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Sunday, 22 November 2015





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The front view of the Munneswaram temple

Magnificence of Sri Munneswaram

Among the Shiva temples in Sri Lanka, Sri Munneswaram is preeminent and is one of the five ‘pancheswarams’, the five most hallowed Shiva shrines, believed to have existed from prehistoric times, showering blessings on all devotees, low and high alike. The Temple is located just two miles off Chilaw on the Chilaw-Kurunegala road and is popularly known as the ‘Munneswaram Maha Devale’ among local devotees.

National leaders including the world’s first woman Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, former Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranasinghe Premadasa were frequent visitors, seeking the blessings of Lord Shiva. President Maithripala Sirisena, according to temple priests, has also become a VVIP returnee.

Novice pilgrims often mistake Sri Munneswaram for the Munneswaram Badrakaliyamman Temple, ignorant of the historic and significant difference of the two places of worship. For one, the consecration of the Munneswaram Badrakaliyamman Temple happened significantly later than Sri Munneswaram, and in recent years has received much media flak over its controversial animal sacrifice traditions. Many other temples surrounding the Munneswaram Temple are also relatively new additions.

Sri Munneswaram stands magnificent in a serene and quiet setting, with a vast pond dotted with lotus, water lilies and fascinating foliate providing a spectacular eastern backdrop, and the panoramic expanse of paddy fields propping up the west and south, while vegetations with dotted smaller temples and houses give additional depth and colour to the surrounding areas.

The architectural tradition of the temple, as well as the intricate sculptures and mouldings, resembles the style of the imperial Chola rulers of Thanjavur, South India.

Lord Shiva is the presiding deity appearing in the form of Shiva Linga, while standing next to Him in the sanctum sanctorum is Annai (Mother) Vadivazhagi, the divine consort, the bestower of eternal bliss, knowledge and immortality.

While other deities normally found in Shiva temples are also there, the most significant feature of Sri Munneswaram is that it houses the statues of the 63 saints known in Tamil as ‘nayanmars’ (saint poets ) who sang hymns on the glory of Lord Shiva.

While an average of 5000 pilgrims visit the temple everyday what emerges as fascinating is the fact that a large majority of them, around 75 per cent are Buddhists. This is confirmed by temple authorities, who also say that 20 percent of the pilgrims are Hindus, and the balance comprises Muslims and Catholics.

All the pilgrims, irrespective of religious differences visit the Temple to receive the blessings of Lord Shiva, and all of them come bearing gifts, usually trays with offerings of fruits, flower garlands, incense sticks and camphor. These gifts are often purchased by the hoards of boutiques in the vicinity of the Temple and are priced Rs.200 and above.

Annual ‘Mahotsavam’

Indian pilgrims, aware of Lord Rama’s historical links with the temple, also come in large numbers.

The annual ‘Mahotsavam’, the month-long main festival normally begins in the middle of August, which is the beginning of the Tamil month of ‘Avani’. On the days following the flag-hoisting ceremony, which happens on the first day of the Festival, processions set off from the Temple, with the deities transported in colourfully decorated chariots, to the hypnotic sounds and sights of traditional drums and the ‘nathaswaram’ (traditional Hindu flute), Kavadi dancing (in which devotees carry semicircular wooden contraptions decorated with peacock feathers, on their shoulders) and other traditional dances.

Each day of the celebration is held under the auspices of families of patrons or villages that traditionally belonged to the temple.

The Festival lasts for 28 days from mid- August to September, with devotees thronging in their thousands to make their offerings and invoke the blessings of the deities. In traditions are that similar to Buddhist pageants, the penultimate day of the Festival is devoted to the water cutting ceremony and the final day sees the Great Chariot carrying the sacred deities along crowded streets.

It is really a grand day for the devotees who converge in their thousands to offer and receive the blessings of Lord Shiva, divine consort Annai Vadivazhagi and other deities who are part of the procession, all celestially and magnificently decorated and illuminated.

The Shiva Linga

Chief Priest of the temple Bramasri S.Padmanaba Kurukkal, the history of Sri Munneswaram Temple dates back to centuries before the arrival of Prince Vijaya to Lanka.

King Ravana, the King of Lanka at that time and an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva, is believed to have worshiped in these temples. Mention has been made about it in the ‘Skandapuranam’ and other ancient Hindu religious scripts.

According to other records, the hero of the Hindu epic ‘Ramayana’, Lord Rama, believed to be the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is said to have worshiped the Shiva Linga at Munneswaram before consecrating it in the temple. There are other shrines linked to Ramayana like Seetha Eliya and the Koneswaram Shiva Temple in Trincomalee. But there are no written or epigraphic records other than the inscription believed to have been made in the Temple during the reign of King Parakramabahu VI, elaborates Padmanaba Kurukkal.

According to a booklet put out by the Kurukkal titled ‘An Inscription from the Munneswaram Siva Temple’ based on the research work of A.Velupillai, Senior Lecturer in Tamil, University of Ceylon, “A Tamil inscription of four long lines is found above the foundation of the Munniswaram Siva Temple. The inscription does not mention anything about the beginnings of the Temple. The Temple is said to be already famous when the inscription was made.”

The Munneswaram Gods being carried in procession by devotees

According to the booklet, Parakrama Bahu VI, the descendant of the great Sri Sangabo, who was ruling over Ceylon from his Capital Jayawarthanapura, upon hearing the history of Muneeswaram. had accomplished the renovation of the temple and directed that a monthly allowance be made from the government coffers for the daily performance of poojas.

The booklet further records that Munnesvaram fell on the evil days with the decline in the power and influence of the Sinhalese monarchy and the corresponding rise of Portuguese power in the Kingdom of Kotte. Kirthi Sri Rajasingha who was ruling over Kandy from his capital at Kundasala learnt of the greatness of Sri Munneswara and of its destruction by the Portuguese and invited sculptors from South India for the reconstruction of the Temple.

Chief Priest Padmanaba Kurukkal says according to other reliable records and evidence available, the Munneswaram Temple was not completely razed to the ground and that a Catholic church functioned in the very premises. The Shiva Linga, which could not be uprooted or removed by them, was left to remain in the same spot where it was located.

The Linga is there even now at the reverse side of the sanctum. This was the darkest period of the temple and the Portuguese had their church functioning in the premises for about a century, he explains.


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