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(Pics by Sakuna Gamage)

The Nallur Festival, Sri Lanka’s longest festival, is not just pomp and pageantry; it symbolizes the precepts of the Saiva doctrine. Fasting, meditation, prayer, singing of devotional hymns and acts of self-mortification are supposed to wean the devotee from worldly pleasures and direct him towards God. They are also held in honor of the war god Skanda.

Bells ring, the conch is blown and confetti of flowers are strewn as thousands of devotees throng the temple precincts to catch a glimpse of Lord Shanmuga. Devotees repeat, ‘Arohara, Arohara’, as the deity arrives at the entrance surrounded by the entourage.

The Nallur Festival commences on the sixth day of the Aadi Amavasai, sixth day of the new moon that falls on July. This year, the festival commenced on August 19 at 10 am and it will be ceremonially conclude on September 14. The festival is celebrated for 25 days continuously. Hundreds of shops are set around a market place speciall, put up for the festival, where people gather after the evening festivals and processions.

Trains, AC buses and semi-luxury buses will be in operation between Colombo and Jaffna in order to transport devotees during the festival. Ther festival will be the most visited and most popular in the festival lineup. Devotees are advised to come in traditional dress, sans much gold ornamentation, partly because the festival has had its fair share of pickpockets.

The festival starts with Kodietram, where the Lord Skanda or his vel does the rounds accompanied by the consorts Valli and Theivayanai, clad in delicate silks with intricately-designed ornaments round their necks, hands and waists. The vehicles themselves display rich diversity ranging from silver peacock, silver swan, silver rishapam, cobra, green peacock and House. The Kailaasa Vahanam the manjam and the Ther are particularly interesting. Shanmuga Priya raga, Lord Shanmuga’s favorite is played by the orchestra and the deity seated on a vahanam (vehicle) is carried round the inner court.

On the tenth day, Muthucumaeraswamy and on the Twenty Fourth day Arumugaswamy, accompanied by the consorts do the rounds. On all other days, the Vel is the main deity.
Ther chariot ceremony

The Ther (chariot) ceremony is the highlight of the festival. A glamorously-attired Lord Shanmuga, Commander-in-Chief of the celestial armies, is seated on an elaborately-designed silver throne. Lord Shanmuga wields the Vel, lance of light and spiritual knowledge which is believed to overcome demons of darkness.

Bells ring, the conch is blown and confetti of flowers are strewn as thousands of devotees throng the temple precincts to catch a glimpse of Lord Shanmuga. Devotees repeat, ‘Arohara, Arohara’, as the deity arrives at the entrance surrounded by the entourage.

The deity, after accepting the confetti of lotus flowers showered by the deva’s of the Second world, progresses towards the Ther, pulled by ardent devotees. Lord Shanmuga and his consorts, draped in vibrant green, decorated in his favorite maru and marikolunthu foliage return to the temple.

The water-cutting ceremony, which signifies cutting all worldly attachments, takes place on the 25th day. The divine wedding marks the last day of the Festival.

Temple
The historic Kandaswamy Temple is located in Nallur, one and half kilometers from Jaffna on the Point Pedro Road. The original Nallur Kandaswamy was built in the 1400s by Sanpaha Perumal, the adopted son of Bhuvanekababhu, the king of Kotte, who led an expedition to the North and brought Jaffna under Kotte Kingdom. Before King Bhuvanekababhu returned to Kotte he appointed Vijayabahu as ruler. After some time, deposed King Kanagasuriyan attacked and drove away the invader. He and his descendants managed the Nallur Temple up to the arrival of the Portuguese. It was destroyed when the city was seized by Portuguese. The Portuguese defeated Sankili, the last king of Jaffna in 1560. Portuguese General, Philip de Olivera demolished the historic Kandaswamy Temple and constructed a Catholic Church on the site.

The current structure, inclusive of the temple’s iconic 100-foot golden tower dates back to the early 17th Century, during the occupation of the more religiously-tolerant Dutch. A shroff Mudaliyar in the Kachcheri, Don Juan Ragunatha Mappana obtained permission from the Dutch Government to rebuild the temple. The temple was built in stone and brick in 1734. His descendants are to date the trustees of the temple.

Afterwards the temple premises was shifted from place to place for political reasons. It is said that the original shrine had only two main halls and did not have a clock tower or surrounding courtyard and enclosing wall. It was also devoid of any ornately carved towers or gopuram.

The first clock tower was erected in 1899, and the main hall where the vel or lance of the deity resides was refurbished using rocks in 1902. The first enclosing wall was erected in 1909. The temple has been gradually improved upon from time to time thanks to contributions from the public. In 1964, the ‘Vasantha Mandapam’ or grand hall was renovated to its present grandure.

The temple’s main entrance faces east, with an ornately carved five-story tower or gopuram of Dravidian architecture style. The surrounding inner-yard consists of Lords Ganesh, Vairavar, Sun and Sandana Gopala shrines. The holy pond and Thandayudhapaani shrine dedicated to another aspect of Lord Muruga is housed in the southern part of the Temple. In the north is a big holy garden.

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