Pancha-Easwara Shiva Temples of Sri Lanka

We may have seen or read about many Shiva Temples in India, but what about the neighboring ones in Sri Lanka, which was once reigned by the great devotee of Shiva- King Ravana.

Lanka was also known as Shivapoomi (Land of Shiva.)

The Bharat (ancient name of India) and Eelam (ancient name of Sri Lanka) were both referred in the ancient epic, Ramayana and both countries are said to be the cradles of Hinduism.

As a matter of fact, there were five holy ancient (Shiva) Easwara Temples. Only four of these temples are still open for devotees. We shall see all one by one. Out of these remaining four, two were sung by the poets who were among the 63 Saiva Nayanmars of ancient Tamil Naadu of southern part of the Indian subcontinent.

  1. Thondeeswaram Shiva Temple of Eelam (Thenawaram temple)

The 5th temple was called- Thondeeswaram Shiva Temple of Eelam (Eelam: Ancient name of Sri Lanka) also known Thenawaram temple.

Today this magnificent temple is no more. It was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century and due to its location and because of only a few or even no Hindus live there, it has since not been restored.

Due to the problems faced within the country including periods of war and influence of other religions, this temple was never been rebuilt but the compound is now used by different religious purposes.

Yet it is important that we remember what had happened to this temple and commemorate it’s glorious past. In doing so we can at least be vigilant and prevent the same thing happening to the other ancient Hindu temples in the island.

Thenawaram Thondeeswaram Shiva temple was, like the other four Shiva temples, ancient. We are not certain when it was founded or how old it could have been.

However, travelers, including an Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, of early 14th century, has written about this temple. This temple was mentioned in his writing as, ‘a magnificent temple, with many pilgrims and divinity’.

The specialty of this temple was that, even though it was a Shiva temple, it in fact it had separate sanctums for both Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu within the same compound.

Chithambaram Thillai Nadaraja Temple

Similar arrangements can be seen in Chithambaram Thillai Nadaraja Temple too and that goes with what the Kanchi chief Priest said once, that both Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu are the different forms of the supreme God.

As per available historical information from ancient literatures, the Thenawaram Thondeeswaram was in existence in the 5th century AD. It was located in the southern coastal city of Matara or Matharai in Tamil.

This temple was referred with many different terms; ‘ThevanThurai Kovil’, ‘Naaga Reesa Nilla Kovil’ (Kovil means Temple).

Since the Lord Shiva at the Sanctum of the temple is seen to be with ‘moon crest’ (Niela), the Lord was referred as, ‘Chandra Mouleeswarer’.

The Lord was also seen with the serpent, Naaga, around his neck, hence the name, ‘Naaga Reesa Niela Kovil’

The temple was called as ‘Devundara Devalaya’ in Sinhala language.

There were also small temples with idols of Lord Ganesh, Lord Muruga, Maha Luxmi and Kannaki of SIlapathikaram, Amman and many devas and deva kannikas.

They were built as per Dravidian and Kerala architecture of that time. There were with magnificent granite sculptures. The towers of the temples were of bronze, with gold plated. They were so bright in the sunlight.

Some historians mentioned in their writing, that those sailors in ships passing the coastal cities of Matharai and Galle, described it as witnessing golden cities, in a huge compound.

Tholami, the Greek sailor who drew up a map of the island, also indicated these five ancient Lord Shiva temples in his map.

At the time the whole island was called Naaga Naadu (Country of an ancient people known as Naagas). Note that ‘Naaga’ is the Tamil word for Cobra as well.

There is a small island, off mainland Sri Lanka, which is still called Naaga Deepa.

Naaga Deepa means a shrine was safeguarded and worshipped by Naaga, a Cobra and it still has an ancient Naaga Poosani Amman Hindu temple, (Parvathi Devi, worshipped by Cobra).

There is also a Buddhist shrine in this island. Both draws thousands of pilgrims.

During the reign of Pallava Emperor, ‘Shimma Vishnu’, in Tamilagam in the 6th century AD, the maritime areas of the island was under him and there were local Tamil Chieftains administering the coastal areas.

The areas were managed by a Tamil King, reigning from the northern city of Yarlpaanam. (Known now as Jaffna).

The king and emperor had developed all these five Shiva temples in great ways.

The grandson of Emperor, ‘Shimma Vishnu’, was Narashimma Varma I.

During his reign, many granite sculptures and temples were built.

Additionally, Chera, Chola and Pandiya kings of the southern part of the Indian subcontinent had donated treasures and did many developments to these temples, particularly the Denawaram Temple.

Thenawaram Thondeeswaram temple was a prominent feature at the port city of Matara and so those merchants and traders who came for pearls, cinnamon etc, visited the temple and offered prayers to both Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu in one single compound.

They gifted the temple generously and as a result the temple was very rich with gold jewelry, diamonds, pearls etc.

Remember that across the sea in Kerala’s Thiruvanathapuram Pathmanapa Swami temple has recently opened its underground chambers and discovered the treasures worth many billion dollars, which were donated by the devotees including the Kings.

The pilgrims from Tamilagam were visiting first to Thirukeethesswaram Temple (in Mannar, east of the island) and then walked on pilgrimage to Muneeswaram Temple (in Puttalam) and then continue walk to Thenawaram Thondeeswaram temple in the southern of the island. They then follow to Thirukoneeswaram, in the east of the island and finally at Nakuleeswaram Temple, at the Northern tip of the island and returned home, completing their pilgrimage.

The singhalese Kings, the Parakiramabhaku I (1236 – 1270) and Parakiramabhaku IV who reigned the internal areas of the island, from Dampedeniya, also gifted to these temples and helped in many ways. The Puvanakabhaku VII, who reigned from Kotte was a Hindu King whose decrees and declarations were all signed in Tamil language, did many development to this temple and beautified it.

The Pilgrim and traveler, Ibin Battuta of Morocco, travelled by sea from Puttam (after visiting Muneeswaram temple), wrote a lot about this temple in his travel notes.

He has beautifully describing the pilgrims, sages and sadhus, the dancers and also the magnificent nature of the temple.

Thus, the temple was doing well for centuries, blessing the pilgrims and devotees and looked after well by the kings and emperors.

The Europeans

The island had become the attention of the Europeans and in 1505, it had become the first colony in Asia of the Portuguese. Initially they gave respect to the islands temples and shrines but they soon showed their true purpose, of destroying other religions and spreading their own, Catholicism.

In February 1588, under the command of the Naval Commander Thomas de Zoyza, the Portuguese soldiers entered the temple and looted and destroyed it. They looted all the treasures of the temple and within the temple premises, slaughtered the holy cow of the temple and ate it.

They used the granite stones of these temple to build a fort in Matharai.

There were nearly 500 milking cows that were gifted to the temple, that was in the temple compound.

The Portuguese ate all of them, one by one.

The temple eventually lost its divinity and splendor. During the time of the Portuguese, the Tamil people who lived in the vicinity of the temple, had either been converted forcibly to Catholicism or moved away from that area.

Portuguese were then followed by Dutch and then the British. Certain degree of religious freedom was made available during the latter part of the Dutch period. However, no one came forward to rebuild the temple and restore the greatness of this magnificent temple.

Using the granite stones of the destroyed temple, the a fort was built.

The Fort as of today

After a long time, in 20th century, a group of archeologists worked in the area, unearthed the debris of the ancient temples and the divine statues.

A four feet, Sivalinga and Ganesha, Muruga, Nandi, Luxmi, Duwarapalaga, Granite Posts (poll) and decorated gates were among the findings.

All are now in a nearby museum. Because Matharai is now known as Matara and is a predominately Buddhist area in Sri Lanka and Tamils numbers can be counted to few, and as a result of the civil wars in the island, there were no efforts to rebuild this temple.


The Shiva Linga in the Museum

Instead, there is a Buddhist temple that can now be seen in the same compound.

Moreover, on one side of the temple, a small temple for Lord Vishnu can be seen which is worshipped by the Buddhists as, ‘Chaaka Theiyo’. (The Lord with Chakara in hand). The Ganesha is called, Gana Theiyo while Kannaki is known there as, ‘Pathini Theiyo’.

This temple is built in with Sinhalese architecture and the roof is in different style too.

The idol of the Lord Vishnu inside, is in blue and the inside walls also painted in blue too. The Sinhalese Buddhists refer to the deity as ‘UpulVan Theiyo’. (the God in blue color). The temple is known as, UpulVan devalaya or Devinuwara Vishnu Devalaya.

After all, Lord Buddha is one of the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu and at least in this small way, the ancient magnificent temple is still represented in some way.

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