Posted on April 10th, 2024


Eelamists maintain that Koneswaram kovil in Trincomalee is a very ancient kovil. The British accepted that statement without question. Pridham in his book ‘Historical, political and statistical account of Ceylon’ (1849) wrote about Koneswaram temple in Trincomalee, saying it was regarded with great reverence by its devotees.   The temple is said to have had 1000 pillars, 3 Rajagopurams, two on either side facing the sea and one in the center.

However, there is no evidence that an ancient   kovil ever existed at   Koneswaram. Two contradictory reasons are given by Eelamists, for this total lack of any visible evidence of an ancient Hindu kovil   at Koneswaram.

The first explanation is that the temple fell into the sea and is now lying there. The second explanation is that it was destroyed by the Portuguese. It is difficult to accept this glib argument of Portuguese destroying Hindu kovils, left and right, because there is no parallel report of Portuguese destroying Buddhist temples.

The origins of the Hindu shrine at Trincomalee are obscure, said historian DGB de Silva (Bandu).  Though Tamil writers accord it a very ancient antiquity that does not stand scrutiny. The first reference to the Koneswaram temple is in the Chola occupation, but where it was located is not indicated, Bandu said. [1]

There is firm evidence to show that there was no Hindu kovil at Trincomalee. There was instead a Buddhist vihara, known as Gokanna vihara. Trincomalee was Gokanna Tittha”. The term ‘Koneswara’ also comes from ‘Gokanna’. 

The Gokanna Vihara had been well endowed by rulers such as Mahasena (3rd century) and Aggabodhi II (7th century). Aggabodhi V (8th century), built the Padanaghara, the remains of which were discovered at Koneswaram. Other discoveries at Koneswaram include part of a stone Buddha statue and a well preserved Siripatula.

Bandu de Silva   draws attention   to the observations of Queyroz on   temples in Trincomalee.  Queyroz has looked at the writings of the Catholic clergy, including Francis Xavier, who visited Trincomalee. These are the first available European observations on the temples in Trincomalee commented Bandu.   

These references make it abundantly clear that Gokanna was a Buddhist temple complex, said Bandu. Queyroz knew enough about Hinduism and Buddhism not to mix up the two. Queyroz   specifically mentions the ‘idol of Budun’. There is no reason for his sources to have ignored the Hindu tradition had such a tradition been present at the time,   added Bandu.

Significantly, the name Koneswaram does not appear in Queyroz’s work though he mentions other temples in India by name such as Rameswaram, Conjeevaram, Tripati, Tremel, (Bisnaga), Jaganati, and Vixante. Why the silence about the name of the temple complex at Trincomalee (Queyroz was so meticulous about details) had it been then known as Koneswaram, asked Bandu.

The ancient port of Trincomalee, occupied a very strategic and central position in maritime activity in the Bay of Bengal. It was the southernmost point from which ships sailing to South East Asia and further departed and returned after the voyages. The coastline north of Trincomalee harbor was dotted with small landing places. Queyroz gives a long description of the port, bay and sea environs and says that Trincomalee, (Cottiyar) and Batticaloa ports commanded the whole Gulf of Bengal”.

Being a major port, it could be expected that Trincomalee was in the chain of landing and departing places for Buddhist monks and pilgrims who frequently travelled between India and Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries of South East Asia and beyond, when Buddhism was the most active of missionary religions.

Bandu de Silva goes on to discuss the sort of Buddhism that would have prevailed in Trincomalee at the time. Trincomalee was the southernmost port which served the commercial route. There is much archaeological evidence to support the presence of Avalokitesvara worship in the Trincomalee area from 7th century onwards. The Bodhisattva worshipped by the seafarers was Avalokitesvara.   Gokanna vihara probably became a Mahayana temple, for Avalokitesvara.

It is not known when Gokanna vihara was destroyed. The Bodhi tree at Gokanna was destroyed between 1956 and 1964. The present Koneswaram kovil was built in the mid 1950s, said Bandu de Silva. I  recall visiting it in the 1950s as a school girl. It was a small insignificant temple then. It has since been enlarged. Today Koneswaram is a very imposing structure, dominating the skyline.

Jayatissa Bandaragoda was Government agent, Trincomalee from 1978-1981. Bandaragoda found that Fort Frederick was once a Buddhist monastery on which a Hindu shine had been built.  There was enough evidence in the literature to suggest that Gokanna Vihara was the dominant feature of this region.

 Gokanna temple had long since disappeared and more recently, the Bo tree that had stood on top of the hill had been cut down. The dispute had been settled by an earlier GA, MB Senanayake. I saw the concrete slab   over the spot where the Bo tree had probably been, said Bandaragoda.

Buddhists wanted to set up at their own expense, a stupa and standing Buddha statue within the    army premises of Fort Frederick.  Bandaragoda had no objection and with the support of philanthropists led by a gem merchant from Ratnapura the two shrines were completed in less than three months.

Sometime later there was a hue and cry over the loss of a Siva lingam that had been placed on a small rock within the Fort Frederick area. The spot was a bare land, a few yards away from the compound of Koneswaram temple. The leading politicians blamed the theft on Bandaragoda and President Premadasa came to check escorted by Sampanthan. At the investigation Bandaragoda had strongly denied any involvement in the matter.  Many had wondered why a Siva lingam had been placed there. They thought that this had been done to block the government using this land for some other purpose.

In early August 1968, a group of prominent Hindus representing several Hindu organizations wrote to Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and the Hindu Minister in the Government M. Tiruchelvam regarding the Koneswaram Temple. They requested that the Fort Fredrick precincts be declared a sacred area on account of the historic Koneswaram Temple being located within.  

The appointment of the committee on ‘Declaration of Fort Fredrick of Trincomalee, a Sacred Area’ was gazetted on 27 August 1968.   Three days later on 30 August the Ven. Mangalle Dharmakirti Sri Dambagasare Sumedhankara Nayaka Thera of Tammankaduwe lodged a protest with Prime Minister Senanayake.

 He claimed that an ancient place of Buddhist worship” would get into the hands of those who are neither Sinhalese nor Buddhists” because of the committee being appointed to declare Koneswaram a sacred area. A widespread agitation was threatened if the project was not shelved immediately.  

 Dudley Senanayake vehemently denied that Fort Fredrick precincts were going to be declared a Hindu sacred area. Dudley also emphasized that Fort Fredrick was under the Defence Ministry. 

In 2017 Hindu MPs asked that   the 378 acres around Thirukoneshwaran Eeshwaran Kovil in Trincomalee be declared a sacred site. MP Douglas Devananda said the Kovil had been there since 1300 BC even, before King Vijaya arrived in the country.

Sampanthan wrote to President Ranil Wickremesinghe on   14 September 2022 regarding Issues relating to the    Koneswaran Temple. I am informed that in recent times certain meetings have been held in Trincomalee wherein activities relating to Koneswaram and Trincomalee Harbor have been discussed and certain decisions are to be taken, he said.

A proposal has been made that a new route be opened to Lord Buddha Statue and from there to Thirukoneshwaram. This is not necessary and can result in persons encroaching on the route and occupying land which can only result in the sanctity and piety of Thirukoneshwaram Temple and Lord Buddha statue being diminished. I kindly request that the opening of this new route on a side up to Lord Buddha statue until Koneswaram be stopped. This will only result in evil being done.

Sampanthan continued, some years ago some traders from Ratnapura were brought and installed on the route to Koneswaram by a former Member of Parliament which resulted in the sanctity and piety of this area being diminished. Meat and fish were cooked in these temporary structures by these persons. A decision was taken that these persons be shifted from this area but this has not been implemented. I am also informed that some persons claiming to be Archeological officials have visited this area, concluded Sampanthan. The controversial moves seem to have been put on hold said DBS Jeyaraj in November 2022. (Continued)

[1] https://amazinglanka.com/wp/trincomalee-temples/  Bandu de Silva
Sunday Island – December 12, 2006 /January 6, 2007

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