Munneswaram Temple : Statue of Goddess in the limelight | Sunday Observer

Munneswaram Temple : Statue of Goddess in the limelight

Sri Lanka dubbed as Shiva Bhumi ( the land of God Shiva ) in ancient Indian epics and literature is blessed with the five hallowed shrines of Shiva (pancheswarams) and three of them, according to mythology, were consecrated by Sri Rama, the hero of the epic Ramayana who ruled in Ayodhya and is believed to be the incarnation of Hindu God Vishnu. According to mythology, he was returning to Ayodhya in his airship ‘pushpak Viman’ with his consort Sita, younger brother Laksman, Lankan King Ravana’s brother Vibheeshana and his contingent after defeating Ravana in war when ‘ brammagaththi’ , the evil-spirit for the sins he committed in the war, had him in its grip.

But, when he was flying over the site of the Munneswaram Temple , due to its divine power, the ‘brammagaththi’ left him and he alighted to worship the shrine. Sri Munneswaram in Chilaw, Koneswaram in Trincomalee and Thruketheeswaram in Mannar were consecrated by Rama after installing the ‘Shiva Linga’, according to mythology.

Incidentally, Sri Munneswaram which has epigraphs and inscriptions dating back to the reign of King Parakramabahu VI has now come under the focus of the Archaeological Department with the recent finding of a headless statue of a Goddess which the archaeologists believe is of historical value.

The statue was found during the excavation of the temple pond, opposite the main temple, and has been taken to the Archaeological Department’s museum in Panduwasnuwara for preservation and conservation, after suspending the renovation work going on in a part of the pond. M.J.B.Dissanayake, Director of the Panduwasnuwara branch of the Archaeological Department told the Sunday Observer, they believe this is either the statue of Goddess Tara Devi or Goddess Dhurga Devi and has archaeological value with possibilities of being listed as a UN World Heritage property.

It most probably belonged to 12th century BC, he said. The renovation work was done without obtaining prior permission and, therefore, the work has been suspended until a formal inquiry is held, he said.

The Trustee and Chief Priest of the Munneswaram Temple, S.Pathmanabha Kurukkal, commenting on this, told the Sunday Observer, he had no objection to official research being conducted by the Archaeological Department on the findings of any historical value, but that the temple administration is now encountering unnecessary interventions by ‘ many interested parties’ .

Intricate sculptures

The temple is a shrine of veneration of all communities, mainly, Buddhists and Hindus, and was worshipped by Sri Lankan and Indian Kings and sages. It has been the historically inherited property of the Hindus from time immemorial and they want its sanctity and independence safeguarded, the Kurukkal said.

The question he posed was why is it that only Munneswaram Temple frequently comes under the focus of the authorities while other temples in the vicinity, such as, Iyyanake, Sri Badra Kali Amman, and Vinayagar Temples have been ignored.The temple stands magnificent in a serene and quiet location, a vast pond to the east full of lotuses, blue and white water lilies, other water flowers and plants; a vast expanse of paddy fields to the west and the south and vegetation dotted with smaller temples and houses in the surrounding areas. The architectural tradition of the temple, and the intricate sculptures and mouldings, resemble the architecture of imperial Chola rulers of Thanjavur, South India.

Lord Shiva is the presiding deity appearing in the form of Shiva Linga while standing next to Him in the sanctum sanctorum is Annai ( Mother) Vadivazhagi the divine consort, the best of eternal bliss, knowledge and immortality.

While other deities normally found in a Shiva temple are also found here, the most significant feature is that it houses the statues of the 63 saints known in Tamilas nayanmars’ ( also saint poets ) who sang hymns on the glory of Lord Shiva.

An average of 5,000 pilgrims visit the temple everyday, a majority of them Buddhists, about 75 percent, temple authorities said. About 20 percent of Hindus and a smaller percentages of Muslims and Catholics also come to receive blessings of Lord Shiva, sources said. Virtually, all of them bring trays with offerings - fruits, flower garlands, incense sticks , camphor etc. Indian pilgrims, aware of Lord Rama’s historical links with the temple, come in large numbers, the sources said.

There are many boutiques in the vicinity of the Munneswaram and other Temples, selling trays containing offerings at prices ranging over Rs.200/-The annual ‘Mahotsavam , the month-long main festival, normally begins in mid August, the beginning of the month of Avani in the Tamil calendar.

Following the flag-hoisting ceremony on the first day, processions carrying deities in chariots accompanied by Hindu traditional drum beating and blowing of the nathaswaram ( the long Hindu traditional flute ), Kavadi dancing (in which devotees carry semicircular wooden contraptions studded with peacock feathers on their shoulders ) and other traditional events and ceremonies are held in the precincts of the sacred temple.

Sri kandapuranam

Each day of celebration is held under the auspices of families of patrons or villages that traditionally belonged to the temple. The festival lasts 28 days during August and September. Devotees in their thousands gather at the temple to make their offerings and invoke the blessings of the deities.

The festival draws to a close with the Great Chariot carrying the sacred deities on the final day of celebrations, the day preceding the water-cutting ceremony. It is a grand day for the devotees who converge in their thousands to present their offerings and receive the blessings of Lord Shiva, divine consort Annai Vadivazhagi and other deities coming in procession in many chariots, all celestially and magnificently decorated and illuminated.

The water-cutting ceremony at Deduru Oya or Mayan Aru as dubbed in Tamil , marks the conclusion of the festival. The devotees converge there to take a dip in the river before paying homage to the deities and then have meals on the river bank, with their families, relatives and friends.

A wooden chariot drawn by two white bulls draped in silk and adorned with garlands carrying the statues of Lord Shiva and the divine consort Annai Vadivazhagi is escorted in procession through the streets of Chilaw town, with the beating of drums, playing ‘nathaswaram’ and Kavadi dancing. Celebrations are held till late at night on the promenade of the sea beach, in Chilaw, which continue until the early hours of the following morning.

The Trustee and Chief Priest of the Temple, Bramasri S.Padmanaba Kurukkal speaking to the Sunday Observer said, the history of the Munneswaram Temple dates back to centuries before the arrival of Prince Vijaya to Lanka, according to books that have recorded the establishment of the five ‘Easwarams’, the shrines of Lord Shiva.

King Ravana, the King of Lanka, an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva, is believed to have worshipped in these temples. Mention has been made about it in the ‘Sri kandapuranam’ and other ancient Hindu religious scripts. There are other shrines linked to Ramayana, like Seetha Eliya and the Koneswaram Shiva temple in Trincomalee.

But, there are no written records or epigraphic records other than the inscription believed to have been made in the temple during the reign of King Parakramabahu VI, Padmanaba Kurukkal said.

According to a booklet published by the Kurukkal under the title, ‘An Inscription from the Munneswaram Shiva Temple’ based on the research work of A.Velupillai, Senior Lecturer in Tamil, University of Ceylon : A Tamil inscription of four long lines is found above the foundation of the Munneswaram Shiva temple.

The inscription does not mention anything about the beginnings of the temple. The temple is said to have been already famous when the inscription was made.

According to the booklets : One day in the 38th year of his reign after consecration, King Parakrama Bahu VI, the descendant of the great Sri Sangabo, ruling over Ceylon from his capital Jayawarthanapura was seated on his throne amid pomp and pageantry and in the company of his courtiers, when he chanced to hear the history of Munneswaram.

Inviting the saint -dwellers of the temple, he learnt in detail about the sacred sage of the shrine. He accomplished the renovation of the temple, made a donation of lands,to the Temple and the priest and directed that a monthly allowance be made from the government coffers for the daily performance of poojas.

The booklet further records that: Munnesvaram fell on the evil days with the decline in the power and influence of the Sinhalese monarchy and the corresponding rise of Portuguese power in the Kingdom of Kotte. The Portuguese soldiers under the command of Diogo de Mello had the temple razed to the ground when they ravaged the lands of Chilaw and Negombo in 1578. Subsequently, the sixty-two villages of Munneswarampattu which belonged to the Temple were given over to the Jesuits who constructed the church of St.Paul in 1606, and began the propagation of the faith. Kirthi Sri Rajasinga who was ruling over Kandy from his capital at Kundasala learnt of the greatness of Sri Munneswaram and of its destruction by the Portuguese.

He invited sculptors from South India for the reconstruction of the temple. He made arrangements for the daily performance of rituals and poojas and donated by writ in copper plate dated August 14, 1675 of the Salivagana era, corresponding to 1753 A.D. Chief Priest Padmanaba Kurukkal said, according to other reliable records, the Munneswaram Temple was not completely razed to the ground, but instead, the Catholic church functioned in the very premises after it was partly damaged and converted as a church.

The Shiva Linga which could not be uprooted or removed by them was left to remain in the same spot where it was located and the Linga is there even now on the reverse side of the sanctum . This was the darkest period of the temple and the Portuguese had their church functioning in the premises for about a century, he said.

Poojas six times every day, special monthly poojas , the 28 day ‘Mahotsavam’ festival in August/September, the 10 day ‘Brammotsavam’ festival in February/March and other rituals and poojas including the Maha Sivarathri pooja and Navarathri Poojas are being performed regularly, the Chief Priest said. The Navarathri is a nine-day long festival in honour of the presiding Goddess, while Shivarathri is an overnight observation in honour of Lord Shiva. 

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