TIRUKKONESVARAM

 

 

 

by
Prof. S.Pathmanathan* and Dr.K.Vigneswaran**


Preamble

According to the Hindu tradition of Sri Lanka, King Ravana had worshipped God Siva at Tirukkonesvaram.  The Tirukkonesvaram temple and the other ancient Saiva temples in Sri Lanka are ancient temples constructed since the beginning of the Christian era. The Sinhalese practiced Hinduism until King Devanampiya Tissa  was converted to Buddhism (circa 240 BC) during the reign of Emperor Asoka in India.

Tirukkonesvaram, or Konesvaram in short, was a temple dedicated to  Siva, like the other ancient Isvarams in Sri Lanka, namely, Munnesvaram, Tirukketisvaram and Nakulesvaram. It is one of the 1008 Isvarams of Hindu tradition. It was also called as Matsyakesvaram, particularly since the Chola conquest of a major part of the island at the end of the 10th century. The name Konesvaram is the Tamil derivative of the Sanskrit form Gokarnnesvara(m).

There were three Saiva shrines named Gokarnam in India. One of them was on the western coast and the principal deity was called Mahabalinatha. The second shrine was near Kedarnath, on the foothills of the Himalayas, also important in veneration to Kedarnath. The third shrine was located on the Mahendra Mountain in Kalinga and the presiding deity was referred to as Gokarnasvamin. The Vayu Purana  of the imperial Gupta period refers to a temple of Siva named Gokarnna in Malayadvipa. Malayadvipa referred to is the island of Lanka within which the hilly terrain was called Malaya.  It may be noted that the Mahavamsa [1] refers to the central hills of Lanka as Malayadesa.  It would therefore be apparent that the Vayu Purana was referring to Konesvaram when it mentioned  the temple of Siva called Gokarnna on the eastern coast  of  Malayadvipa [2].

Destruction of Konesvaram by King Mahasena

The Mahavamsa has  recorded that King Mahasena (274-302 CE)  who was a fanatical follower of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism sacked the Konesvaram temple in Trincomalee and is said to have built a Vihara in its place, Nevertheless, the temple of Konesvaram had been reconstructed when the Vayu Purana, which is attributed to the fifth century CE, was  compiled.

Kulakottan and his Constructional Activities

The Tamil traditions of Sri Lanka attribute the reconstruction of the Konesvaram temple to a ruler by name Kulakkottan of Chola descent. There is no other claim for the reconstruction of the temple during or before the fifth century CE. The name Kulakkottan is only an epithet by which he was called because of his immense contribution to the building of Hindu  temples and reservoirs in the East of Sri Lanka. His real name has been lost in the annals of history. He was certainly not a Coda Ganga as Coda Gangas were of a later period after the 10th century. Further, one would not expect the Mahavamsa to mention his name as he was not a ruler of Anuradhapura or Polonnnaruwa.

It would therefore be reasonable for us to accept the Tamil traditions contained in the Dakshna Kailasa Puranam and elaborate  further.  Rasanayagam [3]  states that during the period   a ruler of Chola  descent  by name Vararamatevan came to Trincomalee and found the Konesvaram  temple in a dilapidated state.  This Vararamatevan   could not have been a major ruler in  the Chola country, but on the other hand he could have been a ruler of a principality, as at that time the power of the Chola dynasty in the Chola country was on the decline. On his return to his principality, he made elaborate arrangements to rebuild the Konesvaram temple. On the death of Vararamatevan, his son Kulakkottan proceeded to Trincomalee  with the view to rebuilding the Konesvaram temple. Quoting  the Yalppana Vaipava Malai (YVM), Rasanayagam states that Kulakkottan arrived in Trincomalee during the reign of King Pandu of Anuradhapura from 434 to 439 CE. Pandu and five other Tamil kings ruled from Anuradhapura for 27 years. We could therefore surmise that King Pandu and the local Tamil chieftains in Trincomalee and at other settlements in the East who had submitted to Kulakkottan gave him all the support needed to rebuild the Konesvaram temple and tanks.

Having rebuilt the temple, Kulakkottan also introduced the Vanniyars from India and appointed them as custodians of the temple of Trincomalee and as chieftains of principalities in the northeast. These Vanniyars were chieftains of autonomous principalities  in the island since the beginning of the Early Historic  Period  and these continued to exist until modern times. In the  Trincomalee District there were four chieftains, and two who had a special connection  with the Konesvaram Temple. They were the Vanniyars of Trincomalee and the division of Kaddukkulam Pattu. They claimed descent from the lineages of the Vanniyar chiefs of ancient Tamil Nadu. The first of these chieftains  had the responsibility of administering the affairs of the temple while  the second one was the custodian of records relating to  the endowments, incomes and expenditure.

Kulakkottan constructed the Kantalai tank and decreed it to be the tirukulam of the Konesar temple. It will be shown in the Appendix to this article that  the Kantalai tank was first built by Kulakkottan and not Aggabodhi II. Kulakkottan also endowed the temple with the lands in Kantalai and Tampalakamam for the maintenance of the temple.

Since the 5th century the Konesvaram temple had become one of the prominent places of Hindu worship for Indian and Sri Lankan Hindus. In the 7th century, Tirujnanasambanthar Nayanar, one of the principal leaders of the Saiva revivalist movement in south India  sang a tevaram hymn in praise of the God of Konesvaram.  It would appear that the Saint had not personally visited the Konesvaram shrine but had sung in praise of it while he was on a pilgrimage to Ramesvaram .

Chola patronage of Koneswaram

The temple complex was reconstructed, enlarged and adorned with a temple to Lord Siva, a temple to Madhumai Amman and a temple to Lakshmi Narayanan and a papanasam pond for sacred ablutions.  The temple so restored flourished in such a manner as to attract the attention of Hindus living in all parts of Sri Lanka and India.

Chola rule dominated in the North and East of Sri Lanka for a long time. The  Cholas  ruled from Polonnaruva, which was also called Pulasthipuram. The Cholas gave it the name Jananatha Mangalam. The period of three centuries following the Chola conquest of the island at the end of the 10th century CE witnessed the development of Konesvaram and its environs in an unprecedented scale.

In addition, irrigable lands and highlands in Urakiramam and Kirikanda Kiramam were endowed to the temple by a Chola Viceroy in the 11th century. Kirikanda Kiramam is identifiable with Tiriyai where a Buddhist chaithiya in  Pallava architecture was constructed in the 7th century CE. Urakiramam has yet to be identified.

Pandyan patronage of Koneswaram

When Chola  rule declined, The Pandyas attained the plenitude of their power and glory. They established their suzerainty over the Tamil kingdom that comprised the northern and northeastern parts of Sri Lanka. They became patrons of the temple of Konesvaram. In the reign of Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan (1251 – 1268) his deputy and younger brother Jatavarman Vira Pandyan who led an invasion against Candrabhanu, who had earlier occupied these regions, and had defeated him in battle, had visited Konesvaram to worship God Siva. The Pandyan  emblem, the double carp, was engraved at Konamalai and Tirikutakiri. The stone inscription with the figure of the double carp, engraved on it was visible on the wall at the entrance to Fort Frederick, Trincomalee, until recent times.  The stone inscription has recently been coated with a thick layer of  paint  and because of that reason it is now not visible.

During the heyday of their rule in south India, the Pandyans have been credited with the construction of rajagopurams to  Hindu temples of significance. One could therefore surmise that it was during this period a rajagopuram for the Konesvaram temple complex was also built.

Arya Cakravatti’s patronage of Koneswaram

On the decline and disintegration of the Pandyan Empire in the early 13th century the kingdom that comprised the areas occupied by the Tamils in the island reasserted its independence. The Arya Cakravattis who were the generals of the Pandyas and had exercised authority as their deputies, established themselves as the independent rulers of this kingdom  and assumed royal titles, power and authority. They took the decisive step of shifting the capital from Trincomalee  to Nallur in Jaffna. Yet, they continued to exercise some power and influence over the principalities of the Trincomalee region, which were under the administration of autonomous chieftains called Vanniyar or Vannipam. In fact the Nampota, a Sinhalese text assigned to the 14th century, states that Trincomalee was located in Demalapattanam (the kingdom of the Tamils).   It was during this period that the Dakshina Kailasa Puranam, a talapuranam on the temple of Konesvaram, which was based on  an earlier (14th century CE) work on Jaffna was written. The temple restored by Kulakkottan and enlarged later  by the Cholas and Pandyas and by the Kings of Jaffna continued to flourish until 1624 CE. In the vast collection of hymns attributed to Arunagiri Nathar (15th century) there are verses pertaining to the God of Konesvaram.

Destruction of Koneswaram by the Portuguese

When the temple was at its peak of popularity the Portuguese arrived in the Island. They destroyed the Konesvaram temple on the Hindu New Year day in 1624 and used the material to construct a triangular fort at the same location. The Portuguese Captain General Constantine de Sa who was responsible for the destruction had sent a dispatch between 1624 and 1627 to the King of Portugal describing the temple as follows:

“The land of the Pagoda is 600 fathoms long and 80 feet at its broadest narrowing to thirty feet, which is where the Fort stands….”  [p 378, Rasanayagam]

Paul E. Pieris [4], a renowned  Sri  Lankan historian, in his book Ceylon: The Portuguese Era  states  as follows:

“The great Bay of Trincomalee has made the place famous throughout the modern world in the same way as its temple had  spread its renown throughout the ancient East. From the centremost and loftiest of its three temples religious fanatics it is said used to throw themselves  into the sea below, to meet certain death, just as they were accustomed to do in front of the car of Jaggernaut….. the temples were destroyed by de Sa and their materials utilized for the construction of his fort. An ancient stone inscription found at the spot was set up on the gate of the fortress and a copy thereof was sent to the King of Portugal, for it was believed that this contained a prophesy of the destruction of the Temple by the Franks!” [Vol I, p330]

“It was the summer of 1624 when de Sa started on this enterprise. The site selected was the lofty headland  of Konesar Malai, which was connected with the mainland by an isthmus where the town lay. The temples occupied the promontory, one at the base, and one half way up, while the summit rising 400 ft above the sea, was crowned by the most renowned of all. As one of the five Isparams or residences of Siva, this was the centre of great veneration even beyond what its magnificence and wealth entitled it to; and this was destroyed to make way for a triangular fort of stone and mortar which commanded the entrance to the Bay…” [ Vol. II, p 166].

Rebuilding of Koneswaram

After the Portuguese had destroyed the Konesvaram temple, it was not rebuilt for more than 300 years.  Just before the Portuguese ransacked the temple, most of the idols of stone were taken to Tampalakamam where they were installed in the Adi Konesvaram temple. The bronze images were buried in the vicinity of the Konesvaram temple. They were recovered after a decision to rebuild the temple was taken in 1959, a strange coincidence indeed.  The stone image of Lakshmi Narayanan buried near the entrance to the fort by the Portuguese was recovered in 1949. A large stone idol of the Nandhi was recovered buried within the temple complex as recently as May 2013. This fort was named as Fort Frederick during British rule.

A lingam of stone made in Kasi (Benares) was brought and the Kumbabhishekam for the rebuilt temple was performed in 1963. The Papanasa tirttam was restored as a simple well. Of the three temples recorded by the Portuguese, only the temple to God Siva has been rebuilt. The area given possession of to the temple by the Sri Lankan Government  is very much less than the original 50 acres of land possessed by Konesvaram.

Conclusion

The Hindu population of Sri Lanka are longing to pray to God Siva at Konesvaram that could boast of Trincomalee’s glorious past. Koneswaram is a historical and cultural treasure that has to be restored to its past glory and preserved. It is the prayer of the Hindu population of Sri Lanka that the Government of India undertakes this onerous task with the guidance of the Archaeological Survey of India and of Tamil Nadu.

The whole extent of land up to the Papanasa tirttam has to be vested in the temple authorities and the temples to Mathumai Ammbal and to Lakshmi Narayanan and a Rajagopuram at the entrance to the complex have to be built.

 

APPENDIX

by Dr.K.Vigneswaran

Kantalai Tank and Gangatataka  are not the same

 

Minneri- Kantalai Yoda Ela

According to the Mahavamsa, Aggabodhi I (568-601CE) built the Mahamekhala bund and conducted a great canal from the Manihira tank. Manihira tank has been correctly identified as the Minneriya tank. Mahamekhala bund, which conducts a massive canal, appears to have been built with the purpose of conveying water to augment one or more tanks. Irrigation engineers and surveyors agree that the massive canal which originated from the Minneriya tank is none other than what is now referred to as the Minneri-Kantalai Yoda Ela (MKYE) [5]. It also augments the Kaudula tank on its way to Kantalai. On examining  old topographical  survey maps, irrigation engineers and surveyors  tell us that the MKYE was constructed with the main purpose of augmenting the Kantalai tank [6]. From the above, it would be clear that Kantalai tank was constructed before the reign of Aggabodhi I.

The Mahavamsa states that Aggabodhi II (601-611 CE) built Gangatataka, Valahassa and Giritala tanks.  It however does not attribute the construction of Gangatata to Mahasena (274-302 CE). Most historians believe that Gangatata or Gangatala is none other than Kantalai tank. But  if  one were to accept the argument that Kantalai tank was built before the ancient MKYE was constructed by Aggabodhi I and after the reign of Mahasena, then this Gangatata cannot be identified as the Kantalai tank.

Furthermore, Gangatata points to a tank built to impound waters of the Ganga, that is, Mahaveli Ganga. No other river in Sri Lanka, other than the Mahaveli  was called the Ganga. On the other hand, Kantalai tank is one that impounds the waters of Per Aru which is a river  outside of the Mahaveli basin. It is however augmented by MKYE which is from the Mahaveli basin. It, therefore, follows that Gangatata must necessarily be a tank other than the Kantalai tank and it must be one that impounds the waters of the Ganga, that is the Mahaveli Ganga.

Allai Tank fed by the Ganga

Going through records, we find that the Minipe anicut is the only ancient irrigation work across the Mahaweli Ganga, but it is an anicut and not a tank and is not in the vicinity of Trincomalee.  We are however aware that there are anicuts across the different branches of the Mahaveli near its confluence with the Indian Ocean  that divert water to fill large and small tanks in the Trincomalee region. Notable amongst these branches are the Kal Aru, Verugal Aru and Mavil Aru. Every one  of these is really a short canal taking off from a branch of the Mahaveli Ganga.  Allai tank is fed by the canal Kal Aru which takes off from the Verugal anicut.  Allai is a major tank whose capacity was later reduced to ensure minimum submergence.

It would be logical to identify this major tank Allai as the Gangatata or Gangatala of the Mahavamsa. Allai tank being one in the flood plains of the Mahaveli  Ganga would have been subjected to frequent flood damages and would have been rebuilt several times in history. Pathmanathan [2] states that Kulakottan ordered Nilacotayan, his army chief, to construct a tank across the Mahaveli. If one were to identify Allai tank with the tank built by Nilacotayan, it would mean that Gangatata or Gangatataka was built on the orders of Kulakottan. When subsequently damaged and left to ruins,  one could surmise that it was rebuilt by Aggabodhi II. Agastya Stapanam, associated with Sage Agasty lies in the vicinity of Allai tank. Both the Allai tank and Agastya Stapanam are located in the Kottiyarapattu division of the Trincomalee region.

Kulakottan is the builder of Kantalai Tank

Having  come to the conclusion that Gangatata cannot be the Kantalai tank and that the great canal from Minneriya built by Aggabodhi I, cannot be for any other purpose other than to augment the Kaudula and  Kantalai tanks, and it was built after the reign of Mahasena, one has to accept the contention that Kantalai tank was built by Kulakottan who lived in the 5th century as asserted  by the Dakshina Kailasa Puranam of King Segarajasekaran [14th century AD], the Yalppana Vaipava Malai of Mylvagana Pulavar  [c.1736] and the Konesar Kalvettu by Kavirasa Varotayan, albeit the last two works composed after the Konesar temple was destroyed by the Portuguese. Further, it would be logical to presume that Aggabodhi II (601-611 CE) was responsible for undertaking restoration of or a major repair to the tank during his reign.

References

[1] Mahavansa, English Translation by Wihelm Geiger

[2] Pathmanathan, S., Hindu Temples of Sri Lanka

[3] Rasanayagam, Mudaliyar C., Ancient  Jaffna

[4] Pieris, Paul E., Ceylon- the Portuguese Era, Volumes I and II

[5] Arumugam, S., Water Resources of Ceylon

[6] Brohier, R.L., Ancient Irrigation Works of Ceylon, Parts I-III

 

Authors

*Prof. S.Pathmanathan (1940) was a Professor of History at the University of Peradeniya and was the Vice Chairman of the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of London. He has authored several books and research papers in English and Tamil. He was a member of the team of scholars associated with Prof. Noboru Karashima for the study of Indian Maritime Trade in South and South East Asia.

**Dr.K.Vigneswaran (1941) was a Deputy Director of Irrigation and later a Secretary in the North-East Provincial Council of Sri Lanka. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Waterloo, Canada. He is an Honorary Life Fellow of the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka.