Munneswaram Temple: Harmony in Devotion

By Udappur Veerasokkan
Correspondent for Virakesari, Udappu Sri Lanka

This article marks the Annual Theerthotsavam-Water Cutting Ceremony at Munneswaram on Sep 15, 2008

Munneswaram is the foremost and famous Hindu Temple in Southern Sri Lanka. It has all the three key glories of a Hindu holy place-Moorthi (Idol), Theertham (Holy water point) and Thalam (temple).

Located in the town Chilaw in North West Province, Munneswaram is attended by devotees of Sinhalese and Tamil communities to worship and guidanceship.

The temple is a symbol of unity and glows with harmony in devotion among Sinhalese and Tamils-two of the major ethnicities in Sri Lanka.

Munneswaram

[Lord Ganesh at the Main entrance of Munneswaram-Pic by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai]

Ancient Temple

Munneswaram is one of the five ancient ‘Eswarams’, (Temple for lord Siva) in Sri Lanka.

Munneswaram Temple, stands to attest Tamil peoples’ inhabitance, heritage, traditions and the beginnings of the rapid growth of Hindu religious practices in North West Sri Lanka.

Legends exemplify the benevolence and compassion of the temple.

Worshipping by lord Ram, King Vijaya and contributions by great Chozha King Kullakottan in the development of the temple are all told in scriptures and folklore of yore, invoking charm and enchantment to the ancient temple.

Munneswaram temple is a grand testament to having people of Hindu faith living in this area at the time of docking by King Vijaya and his corps in ‘Thambanni’ in 554 AD.

The village of Munneswaram gains its greater acclaim due to the temple Munneswaram. The village bearing the name ‘Munneswaram’ and also ‘Muneeswaram’ has historically called the location of the temple ‘swaram’ according to research studies. This name may have the origins from ‘Munnai Natha Peruman’, (The foremost deity) the main deity of the temple. Findings from research also say Munneswaram may have had its origins prior-(Munne in Tamil) than rest of the other four ancient Siva temples in Sri Lanka.

[Munnai Natha Peruman - Picture By Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai - more pics]

Worshiped by Lord Ram, Sinhala and Chozha Kings

Lord Ram was afflicted with ‘Brahma haththi thosham’ (an abhorrent due to a prior evil deed) after the ‘samharam’ (destruction) of King Ravana. It is said during the journey leaving from Lanka, Lord Ram travelled through Munneswaram and was relieved of the said ‘thosham’.

Realizing this, Lord Ram consecrated a Lingam in the vicinity-’Sivalinga Peruman’ (Lingam-a symbol for the worship of Lord Siva) and offered prayers and poojas, according to ‘Dakshina Kailaya Manmiyam’, an ancient Hindu scripture.

This is why the main deity in Munneswaram happens to be a Lingam.

The 9th King Parakramabahu, known as ‘Pundit of the age of vice’ (Kaliyuga sakgna panndithan) donated few villages to the Munneswaram temple.

The walls of the Katpagraha (main shrine) monuments the endowment of several villages to the temple by the 6th King Parakramabahu.

The beneficent of King Kula Kottan to Munneswaram vividly portrays the greatness in charity. The King brought temple workers from the Chozha country for spiritual duties at the temple and housed them in the vicinity of the temple. Due to this, daily ‘naimithiya kiriyas’ (spiritual activities) of the temple were carried out without any shortcomings. Also, ‘Munneswara Manmiyam,’ holy scripture of Munneswaram says King Kula Kottan granted 4 of his villages to the Munneswaram temple.

Hearing the greatness of this temple, King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghan performed a consecration ceremony in 1753. This was a stepping stone on the growth of this temple.

‘Karna parambai kathai’–Folklore

A fisherman from the area of Munneswaram on his way to the sea to fish saw a little boy playing with a piety looking little girl. While watching, they suddenly disappeared.

Surprised at this, the fisherman hid behind a bush and wanted to go near the children when they appear to play.

When he got closer as soon as they appeared, the boy vanished and the piously looking little girl became a gold coloured statue, further astounding the fisherman.

Hearing this, the king of Lanka made imitations of the same statue and ordered the fisherman to identify among them the one he first saw becoming a statue. The puzzled fisherman returned home saying he will do so the next morning.

Goddess Amman appeared in the fisherman’s dream and said, ‘the statue you want to identify is the one that will move the right foot slightly’. The fisherman did so, and told the king about his dream.

Enchantment with him now, the King of Lanka went to the Munneswaram temple and offered prayers, pomp and pageant.

SweetGrace

[Pillaiyar idols are displayed on the wall at the main entrance of Munneswaram temple, Chilaw, North of Colombo, Sri Lanka: More Pictures at: www.sweetgrace.org]

Annual Festival

The Muneeswaram temple, possessing artful architecture today, held the Annual flag hoisting ceremony on the 19th of August this year. Daily festivities are being held for another 28 days.

September 10th, is fire walking festival day.

Munneswaram temple is the only Sivan temple in Sri Lanka with a tradition of holding a special festival for the 63 ‘Nayanmars’; Nayanmars were Saivite devotional poets of Tamil Nadu, active between the fifth and the tenth centuries CE.

September 11th is festival for ‘Pichardanar’. Lord Siva as Pitchardanar destroying the pride and ignorance of ‘munivars’ (Hermits) is celebrated this day. Prayers and poojas are held this day for the 5 feet tall ‘Pitchadanar’.

September 12th, celebrates Lord Natarajar. It is said the statue of Lord Natarajar was found in an inner route well of the temple. The pageant of Lord Natarajar this day is a pleasant sight. 13th is Animal Pilgrimage. 14th is chariot festival, five of them in procession with the festive deities.

September 15th is ‘Theerthotsavam’, annual water cutting ceremony at ‘Mayan’ Aru (Deduru oya).

Temple destruction

The rapid growth of Hinduism in Sri Lanka during the 16th century, hit a markedly low point after the arrival of Portuguese in the island. Hindu temples around the country were destructed during this period. It is notable that Munneswaram was leveled too, in 1517.

One golden day

[Sunset over a paddy field in Chilaw-HA]

As war rages in parts of the country now and civilians perishing tragically, lets pray and worship the deity at Munneswaram Temple, ‘Munnai Natha Peruman’, for peace and prosperity for all ethnicities of the country.

[This article first appeared in the Virakesari Print Edition on Aug 31, 2008: Translated by K. Thirukumaran]

12 Comments

  1. Dushy Ranetunge says:

    Munneswaram is a fascinating place. However I find some of the comments in the article misleading.

    It says “Munneswaram Temple, stands to attest Tamil peoples’ inhabitance, heritage, traditions and the beginnings of the rapid growth of Hindu religious practices in North West Sri Lanka.”

    Lets examine this “attesting”.

    Munneswaram has several very old Bo trees in its compound. What has Bo trees got to do with Hinduism or Tamils? There is also a huge Bo tree in Kataragama, at the very root of the Murugan kovil.

    I was at Kataragama recently and asked a big shot at the temple a difficult question about the chicken and the egg. What came first, the Murugan kovil or the Bo tree?

    Looking at it, there can only be one answer.

    Now perhaps someone could explain what does the BO trees at the root of the Kataragama Kovil and the grounds of the Munneswaram Kovil “attest” to ?

  2. Nammalvaar says:

    Dushy R
    The Hindu tradition of worshiping Pillaiyaar (Ganesh) statues placed Bo tree (Arasamarathu Pillaiyar) shades precede Buddhism. Do not forget that Siddhartha was a Hindu by birth. He sat below the Bo tree for enlightenment because of the special place afforded the Bo tree in the Hindu tradition. Tell me Dushy R what came first the Bo tree or Buddhism?

  3. Dushy Ranetunge says:

    Hi Nammalvaar,

    I am grateful for your response, but in India or among Indians there is no such association of the Bo tree with Ganesha.

    Is the association of Ganesha with the Bo tree a Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu thing?

    Perhaps they got confused in Kataragama and instead of placing a Ganesha, they placed Murugan under the Bo treee. In the ancient hindu tradition is Murugan also associated with the Bo tree.?

    These ancient traditions, eh? I bet they are from the earliest of times.

    In Jaffna I have visited Hindu temples with a Bo Tree and a bell tower. I wonder who the bell tower in the Hindu/buddhist temples associated with? The Portuguese and the Catholic church bell perhaps?

    Kataragama seems a huge confusion. Here is what Rasanayagam stated in Ancient Jaffna, on page 59 “The other Tamil name Katirkamam is the literal transformation of the Sinhalese name Kataragama and has no connection with the Tamil components ‘ Katir’(divine glory) and ‘kamam’ (love), a resemblance seen through religious fervor only. ”

    These Ganeshas you mention with the Bo trees, I hope you are not confusing them with the ones that all those British archeologists mention in their archeological survey in the North and the East, where Buddha statues were converted to Ganesha statues by you know who?

    This is what Karthigesu Indrapala said about these Ganeshas …..

    “But monumental remains of a different type attest to the destruction wrought by the invaders and the conversion of Buddhist institutions into places of Saiva worship, effected by the new settlers, thus confirming the statements in the Sinhala sources. The many scattered ruins of Buddhist monasteries and temples all over the Vanni region preserve the memory of the Sinhalese Buddhist settlements that once covered these parts. Several of the pilimages (image houses) attached to the monasteries in places like Kovilkadu, Malikai, Omantai, Kanakarayan-kulam, Iracentiran-kulam, Cinnappuvaracankulam and Madukanda were converted into Saiva temples, often dedicated to Ganesa. Buddha images or inscribed slabs from the Buddhist structures were used to make the Ganesa statues.(J.P.Lewis, Manual of the Vanni Districts. (pp 297, 303-306, 311) A number of small Saiva shrines have been found in association with Buddhist remains. The destruction of several of the Buddhist edifices and the conversion of pilimages into Saiva temples may have begun at the time of Magha. In the North Central Province, too, we find evidence of such activities. On Minneriya Road, close to Polonnaruwa, were discovered a few Saiva edifices which were built of materials from Buddhist structures. A door jamb from one of the Saiva shrines there was found to bear part of an inscription of Parakramabahu I. A broken pillar shaft with Sinhalese writing of the tenth century was recovered from the enclosing wall of another shrine. In one of the Visnu temples of Polonnaruwa, fragments of Nissankamalla’s stone inscriptions were found. In the same place, two fragments of a broken pillar with Sinhalese writing of about the tenth century served as steps to one of the Vaisnava shrines. A pillar in the mandapa of Siva Devale No.5 at Polonnaruwa was discovered with a Sinhala inscription of the eleventh century on it. In Siva Devale No.7 a square stone asana with an inscription of Nissankamalla was used as a base for a linga. Another of the Saiva shrines unearthed at Polonnaruwa yielded apillar with a Sinhalese inscription of Jayabahu I. These examples leave us in no doubt that materials from Buddhist structures were used in the building of Saiva and Vaisnava temples. The date of most inscriptions found on the pillars and slabs is the twelfth century. The date of the construction of these Saiva and Vaisnava shrines is certainly later than that. (page 361-364)”

    “The invasion of Magha with the help of Kerala and Tamil mercenaries was far more violent than the earlier invasions. Its chief importance lies in the fact that it led to the permanent dislodgement of Sinhalese power from northern Ceylon, the confiscation by Tamils and Keralas of lands and properties belonging to the Sinhalese and the consequent migration of the official class and many of the common people to the south western regions. (page 395-396)”

    Ah! all those Bo trees……of the buddhist… sorry… you say Ganesha tradition. Whatever makes you happy.

  4. Uthunga says:

    # 2
    As long as this type of mindset is typified with the supposed SWRD of truth in the hands of a mocking caricature of a three footed unstable Lion it is patriotism and racial superiority.
    Very Good ! Keep the flag flying high with a lot of Hot Air !.

  5. Dushy Ranetunge says:

    To claim that Munneswaran attests to Tamil peoples heritage is inaccurate, as the people who built Munneswaram would NOT have considered themselves as Tamils.

    The Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic identities as we know it today is a recent phenomena, less that 200 years old.

    In Tissamaharama near Kataragama, an official showed me ruins and stated that these were the heritage of the Sinhalese. I questioned, if the people who built them 2000 years ago considered themselves as Sinhalese? He smiled and answered no, they would have considered themselves Naga’s or some other local tribe. Both magama and Kelaniya were known to be Naga settlements and Tissa is more a naga, rather than a Sinhalese name.

    In Sri lanka, both Sinhalese and Tamils have a habit of distorting history by going back 2000 years and attaching Sinhala or Tamil labels to people and things, when Sinhala and Tamil as we know it today are concepts that would have been alien to them.

    Sinhala and Tamil are recent ethnic identities. For most of our history our identities would have been those of local tribes, identities of local war lords of Kerala, chola, Pandya, Sinhala soverignity or identity based on caste.

    This explains why people of different ethnicities were able to be the Sinhala king or Queen. As soon as the crown was placed on them, they obtained the Sinhala Royal Identity, NOT the Sinhala ethnic identity that we are familiar with today. It was the same in South India and Jaffna. Most of the aryachakravarti kings of Jaffna were NON Tamils.

    Today, Sinhalese are buddhists and Tamils are hindu’s. This measure is only valid for less than 200 years.

    The past should be measured in terms of various tribes living in the island who were both buddhist and Hindu’s or even both, a far more fluid social situation.

    That explains how Dutu Gemunu had Tamil generals Velu (Sumana) (possibly indicates a Tamil buddhist) and Elara had Sinhalese generals and was loved by the Sinhalese, who praised him as a just king.

    Present day Sinhalese perceive all their kings in the Sinhalese style & the Tamils do so in a Tamil style.

    I have in my home in Colombo a Dutch print of the , Emperor Vimaladharmasuriya which records his meeting with Admiral Spielburgen in May 1602. This shows the Emperor and all his Kandyan Ministers dressed in Portuguese clothes. The Admiral recorded in his diary in 1602, that the Emperor of Ceylon, spoke Portuguese, and dressed and conducted court in the Portuguese and not the Ceylonese manner.

    This is something, Sinhalese traditionalists will find difficult to digest. In present day language the king was a “kalu suddha.”, certainly not of the Ananda College mould, more the St Thomas college mould.

    Sumithra Peries, the wife of Lester James Peiris will tell you that they abandoned a movie project about Donna Catherina, the Empress of Kandy, the wife of Vimaladharmasuriya, and later the wife of his ex-buddhist monk cousin brother king Senerat and the mother of Mahastana, the champion of kandy, crowned Rajasimha I, on the grounds that it would have been too Catholic and difficult for the Sinhalese to digest.

    Perhaps this is a movie for the future.

    The Sinhalese view the past with Sinhalese buddhist spectacles and Tamils view the past with Tamil Hindu spectacles, but reality is very far indeed.

    Today they see Mahinda Rajapakse as their champion.

    This perception is irreconcillable with the fact that All his children were educated, hence conditioned at St Thomas college in Mt Lavinia,

    Its as confusing as Prabakaran sending his kids to Ananda or Nalanda College, bastions of Sinhala Buddhism.

  6. buddhadasa says:

    Dear Dushy,
    I am at Manipal in Karnataka State of India. There is a Hindu temple, namely Venugopal Krishna Temple. There is a Bo tree in the compund, the only large tree, and the devotees revere it. I have verified with local people that Bo tree has a special place in Hindu tradition.

  7. Dushy Ranetunge says:

    Hi Buddhadasa,

    You are quite right that there may be many Bo trees in those regions in Hindi temples.

    The Madras museum is also full of Buddha statues.

    This entire region was Buddhist at one point and then reverted to what we perceive today as Hinduism, so many Buddhist places of worship are now Hindu places of worship.

    Other than this historical transformation, there is no known associations between the Bo tree and Ganesh or Murugan.

    In Jaffna too there are many Bo trees and the people revere them, but this does not attest to Tamil peoples heritage, it is more an attesting of Buddhist peoples heritage.

  8. Raymond says:

    You have for forgive the shortsighted people, they are like frog in a well and they have no concept beyond the well. Similarly, the fact that Bo trees can be associted with any other deity is a novel information for such people

  9. ilaya seran senguttuvan says:

    I can understand the nitwits of the JHU coming out with a mental argument of the Bo Tree being exlusively Buddhist – and has little to do with Hinduism. But Dushy Ranatunga is someone with some savvy. Whats your problem? Are you shy Prince Siddhartha is from India – although bogus historians of recent vintage here are out to brainwash the new generation to almost think Buddha came from Sri Lanka.

    This business of Sinhalese being asked to preserve the pristine purity of Buddhism is only good for local consumption. Larger numbers of Buddhists in Burma, Thailand, Japan, China jut to name a few are not audacious to make this foolish claim.

    Or is Ranatunga’s problem Muneeswaram is far too close to Colombo. Friend, Silabam is part of Tamil-speaking Lanka for thousands of years. And so is Neercolumbu. Just because you have a larger number of soldiers and guns and the fact you they use force to change Manalaru to Weli Oya does not make that so. Learn something from Buddhadasa from Manipal and come out with better and sustainable argumentsin your impossible endeavour to establish the whole of the island has always belonged to the Sinhalese.

    It never was. Take a hike to Anuradhapura and Pollanaruwa and take a look at the stone carvings – almost all of them are in Tamil. Of course today 82% of the population is Sinhalese but that does not mean one should try to distort history to fall in line with today’s political imperatives. If one is so proud of ones Sinhalaness start by having Sinhala names to your children – instead of those Arjunas, Arvindas, Kumars, Ranjeeths, Malingas, Sanjeevas, Bharathas, Sagaras and many thousands of cricketers et al.

    There is hardly a single name of yore with the present Sinhala girls. They have all copied Tamil and Indian names.What’s wrong with Sinhala names like Somapala, Usurupala, Somawathi, Seelawathi and others. Here on the one hand you try to distance yourself from India and Indians and at the sametime unabashedly steal Indian names for your children.

  10. Dushy Ranetunge says:

    Hi ilaya seran senguttuvan,

    I have not stated that Sri Lanka is Sinhalese or that I am upset that Munneswaram is close to Colombo.

    I am merely pointing out that the Bo tree is more a Buddhist tradition than a Hindu tradition.

    Everywhere in the world, even in cold London, Buddhist temples have bo trees, often in heated glass conservatories, but there is no such tradition in Hindu temples, today, yesterday or 1000 years ago.

    Just because I pointed this out is no reason for you to get excited and engage in some Sinhala attack on me as I am not a nationalist of any hue.

    I understand that these days may be somewhat sensitive with the prospect of not Prabakaran, but Rajapakse who may deliver the hero’s day message from Kilinochchi, but let me assure you that a majority of the Sinhalese do not subscribe to the mind frame that you have highlighted, but simply want to cut Tamil nationalism and the LTTE down to size. I think they have succeeded. What do you say?

    Sarath Fonseca is my friend, and I excuse his insensitive comments on the grounds that he studied at Ananda College, that ethnically pure Sinhala buddhist enclave.

  11. ilaya seran senguttuvan says:

    Hello Dushy!

    Are we agreed Prince Siddartha preached against all forms of tree and idol worship although the Buddhist clergy here imposes this on the Buddhists of this country? So the Bo tree is out from the precincts of the Buddhist temples and statues, right? At the sametime, larger India has more Bo trees than here and almost all places of worship – Hindu, Jain, Christian and even Muslim. Its time some group of rational Sinhala Buddhists, yourself included, do something about this and bring the tradition to fall in line with the preachings of the Enlightened One. If you will allow me some hyperbole it takes a lot more to “excite” me – so pls get that out of your mind.
    I certainly have no objection if my friend Mahind Rajapakse makes his victory speech from Kilinochi soon – perhaps in the next few days as obliquely suggested by your friend Sarath Fonseka. But pls tell him even the Americans – with all the firepower and manpower numbers to their advantage did not engage in indiscriminate bombing harming a large number of civilian casulties in proportion to the larger size of Vietnam.
    Here for every LTTEr killed over several hundreds of innocent civilian women, children and the elders are killed and maimed.
    That is what I object to and I am glad many of my Sinhala brothers and sisters take to the Press and the streets with us on this. I am pleased with your assurance “a majority of the Sinhalese do not subsribe to the mind-frame I have high-lighted”

  12. mahesh says:

    thankyou for saving these pictures of munneswaram ambal thankyou very much &add the new photos of the temple i am waiting gladly for that

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