Nallur Festival commences on August 8

Divine worship has sustained mankind for centuries. Religious faith continues to enhance the lifestyle of the Northern people. Ancient Sri Lanka once boasted of pancha ishwaram – five magnificent temples dedicated to Shiva along the coastal regions. Naguleswaram in the North, Ketheeswaram in the North West, Koneswaram in the East, Munneswaram in the West and Tondeswaram in the South.

This bears testament to the vibrant Hindu communities that once thrived here, before the conquering Portuguese went on a rampage and destroyed these temples under the command of General Philippe de Oliveira. Even prior to this era, history reveals that the Nagas indulged in a form of animistic Hinduism, which they embraced from Tamil Nadu where Shaivism flourished. The great epic Ramayana also makes reference to Hindus in Sri Lanka.

Peacefully towering the skyline of the pristine village of Nallur the Kandaswamy Kovil is a brilliant edifice of sacred art and an enduring beacon of Tamil culture. For decades this temple has been a sanctum of solace where devotees gather in thousands. Inside Lord Murugan, God of war, is venerated as he makes manifestation in the form of the vel (chariot).

It is strongly believed that the first temple was established in 948. Thereafter, a new temple was built by Puvaneka Vaahu, a Chief Minister of Kalinga Magha. This is substantiated by the records of the Yalpana Vaipaka Malai written in 1736 by the prudent poet Mailvagana Pullavar, a resident of Pandaitheruppu. The king of Jaffna Kalinga Magha also supported the building of the temple. The capital of the Jaffna Kingdom moved from Karanthodai, Vallipuram to Nallur and Pooneryn over the decades. Years later ,King Kanagasuriyan regained the kingdom and managed the temple.

Today, many are unaware that Nallur was once the dominant capital of Jaffna’s kings when the rajadhani was built with four gates, with a temple at each gate to invoke divine protection and blessing. The four temples were, Veyilukantha Pillayar Kovil in the East, Veeramakali Amman Kovil in the West, Kailaya Vinayagar Kovil in the South and Sattanathar Kovil facing the North.

Near the rajadhani was a market place for the citizens referred to as Mithurai Santhai. There were mansions for the Ministers and quarters for artisans and soldiers. Years later the warrior Cankili II, the last king of Jaffna resided adjacent to the previous temple. He was captured by the Portuguese and hanged in Goa, India. His statue can be seen in Jaffna, a short distance away from the Kandaswamy Kovil. Today, one can witness the façade of the Cankilian Thoppu in neglected ruins. Sadly the Nallur Temple was destroyed by General de Oliveira around 1624.

The resilient people of the North remained faithful and in 1734 work began with eagerness to restore the grandeur of the Nallur Kovil, which was being built for the fourth time during the reign of the tolerant Dutch. The daunting task was accepted by Ragunatha Mudaliyar who worked at the Katcheri. The present land was commonly known as Kurukkal Valavu. Krishna Aiyar became the first incumbent priest.

Many endorse that the seventh custodian of the temple Arumuga Mapaana Mudaliyar worked tirelessly to upgrade the kovil by building the first bell tower in 1899. The fortified wall which demarcates the temple even today was built by him in 1909. Kumaradas Mudaliyar the 10th custodian can take pride in building and restoring the temple to its present position as the largest Hindu Temple in the entire island.

As one walks inside this massive pantheon, one can witness four gopurams and six bell towers. The variegated designs on the ceiling are brilliant. Dravidian forms of architecture originated from South India. Ancient temples were built with sandstone and granite. The Vastu Shastra describes in much detail about building temples with emphasis on spatial geometry. Every temple has a garbhagriha (Sanskrit for womb) the innermost sanctum where the statue of the primary deity is venerated.

The southern side has a pond and garden (poonthotam). The temple has shrines for lord Ganesh, Vairavar and Sooriyan. Kandaswamy Kovil incorporates the symbolism and iconography of Hindu cosmology. The Vedas depict time in four epochs (yugam). The old Tamil word Koyil (residence of God) is today used as kovil.

The Nallur Kovil is surrounded by a massive wall painted in red and white. Many Hindu temples have their boundary wall painted in red and white. The white stripes indicate sattva guna (goodness and harmony) and Red stripes indicate Raja Guna (passion and confusion). It is painted in this manner to impress on the devotee that one must overcome life in order to be enlightened. As one gazes into the northern skyline eyes become fixated on the Maha Raja Gopuram, a commanding nine-storied tower adorned with so many intricate statues. The tower has been dedicated in 2011.

A gopuram is a monumental tower at the entrance to a temple and is topped with a kalasam, a stone finial. Ancient builders likened the gopuram to Mount Meru, the abode of Lord Brahma and, hence, the temple tower reaches to the sky seeking divine union. Subsequently in 2015 the tallest tower,  kubera raja gopuram (Kuberan being the deity of wealth) was built.

Every Sri Lankan knows the splendor affiliated with the festival of the Nallur Temple when multitudes of Hindus gather in pious worship. The ceremony begins with the ritual of kodiyetram, hoisting of the flag. The orange hue of the flag symbolizes the sun, which dispels darkness and the saffron shading depicts fire, which is a purifier.

The colourful festival dominates the Northern peninsula for 25 days with an assortment of poojas – pooja in Sanskrit means reverence and adoration. Commencing annually at 6.15 am, the flamboyant – Ther thiruvila – festival of the sacred chariot is the most eagerly awaited ceremony.

Devotees venerate the Silver throne simmasanam where Lord Shanmuhar and his consorts are placed. This silver throne was handcrafted in 1900 by the seventh custodian. Some are clad in saffron clothes a colour that symbolizes renunciation. As joyous shouts of aro-hara resonate through the entire temple, supplemented by pulsating drum beats, the throne is cheerfully carried on the shoulders of hundreds of worshippers who carefully pass it on amidst an oblation of flowers. The heavy ropes of the ornately-carved chariot (vel) are pulled with conviction by all men alike. The majestic temple of Nallur has and will remain the most prominent and sacred landmark of Jaffna, a true testament to endurance and diligence.

  • EE H

    I enjoyed reading the article by Dishan Joseph. However, like many Sri Lankan histories, this is not very accurate and seems written for glorification just before the Nallur festival beginning on 8 August.

    For a minor error, Mithurai Santhai, really is Muthirai Chanthai where the king’s tax collectors stamped (stamp = muthirai) that taxes on goods had been paid. There is no evidence for the mansions for the ministers and quarters for artisans and soldiers that are claimed to have existed. Local tradition has it that all the king’s buildings were in Changili Thoppu (by the side of Muthirai Chanthai which was a market and not in it) and destroyed, save the place entrance, a stone house on the Jaffna-Point Pedro Road and the king’s gardens. Changiliyan’s line of Arya Chakravarthies upheld Brahmanic norms. They therefore promoted agamic town-architecture where each caste had its own area – from Paraiyar Theru, to Thattar Theru to Kaikulanj Chanthai to Chonahar Theru and so on. After the Europeans came, they had to settle into Parangith Theru. The only caste-street that existed by Muthirai Chanthai was Nattuvar Theru (now long gone since the early 1960s) where musicians lived in row-huts and that does not support this claim of mansions.

    The article assumes that the Nagas got their religion from Tamil Nadu. It is likely however, they were indigenous to both South India and Ceylon. The article implies that Saivism flourished in Tamil Nadu during the time of the Naga period. Tamil Nadu is a new, post independence state whereas in ancient times Tamil was spoken throughout the Madras State, even in Kerala. South India did not have Siva worship in the time of the Nagas because there is only implicit, vague reference to Siva in the Sangam literature according to the writings of important scholars (whereas only religious nationalists see him in Sangam works).

    More seriously, the actual big temple of Nallur was by the king’s palace and surrounded to the North, South, West and East by the respective guardian temples, Sattanathar Kovil, Mootha Vinayakar Kovil (not Kailaya Vinayagar Kovil) Veyyil Viluntha Pillaiyar Kovil (not Veyilukantha Pillayar Kovil) and Kali Amman Kovil. This was in the fashion of the agamic architecture mentioned.

    That real Nallur Temple was destroyed by the Portuguese and the land gifted by the converted Queen to the Church and she built a St. Mary’s Chapel there. This is now St. James’ Church Nallur belonging to Anglicans. Parts of the original king’s temple are visible in the foundations of the church. Many in Jaffna claim royal descent. However that lineage from the Queen claimed only by certain families like the Hensmans have authenticity through their ownership of lands in Changili Thoppu and their Roman Catholic and Anglican connections.

    The present Kandasamy Kovil has no connection to the original temple by the King’s palace. It is by no means an important temple because important temples are Sivan Kovils, not Kandasamy or Amman or Kali Kovils which are often low-caste temples. The Nallur Kandasamy Kovil today derives its importance not from ritual purity but because the rich townspeople patronize it and it is a tourist attraction with commercial importance. It was built in the late Dutch period by traders, Jaffna Pattinam being the residence of traders. The Dutch were not tolerant as claimed. Anyone working for the Dutch had to be a Dutch Reformed Church Christian. Hence this Ragunatha Mudaliyar who is said to have worked at the Katcheri had to have been a Christian. If the Dutch were tolerant it was towards the last 50 years of their long rule. The Yalpana Vaipava Malai is not to be taken as a reliable historical document although Tamils are fond of quoting from it.

    The southern side of the Kandasamy Kovil, the author says, has a pond (kerni) and garden (poonthotam). The garden sounds new as it was not there in my time. Actually the southern side had the Jaffna Point Pedro Road and it is further south of this road that had the pond for ritual bathing. The road has been illegally taken over by the temple and the Jaffna-Point Pedro Road diverted to go round the pond. This pernicious practice of taking over public property for temples in the confidence that other communities would be scared to protest, has to be stopped. Instead of building relations between communities, this practice destroys bridges. Instead of being a Pantheon of Peace, Muruhan (another name for Kandasamy) becomes truly the God of War he is in ancient Changam literature where blood and war drums are sacrificed to him.