, a doubtful source composed in the 17th century for the Dutch rulers. The Royal Asiatic Society however, rejected the five Iswaram claim, when Paul E. Pieris presented it to them in 1917, said historian Bandu de Silva.

The reality is that Naguleswaram, and Thirukitheswaram, were built during British rule. They were   not there before. British administrators readily and unquestioningly accepted   Tamil statements that ancient Kovils had existed in these places from ancient times and permitted kovils to be built at both places. The British wanted Buddhism eliminated from the north and east. 

Naguleswaram was restored by Arumuga Navalar In 1882.books were written on the temple.  Nakulasala Puranam, by Erampa Aiyar (1847-1914) Nakuleswara Manmiyam by   S. Sivaprakasam, Naklesvara vinotha vicittira kavippoonkottu by  M.Pulavar( 1875-1919). 

The idea of finding and restoring the Thirukeetheswaram temple also came from Arumuga Navalar, said historian S. Pathmanathan.  Arumuga Navalar (1822-1879) initiated the search for the site. He wrote a tract where he said that Sri Lanka is fortunate to have two temples for Siva worship, Thirukeetheswaram and Thirukoneswaram, mentioned in hymns ‘sung by our saints.’ So many temples are coming up in different parts of Sri Lanka now, why are the Hindus not interested in Thirukeetheswaram, Arumuga Navalar asked.  

The evidence for the existence of Thirukeetheswaram is extremely flimsy, even absurd.  Two Bhakthi poets in Tamilnadu, Sampanthar and Suntharar had composed poems which, interested parties said, indicated that Thirukeetheswaram was   located at Mantota. These poems were in the Tirumurai, a sacred textof Saivism.

Sampanthar and Suntharar said in their hymns that Thirukeetheswaram kovil was on the estuary of the stream Palavi in the great town of Matottam. Mattotam was a centre of trade at the time, said Sampanthar.

 Sampanthar described the town of Mattotam as an exceedingly beautiful   town, with dense vegetation in the groves and parks. City had groves of mango trees, areca palms and banana plantations, which    generate a feeling of delight in the spectators. Peacocks danced. There was a sound of humming of bees. There were hordes of monkeys at the    banana plantations.  Pearls, gold and gems were found in large quantities in this town. 

 Suntharar also described the place in the same way.  He added coconut groves to the description. These descriptions, it appears, was enough to identify Mantota in Sri Lanka as the location for Thirukeetheswaram.

Pathmanathan however, stated that Thirukeetheswaram predates the Bhakthi cult and was venerated in South India long before that cult started.  He records that there are two inscriptions by Chola king Rajaraja I, discovered near Tirukeetheswaram   temple. One was a royal grant to the temple at Mattotam. Second is a grant for burning lamps there. In 1894 they had unearthed three stone images including an image each of Ganesha and Nandi. The Nandi image is the largest and most impressive in the island, it predates the Chola period by 1000 years, said Pathmanathan.

There is no record of the origin of Thirukeethesvaram, admitted S Pathmanathan. Nor is there any indication that a kovil ever existed at Mantota. That is because, said Pathmanathan, the Portuguese had, most unusually for them, dug out the very foundations of Thiruketisvaram and buried all its stone inscriptions. There was nothing to be seen when the British arrived.

British officials however believed what they were told without asking for evidence. W.J.S. Boake, AGA Mannar, reported in 1886 that nothing remains above ground at Thirukeetheswaram except a few fragments of sculpture, broken tiles, bricks and pieces of pottery.

 Critics observed that these are movable objects which could have been brought in     from elsewhere.   Boake accepted that Thirukeetheswaram is one of the 64 sacred places of the Hindus. Its temple rivaled that of Rameswaram and was probably built at the same period, said Boake.

W. Twynam, Government Agent, Northern Province reported in 1887 that ‘there is a tradition that this temple was large and Hindus made pilgrimages to it from all parts of India as they now do to the temple as Rameswaram. The Portuguesa had destroyed it. Some images were found at the site.

P de Hoeft, referred to as ‘Colonial Secretary’, had visited the ruins several times in 1894-95 and kept notes.  He found the site thickly forested. There was a low wall which was pointed out as a relic of the temple.  Some broken pierces of sculpture of Hindu saints and small bits of a very white stone not known in the district were seen. I had then no notion of its great sanctity for the Hindus or its antiquity’ he said. 

S.Vaithilingam, Thambaiyah Mudaliyar of Colombo made an application for the purchase of the site of the temple, so that it could be rebuilt.   The Government Agent   put the land up for sale in 1893 and 44 acres were bought by R.R. Palaniappa Chettiyar. Excavations started under the supervision of Pasupathy Chettiyar in 1894.   The original location of the temple was found and the southwest corner wall located.  A small temple was erected and consecrated in 1903.

Thereafter the project was managed by the Nagarathar, a Chetty community residing in Madampe but the temple came under the control of the Kathiresan temple in Colombo. The central shrine was improved in 1921 by Hindu public servants working in Mannar. A ‘Society for the restoration of the temple at Tirukketisvaram’ was set up in 1948  and work commenced under the guidance of Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan.  A new design was developed in 1952 and the building completed in 1969.

The Hindu kovil at Devundara, (Dondra) known as Thondeswaram (Chandramouleeswaram) is not that well known. Devundara has one of the most celebrated Hindu complexes of the island, said Thiagarajah.  It has housed temples to Siva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Murugan and Kannagi. There were two major temples at the site, one to Siva and to Vishnu said Thiagarajah.

British writers like Percival and MacKenzie said Thondeswaram was a fine example of ancient Tamil architecture and sculpture, going by the ruins. Ruins had huge granite carvings of elephant head, semi naked men and women, stone pillar and broken idols. The bases of a colonnade of 200 granite pillars forming an avenue leading up to the sea, were mentioned by Cordiner, said Thiagarajah.

 A Buddhist vihara was built over the ruins of Devanturai complex. From time to time sculpture and idols belong to the original Hindu temples are dug out at Othpilima vihara. In 1998 a large Siva lingam, 4 feet high and a Nandi were discovered, concluded Thiagarajah.

Bandu de Silva observed that the Portuguese chronicler De Couto writing on the shrine at Devinuvara concentrates on the destruction of a shrine devoted to Hindu worship. There is reference to the magnificent chariot several storeys high, which was set on fire, which was characteristics a Hindu temple and to other minor shrines in the premises. Couto leaves out the Buddhist temple there which had received the patronage of many Sinhalese kings. (Continued)

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