400 feet above sea, at the southern extremity of the peninsula that separates the inner from the outer Trincomalee harbour, lies a magnificent temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Referred to by European writers of the 18th and 19th centuries as the ‘Temple of a Thousand Pillars’, it is a site revered by Hindu pilgrims.
According to legend, a Hindu Prince sailed to Sri Lanka to erect a temple to Shiva on Swami Rock, after he learnt from the Puranas that it was a fragment of the holy Mount Meru. The temple became popularly known as Koneswaram Temple Trincomalee.
As it is one of the main harbours in which seafarers in the Bay of Bengal laid anchor, Trincomalee is believed to be a settlement of early Indo-Aryan migrants. The Pallava, Pandyan, and Chola dynasties are believed to have lavished the temple with wealth to maintain it in all its splendour.
Once one of the most frequented places of worship in the region, in 1622, the Portuguese General Constantine de Saa razed the temple to the ground and used its hallowed stones to build Fort Frederick, which still stands today. Since then, a temple was built within the fort walls and is highly venerated by Hindus and Buddhist pilgrims alike.
The temple has undoubtedly undergone many changes for over several centuries. Thought the exact date of the temple inception nor its founders remain shrouded in mystery it is said that Koneswaram temple dates back to nearly 3000 years old.
The original temple is claimed by some to have been the greatest building of its age, for both its architecture and its ornamentation. It combined key features to form a typically southern Indian plan, such as a thousand-pillared hall (similar to the famous “AayiramKaalMandapam” in Madurai, India) and raised platform (or “jagati”) configuration, features that had been destroyed. It was said that its gopuram (gateway tower) was visible to sailors approaching Sri Lanka from the sea.
The evidence for this magnificence comes from unearthing the very remnants that were buried, as well as the discovery of key pieces at the bottom of the bay. They were found by photographer Mike Wilson and science-fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke. In 1956, Wilson and Clarke uncovered masonry, idol images, carved columns with flower insignias, and elephant head carvings while scuba-diving. More importantly, they also retrieved the legendary Swayambhulingam; a large stone phallus / obelisk said to originate from a Tibetan mountain top. Upon reinstalling the lingam to the temple, Wilson was so overwhelmed by the experience that he renounced his career and family to become a Hindu swami.
Although this is a Hindu temple, people from all walks of life and faith never fail to visit this temple whenever in Trincomalee. To travel to Trincomalee for leisure and not sight this temple would be frowned upon. As with other places of religious worship in Sri Lanka, Koneswaram Temple is steeped in stories.
At the entrance to the temple, 33 feet high statue of Lord Shiva towers over the temple façade. Fable has it that King Ravana and his mother were devotees of Lord Shiva and hence the statue at its entrance.
It is believed that King Ravana who was known to be suffering from a virulent temper was subdued by Lord Shiva. Apparently it was his mother who wanted the king to take her to this temple. As he was lifting the rock, Lord Shiva made him drop his sword creating a great cleft, which has come to be known as RavanaVettu. Another story has it that King Ravana’s mother wanted him to denounce violence and as such he has thrown his sword which created the cleft.
On any given day, you are sure to find devotees within the temple premises just as there as many sightseeing. The rhythmic chanting of prayers, the whistle of the wind against the backdrop of an azure sea lifts one’s spirits immediately. What caught my attention was the tree littered with omens and amulets, a section will reveal small cradles hanging on every branch, hung by couples calling on Lord Shiva to bestow them with a child.
Atop the rock stands lone pillar, the only remnant of the original temple. At the base of the rock the divine family of Lord Shiva, his wife Parvathi and their children Murukan and Ganesh have been sculptured into gold figurines. The sacred Nuga tree dedicated to Lord Shiva stands precariously at the edge of the rock.