The Koneswaram Temple | Sunday Observer
A trip to Trincomalee by train – Part 7

The Koneswaram Temple

11 September, 2022

Even though I went to bed around 11.00 pm, I was too keyed up to sleep, and kept tossing and turning with the roar of the sea still ringing in my ears. Anyway, I seldom catch a good sleep the first night I sleep in a different place. I get used to it only from the second night onwards.

But, this time, just like the night before, I must have slept in snatches. As early as 5.45 in the morning after, I walked down to the beach to watch the sunrise and photograph it. As I kept watching it from the water’s edge, the Sun emerged little by little from the thick white cloud that hid it.

Although Prabha had repeatedly assured me that it was completely safe to take a dip in and even encouraged me to do so, and although I could barely resist the temptation to do that, I didn’t dare to bathe in the sea. First, the Uppuveli beach wasn’t a shallow and calm beach like the Passikudah and the Kalkudah beaches, which were sometimes even without so much as a ripple let alone billows. Secondly, call me a coward but I hadn’t dared to take a dip in there either.

En route to the Koneswaram Temple

When I returned to the hotel, Prabha asked me when I wanted the tuk-tuk to arrive. I told him I’d be ready within the hour. I showered, got dressed, and had my breakfast.

The sky blue tuk-tuk arrived shortly afterwards. Prabha introduced the taxi driver to me. The driver, Niyaz, was a stocky bearded man with a black complexion. With his faint smile and salt and pepper beard and close-cropped hair, I was quick to judge him: he must be unfriendly, irritable, and taciturn.

But I was wrong, dead wrong in my judgement and it didn’t take long for me to realise that I’d made the classic mistake of judging a book by its cover and that Niyaz wasn’t just a taxi-driver but an excellent guide.

Marie biscuits for what, for whom?

I got into the tuk-tuk and we started out for the Koneswaram Temple. On the way, Niyaz turned back abruptly as though he’d suddenly remembered something he’d forgotten all this time. I was still clueless and even a little dismayed as he rode back a few metres on the wrong side of the road. He pulled over at a small grocer and motioned me to follow him into the store.

He asked for a 100g packet of Marie biscuits, handed it to me, and requested that I pay the shopkeeper, an old woman. If I remember right, they spoke in Tamil. I was flustered but did as I was requested to. After all, it was just Rs. 40 or even less. I guessed it must be for some offering at the temple. I had never been to the Koneswaram Temple, so I didn’t know what customs existed there. Also, this was the very first time I ever set foot on Trincomalee.

A delightful surprise

Niyaz turned into a narrow unpaved road by what looked like a clump of trees abloom on the left side of the main road. No sooner had he pulled over the tuk-tuk than a herd of deer that had been grazing a few yards away flocked around us in double quick time.

Only then did I realise why Niyaz had me buy that packet of biscuits. I tore it open at one end and took out Marie biscuits one by one and fed them all. The one with the biggest antlers was the greediest. He was an adorable rascal. It was the highlight of my whole trip and the biggest surprise I had. And I was more than jubilant and it was an experience I’d cherish for the rest of my life. Had it not been for the kindness and humanity of this wonderful man – Niyaz, I’d have easily missed it in my frenzied exploration of the picturesque coastal city. I’d watched deer roaming free in Trincomalee on Adaraneeya Sri Lanka, one of my favourite local travel programs and on some other travel vlog on YouTube.

But in my unbridled excitement, in my incurable wanderlust, the herds of roaming deer hadn’t even flitted across my memory until I saw them and fed them en route to the Koneswaram Temple.

I immediately regretted not having bought another packet of biscuit, but planted the seed of hope in my heart to return to see them once again before leaving for Colombo. Shortly afterwards, we took leave of the deer and resumed our drive to the Koneswaram Temple.

The chiromancers

No sooner had I got down from the tuk-tuk than I was accosted by a bunch of chiromancers – all women dressed in gaudy sarees, all betel-chewing and their lips as red as pomegranate seeds. They chattered in broken Sinhala.

As I sought to escape from them with a nominal donation of Rs. 50, the plump woman who stood closest and took it from my outstretched hand buttonholed me and pressed me to let her read my palm. It cost me about 15 minutes and a small fortune to extricate myself from the stranglehold of that extortionist chiromancer. I barely heeded her gibberish preoccupied as I was with inventing some pretext to get rid of her without looking so mean. Not that I was incapable of cutting her off brusquely and jerking my hand free and storming out; but I have this irrational urge to be exceedingly polite with strangers and being completely off-handed with friends and family when I’m forced to put up with something against my will.

Now these women are very crafty and clingy and won’t scruple to extort you given the ghost of a chance. But, do give them what you can afford to because it’s thanks to your largesse, they manage to put food on their tables. In my perception, they can’t be doing some business and can’t be any higher than half a notch above the beggars in the social hierarchy if there’s one such at all. But, know better than to let them read your palm.

Going uphill

I trudged up the slope and the short flight of stairs leading to the temple compound. A line of makeshift shops that sold fruit, sweetmeat, dresses, bags, coconut oil, incense sticks, wickers, lamps, de-husked coconuts, coconut oil, betel leaves, wood carvings, large glass-framed photos of various deities worshipped in the Hinduism, and fancy ornaments and what not flanked the asphalted road up to the legendary Hindu temple. I took off my pair of sandals halfway through it and entrusted it temporarily in the care of a shop on my left with wooden racks which looked like a big shoe shop.

There was another shop like that on my right. Some deer kept grazing in the space between some shops and would raise their heads to look up at the passers-by whenever they felt like, safe and indifferent in the knowledge that they were inviolable in the hallowed premises of the temple. Besides that, they must be quite accustomed to the thousands of devotees and other tourists who walk past them up and down every day.

The Koneswaram Temple

I stepped onto the temple compound and stood admiring the mighty statue of Lord Shiva opposite me. It goes without saying that the Koneswaram Temple is magnificently located on an outcrop jutting into the deep blue sea. The view from my vantage point at the temple compound atop the swami rock was little short of spectacular.

A few luxury catamarans were afloat scattered around the silky blue sea. Two of them were so still that I guessed they must be lying at anchor. I stepped inside the temple and walked around and explored the sprawling interior festooned with murals and sculpture. I refrained from taking any photographs half because I was diffident and apprehensive since no one else seemed to be taking photos, either. There were several shrines dedicated to different deities whom I knew little about.

Hope and faith

Gradually devotees streamed in from all sides. Some circumambulated the temple inside and out holding with both hands a de-husked coconut atop which a piece of camphor kept burning at their chest level which they eventually smashed against a rock of granite behind the temple towards the left side.

It was all piled with broken pieces of coconut shells, pieces of coconut kernel, and mostly, pieces of coconut kernel with the shell still cleaving to it and coconut water spread spilt over its rocky confines. The bare-chested priestswith their chests and foreheads marked with ash invoked incantations at different shrines as the devotees stood by in reverential silence.

Since the chiromancer had practically ransacked me I had but a few coins to spare (I’d left my wallet in the hotel room) which I put through the narrow aperture into one or two the cylindrical offerings boxes made of stainless steel without making any specific wishes to be fulfilled. Now I was left only with one ten-rupee coin and two five-rupee coins to pay the temporary custodians of my sandals.

The minuscule cradles

Outside, behind the temple, the part of the fence of trees that ran the entire perimeter of the compound except for where it opened out onto the sloping road had miniscule wooden cradles hanging from it. They must have been vows committed by the devotees or the offerings made in fulfilment of the vows.

Whichever it was, it was all man-made. That bit was too obvious to overlook. I walked around the temple several times peering at the deep blue sea down over the edge of the cliff. The panorama unfolding around me held me spellbound for more than a moment.

Wandering around the temple compound

I climbed down the rough-cut stone steps and peered down at the sea below. I walked to and fro. There were a few open shrines housing the idols of some obscure gods. That apart, I don’t remember much else there. I ascended the same short flight of stairs and stepped back onto the temple compound.

Now the devotees were milling around the temple compound. After one long wistful look at the giant statue of Lord Shiva, I started walking back to where Niyaz would be waiting for me. I collected my pair of sandals and handed him coins to the value of Rs. 20.

I slipped it on and kept walking to where the tuk-tuk was parked. Niyaz was standing outside.

I climbed into the back seat of the tuk-tuk. Soon, we were back on the main road. [email protected]