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Arasarathnam Kumarathasan | HENB | Yalpanam (Jaffna) | Aug 27, 2022:: The Northern Province is embellished with Hindu kovils. In the vast land of palmyrah trees, devotion to Hindu deities has dominated the lifestyle of the Tamil community for centuries. The most iconic landmark of Jaffna is the Nallur Kovil. It is perhaps the most visited kovil in the entire province. The month of August is synonymous with the famous festival that takes place in this kovil, often lasting for nearly two weeks. This year after the impact of Covid-19 on places of religious worship, the grandeur of this vibrant Hindu festival will be restricted as devotees cannot gather in their thousands. Yet, remembering the history and tradition of this magnificent kovil is a worthy narrative.
Ancient Ceylon once boasted of pancha ishwaram – five kovils dedicated to Shiva along the coastal regions. Naguleswaram in the North, Ketheeswaram in the North West, Koneswaram towards the East, Munneswaram located on the West and Thondeswaram situated in the South. This bears testimony to the Hindu communities that once thrived here, before the invading Portuguese went on a rampage and destroyed these kovils.
The Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is bestowed with sacred art and is an enduring icon of Tamil culture. For decades, this kovil has been a sanctum where devotees gathered in their thousands. Inside we see the depiction of Murugan, the god of war. Murugan is venerated as he makes manifestation in the form of the vel (chariot).
According to history, a kovil was built by Puvaneka Vaahu, a Chief Minister of Kalinga Magha. This is substantiated by the records of the Yalpana Vaipava Malai, a chronicle written in 1736 by the poet Mailvagana Pullavar. The ruler of Jaffna, Kalinga Magha supported the building of the kovil. The capital of Jaffna moved from Karanthodai, (Vallipuram) to Nallur and Pooneryn over the centuries. Years later, King Kanagasuriyan regained this area and administered the kovil. The prospering domain of Nallur was once the capital of Jaffna’s rulers when the rajadhani was built with four gates, with a temple at each gate, to invoke divine blessings upon ancient Ceylon and all her citizens. The four kovils were Veyilukantha Pillayar Kovil in the East, Veeramakali Amman Kovil in the West, Kailaya Vinayagar Kovil in the South and Sattanathar Kovil facing the North.
A display of faith
The Hindu adherents of the Northern Province remained faithful and in 1734, work began with eagerness to restore the Nallur Kovil, which was being built for the fourth time, during the reign of the Dutch. The daunting task was accepted by Ragunatha Mudaliyar who worked at the kachcheri. The present land was commonly known as Kurukkal Valavu (Garden of the Priests). It is said that Krishna Aiyar became the first incumbent priest. The seventh custodian of the temple, Arumuga Mapaana Mudaliyar worked tirelessly to upgrade the kovil. He built the first bell tower in 1899. The fortified wall which demarcates the large kovil was built by him in 1909. Kumaradas Mudaliyar, the tenth custodian, is credited with restoring this kovil to its present position as the largest Hindu kovil in Sri Lanka.
I am a Christian but have visited Nallur Kovil on many occasions to understand the rich culture and tradition that it holds. The tranquil aura around the kovil is beautiful. I walked inside this amazing edifice, and saw four gopurams and six bell towers. By tradition, all males must remove their shirts before entering the Kovil.
The variegated designs on the ceiling are brilliant and Dravidian forms of architecture originating from South India are very much evident. Ancient temples were built with sandstone and granite. The Vastu Shastra describes in much detail about building temples with emphasis on spatial geometry. Every kovil has a garbhagriha (Sanskrit for womb) – the innermost sanctum – where the statue of the primary deity is venerated. The southern side has a pond and garden (poonthotam).
The temple has shrines for Lord Ganesh, Vairavar and Sooriyan. Kandaswamy Kovil incorporates the iconography of Hindu cosmology. The Vedas depict time in four epochs (yugam).The old Tamil word koyil (residence of god) is today used as kovil. Hindu temples have their boundary wall painted in red and white. There is a reason for this style of painting. It was explained to me by Professor Dharmaratnam. The white stripes indicate sattva guna (goodness and harmony) and red stripes indicate raja guna (passion and confusion). It is painted in this manner to remind the devotee that one must overcome life to be enlightened. As the Bhagavad Gita teaches us, “Hell has three gates: lust, anger and greed.”
The Maha Raja Gopuram rises on the northern skyline. It is a commanding nine-storey tower adorned with many intricate statues. A gopuram is a monumental tower at the entrance to a kovil and is topped with a kalasam, a stone finial. The temple tower reaches to the sky seeking divine union. Sri Lankans of all religions know the splendour affiliated with the festival of the Nallur Kovil in August, when multitudes of devotees gather. I had to gently push past people to get a closer look. Some were immersed in forms of penance, enduring physical pain. This is a reflection of their personal belief.
The fragrance of jasmine flowers and burning incense permeated the air. The ceremony begins with the ancient ritual of kodiyetram (hoisting of the flag). The orange hue of the flag symbolizes the sun, which dispels darkness and the saffron shading depicts fire, which is an unblemished purifier. It was nice to see policemen and soldiers engaged in worship. The colourful festival laden with much pomp and tradition dominates the Northern peninsula for almost 25 days.
I saw a mélange of poojas – pooja in Sanskrit means reverence and adoration. Commencing annually at 6.15 am, the flamboyant – Ther thiruvila – “festival of the chariot” is the highlight. Devotees venerate the simmasanam (silver throne) where the deity Shanmuhar and his consorts are placed. The silver throne was handcrafted in 1900 by the seventh custodian. A group of pious men are attired in saffron clothes, a colour that symbolizes renunciation. Joyous chants of aro-hara resonated around the kovil premises. According to Sathiyasuthan the phrase “aro-hara” originates from the words. A devotee explained that the phrase appeals to god to remove all evil.
The pulsating drum beats at the festival were almost deafening. The silver throne is reverently carried on the shoulders of hundreds of worshippers, amidst an oblation of flowers. The heavy ropes of the chariot were pulled with zeal. I felt lost within this ocean of devotees. The commitment of the devotees was awesome. This kovil draws all Sri Lankans together. It is a sanctum that generates reconciliation and acts as a cultural gateway for those who desire to understand Tamil culture. The Nallur Kovil festival will continue for decades to come, shining her spiritual beacon upon our nation.
Recovering slowly from the rescission and administrative and financial collapse in Sri Lanka, the nation is rising up with unity, endurance and cultural legacy.
Thousands attended Jaffna’s iconic Nallur Kandasamy Kovil’s annual chariot festival, ther thiruvizha, on Aug 25, 2022.
The annual festival, Thiruvizha, began with the ceremony for hoisting of the deity’s flag and the coconut breaking in innumerous numbers.
The 25 day long festival annually sees thousands of Saivite devotees and tourists from across the island as well as the Tamil diaspora flock to Jaffna, with the main event, the chariot festival or ther thiruvizha.
The climax of the temple’s annual festival (thiruvizha), draws devotees from around the world who gather to see the temple’s primary deity Murugan paraded through the town’s streets.
Kartikeya (Sanskrit: कार्त्तिकेय, romanized: Kārttikeya), also known as Skanda, Subrahmanya, Shanmukha (IAST: Ṣaṇmukha), and Murugan, is the Hindu god of war. He is the son of Parvati and Shiva, the brother of Ganesha and a god whose legends have many versions in Hinduism. Kartikeya has been an important deity in the Indian subcontinent since ancient times, worshipped as Mahasena and Kumara in North India and is predominantly worshipped in the state of Tamil Nadu and other parts of South India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia as Murugan.
Courtesy: Daily Times (Sri Lanka) | Tamil Guardian | Wikipedia.