The Northern Province is blessed with kovils that have embellished her magnificent history. Divine veneration has dominated the lifestyle of the Tamil speaking people for centuries, and worship has sustained these communities. Central among these sacred kovils is the legendary Nallur Kovil. It has the aura that draws to her devotees from many parts of the world. This kovil has a rich heritage, and will remain a very prominent landmark of Jaffna, a testament to enduring religious fervour and piety.
I visited this amazing kovil on August 15. It was the opening day of the grand kovil festival. I reached the premises around 10.30 am. The Municipal Council along with the Police had set up some road blocks restricting the entrance of vehicles on the roads leading to the Kovil. Hundreds of devotees were already going in and coming out of the sanctuary. Sage like men clad in orange tunics and sporting long beards added a sense of mystique to the atmosphere. A bowser was going round sprinkling water to cool the sun’s heat.
The red and white wall of the kovil can be seen hundreds of yards away before you reach the venue. The Northern sun seems to gently light up the golden gopuram (tower). I raised my camera hoping to capture the front view and then realised how massive this structure was. We were soon engaged in conversation by some curious devotees.
The Nallur Festival in August is the island’s longest festival. It spans 25 days of vibrant chariot processions, drumming, dancing and acts of self-mortification, held in honour of the War God Skanda.
Rooted in History
Nallur Annual Festival
The annual festival of Tamil Hindu devotees is to worship Lord Murugan, Valli and Devanai Amman. Many chariots are used to take the Gods on parade around the temple complex during these days. Worshippers line the road on both sides of the route.
Thousands of devotees attend Poojas in the evenings of the festival sessions.
Many temporary shops are erected in the specially constructed market where people gather after the Nallur Murugan temple evening festivals and processions. Normally, many important streets around the temple are closed for vehicles. The Jaffna Municipal Council looks after the sanitation, road maintenance and other administrative works around the temple complex. The St. John Ambulance brigade offers devotees first aid. Hotels, lodges and rental homes in and around the Jaffna city are heavily occupied during festival days.
The important festival days of the Nallur Murugan temple this year:
Up to ten days after commencement of the festival a small number of devotees gather for poojas.
From the tenth day (Aug 25) many people come in their numbers to the temple premises.
On the “Ther” (Chariot) festival day (Sep 8) nearly 700,000 - 800,000 devotees and visitors are expected to gather in the temple complex of Nallur.
People are advised to come in traditional dress. Women and girls are advised not to adorn gold jewellery on the festival days.
Ancient Sri Lanka once boasted of pancha ishwaram – five temples dedicated to Shiva along the coastal regions. Naguleswaram in the North, Ketheeswaram, North West, Koneswaram, East, Munneswaram, West and Tondeswaram, South. This bears testimony to the Hindu communities that once thrived here, before the invading Portuguese went on a continued rampage and destroyed the temples, under the command of General Philippe de Oliveira. Even prior to this era, history reveals that the Nagas indulged in a form of animistic Hinduism. The great epic Ramayana makes reference to Hindus in Sri Lanka.
The Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is bestowed with sacred art and is an enduring icon of Tamil culture. For decades, this temple has been a sanctum where devotees gather in their thousands. Inside the remple, Murugan, God of War, is venerated as he makes manifestation in the form of the vel (chariot). Thereafter, a new temple was built by Puvaneka Vaahu, a Chief Minister of Kalinga Magha. This is substantiated by the records of the Yalpana Vaipava Malai written in 1736 by the poet Mailvagana Pullavar.
The King of Jaffna, Kalinga Magha supported the building of the temple. The capital of the Jaffna Kingdom moved from Karanthodai, Vallipuram to Nallur and Pooneryn over the centuries. Years later, King Kanagasuriyan regained the kingdom and administered the temple. Many are unaware that Nallur was once the capital of Jaffna’s kings when the rajadhani was built with four gates, with a temple at each gate to invoke divine protection. The four temples 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.
Adjacent to the rajadhani was a marketplace, referred to as Mithurai Santhai. There were opulent mansions for the Ministers and quarters for artisans and soldiers. Years later the warrior Cankili II, the last king of Jaffna resided near the previous temple (the remains of his small palace can be seen in total ruin today). He was captured by the Portuguese and hanged in Goa, India. A statue of the mounted king stands in Jaffna, a short distance away from the Kovil.
The adherents of the North 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, 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 temple was built by him in 1909. Kumaradas Mudaliyar, the tenth custodian is credited with restoring the temple to its present position as the largest Hindu Temple in Sri Lanka.
I walked inside this amazing kovil, and saw four gopurams and six bell towers. All males must remove their shirts in keeping with ancient tradition. The variegated designs on the ceiling are brilliant and Dravidian forms of architecture originating from South India are very much in evidence. Ancient temples were built with sandstone and granite. The Vastu Shastra describes in much detail about building temples with emphasis on spatial geometry. Every temple 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.
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-storeyed tower adorned with many intricate statues. A gopuram is a monumental tower at the entrance to a temple and is topped with a kalasam, a stone finial. The temple tower reaches to the sky seeking divine union.
Sri Lankans know the splendour affiliated with the festival of the Nallur Temple in August, when multitudes of devotees gather in worship. I had to gently push past people to get a closer look. Some were immersed in forms of penance, enduring physical pain. The sarees of the women were a riot of colour.
The fragrance of jasmine flowers and burning incense permeated the air. The ceremony begins with the ritual of kodiyetram, hoisting of the flag. The orange hue of the flag symbolises the sun, which dispels darkness and the saffron shading depicts fire, which is a purifier. It was nice to see policemen and soldiers engaged in worship.We must sustain and cultivate our cultural and religious diversity.
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. Stalwarts venerate the silver throne (simmasanam) where Lord Shanmuhar and his consorts are placed. The silver throne was handcrafted in 1900 by the seventh custodian. Some pious men are clad in saffron clothes, a colour that symbolises renunciation. Joyous chants of aro-hara resonate.
The pulsating drum beats at the festival are almost deafening. The throne is reverently carried on the shoulders of hundreds of worshippers, amidst an oblation of flowers. The heavy ropes of the chariot are pulled with zeal. I felt lost in this ocean of devotees. The faith of the northern citizens was amazing. That night I pondered on the power of religious influence and its solidarity on an entire community. The Nallur festival will continue for years to come.
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