Koneswaram, Sri Lanka….India and Sri Lanka apart from their history, share a common epic called the Ramayana, which dates back to many centuries before the birth of Christ. It is a very sacred text to the Hindus. Some call it a historical, cum fictional rendition of the Kings of Yore while some others merely call it a myth.
The epic be, what it may be, characterises a King of the Dhakshin or south India named Ravanna with ten heads who was invincible. He was believed to have through his penance, invoked and obtained many blessings and powers from a hindu god Shiva. A cliff standing beside the Bay of Bengal on the East coast of Sri Lanka was were Ravanna performed his penance, invoking Shiva to appear and bless him.
It is believed that, it was upon this rock cliff, the south Indian kings in the later centuries, built a temple to Shiva. This temple was a huge complex which had a thousand pillars and was called Koneswaram, ‘ko’ meaning king or lord, ‘Eshwar’ another name for Shiva and ‘am’ denoting, home or abode, all put together, meaning the abode of lord Shiva. This temple stands upon the highest point, upon a cliff facing the ocean, which could be also seen from the town. This place was thronged by many thousands of pilgrims from across Sri Lanka and India, to be therefore called by the westerners, as the “Mecca of the Pagans.” It was for ages and is even today revered by the Tamil Hindu community as a sacred pilgrimage centre.
Clad in traditional Tamil clothes and bare footed as is required under the temple custom I found many religious as well as tourists visiting this sacred cliff and went around familiarising myself with the contours of the temple as well as its paintings and sculptures.
From where this temple stood, I could see the bay, the town of Trincomalee and the Ocean. This was once a flourishing, commercial port of the South Indian kings. It was naturally endowed with a harbour having an advantage of proximity between east Asia as well as the other South East Asian countries. This also had another added advantage of having another safe haven in a harbour within the port, which was well hidden and naturally protected by mountainous terrain on its three sides. This attracted the Portuguese who in the 15th century, conquered this territory, demolished the Temple and founded a fort around the entire cliff. It was named Fort Fredrick in the sixteenth century.
The Dutch soon ran over the Portuguese and rebuilt the fort and call it the fort of Trincomalee. It was by the treaty of Versailles that it came to be handed over to the British after the Napoleanic Wars. After Srilanka gained independence it was converted into full fledged Naval fort. The natural port and its strategic position soon made the United States of America, request the Lankan Government, permission to have an airforce and naval base of its own. This sparked a political storm with India and China strongly objecting to the proposal. Thereafter in 1983 the ethnic war, between the majority Tamils and the Sinhalese government stormed Trincomalee making it unsafe until 2009.
Recollecting the turbulent past of Trinco, I looked around at the vast Ocean, the bay as well as the huge statue of “Koneswaran” lord Shiva. It had four arms, two of them blessing, one holding a Trishul and the other with a udukai or rattle. Seated upon mount kailash, clad in tiger skin, with his hair tied up with the moon and a fountain which is said to be a river in Hindu myth it certainly looked colourful and imposing.
Worshiped by a short statured sage Agasthya standing near a seated bull which is said to be the vehicle of the God and they put together, summed up the popular description of Shiva at home as in the Hindu texts. Many more statues of lord Shiva and his family adorned a rock woven with the roots of a tree believed to be as old as the Epic.
From atop the high cliff that vertically dipped into the sea I noticed a few boats anchored near the base. The shore line could be accessed only by the sea route and many tourists scuba dived to get a glimpse of the pillars as well as the sculptures of the ancient temple, that was broken down. The ruins lay strewn on the sea bed beneath the waters surrounding the cliff and I felt as if I was missing out on the underwater scuba action or expedition that led one into more than two thousand centuries of history.
Walking around the rock I was thrilled to see the sculpture of king Ravanna worshipping Shiva,his concert Parvati,sons Ganesha and Murugan. Ravanna did not have as many heads as portrayed and looked to be a pious Dravidian king having a strong thick moustache, decked in gold and clad in silk.
A little further away, a huge cleft divided the rock cliff and attracted a lot of visitors. The cleft was said to be made by Ravanna who angry with Shiva for not attending to his mothers prayers, sliced the mountain with one stroke of his sword to thereafter make a Shiva linga and present it to her. Some say that this is the Shiva linga that is worshipped in the temple which I could not get to look at as I was too early for pooja or worship when the Linga is opened for worship. Though I wished, I could not stay much longer due to the long drive I had to take from the East coast of Srilanka to its west end Colombo.
On the walk back to the car I came across some of the temple’s spotted deers and like many tourists offered them a few plantains. “Did you know” said one devotee. It is written in the epic Ramanayam, that Ravanna used his magical powers to transform himself into a deer distracting Seetha the wife of Rama, god incarnate, and abducted her. This act of lust, ultimately led him to his death in the hands of Rama himself. While so I noticed a deer following a beautiful girl, in spite of her shooing it back into the woods. This brought a few smiles and giggles among the visitors. Dear me I thought to myself, hoping that this should not to be part of any modern fiction myth, joke or history as in the case of “Ravanna in the form of a temple deer, leading the beauty from her friends into the woods.” “Deer me” dear me, Trincomalee I say “You are a mystical place filled with religion, fiction, fact and amazement.” God bless you.