It was 6 AM and a beautiful morning had dawned over Jaffna as we drove to the still sleepy town center. We spotted a restaurant near the bus stand and we ordered the local delicacy which was string hoppers.This came along with grated coconut, ground together with red chili and added with a pinch of salt to taste. It was spicy and hot. Sipping on a cup of tea that was mixed with milk, after swallowing a mouthful of the delicacy, was a wonderfully new culinary experience. Having finished our breakfast we drove through long stretches of road which connected many islands towards the northernmost part of the Jaffna peninsula to a place called KuriKaduvan. This was the end of the road. Parking our car in the car park we walked a few hundred meters to the jetty to voyage a ferry to one of the most famous islands in Srilanka. As the overcrowded ferry labored slowly over the calm waters of the Palk Strait the colorfully decorated tower of a Hindu temple rose above the waters upon an island. I was stunned by its beauty and amazed when I was told about the myth, beliefs as well as its history.
This island was called Nainatheevu or the island of the sea goddess. The name of the island is purely Tamil and it derives the name from that of the chief deity “Nainar” which is another name for the Hindu God Shiva. The word “Theevu” simply means island. But then, why is it called the island of the snake goddess ? Well that’s mythology and belief. It is believed that the Hindu God of War,thunder and storms, “Indra”, fell in lust with the wife of a sage. He waited for the sage to leave the house and then in his lust, he transformed himself as the sage and fulfilled his desire with the woman. The sage on his return found the foul and cursed Indra to be infested with an incurable thousand sores all over his body. Guilt,shame and remorse made Indra to seclude himself in this then unknown island and worship a rock in shape of the Linga or form of Shiva, seeking the pardon through penance from “Shakthi” the mother Goddess of the Universe who was also the wife of Shiva. The mother goddess took pity and pardoned him as well as relieved him of the curse. This stone Linga is said to be the one of which the deity is made of in this temple.
Now how did the temple come about ? This is a story which has been believed by the inhabitants and by over a thousand hundred pilgrims who flock here every year for its annual festival. The belief is about a sea snake which in its desire to worship the goddess swam the waters with a lotus flower in its mouth when an eagle attacked it. The snake took refuge, winding itself around the Linga and the eagle did not dare attack it any more but waited in a nearby rock for the snake to leave it’s refuge. A merchant ship sailing by brought about the desired peace. The merchant seeing the snake worship the goddess is said to have built this temple.The island was thereafter known as “Naga nadu” or the snake kingdom. It is believed that thereafter all trading ships sailing between India and Srilanka stopped to worship the sea goddess here.
The history of the island can be traced to references in at least two of the five great Tamil epics of the 2nd and 3rd century AD, namely the “Kundalakesi’ and the “Manimekalai”. These epics though written in Tamil are about characters who practiced the faith of Jainism and Buddhism rather than Hinduism. Ptolemy, a Greek cartographer who traveled the merchant ships from the Mediterranean to the shores of the Indian sub continent refers to this island as the “Nagadibois” or worshipers of the snake Goddess.He had referred the island to be rich in Gem stones, pearls, conch and sea shells.
The temple flourished during the reign of the Tamil kings in India and the island became an important port. In the late 17th century it was ordained as the “Naga Pooshani Amman” temple by the Sankaracharya or the Hindu religious head of south India. The temple has a pure Dravidian architecture.Bare chest as required by the custom prevailing, I walked around the site admiring the four towers, a “nandi” or sitting cow, the sanctum sanatorium, a temple tank and a “mandapam” or stage for cultural events. The main tower is more than 100 feet tall and all the towers were decorated with sculptures depicting Hindu beliefs the study of which would reveal more to the islands culture.
The almost thirty year civil war between the Tamils and the Srilankans did damage to the temple but it has been restored to its beauty with the support of the Indian community. Today many hundreds of Hindus seeking the blessings of Goddess and many travelers from all over the world visit this island, which has become a must visit place if you happen to visit Jaffna.
My trip to this island, the inhabitants of which are believed to be the first indigenous tribe of the larger island of Srilanka, was an adventure into the past.
The experience I enjoyed, I thought may have been similar to that of one of the many voyages of Ulysses the Greek sailor who came across many myths, beliefs and history..