By Romesh Jayaratnam –
As a Sri Lankan, I reflect on Siva, the Lord Most High. I enumerate several of his names, allude to His grace and describe his ancient shrine in Trincomalee, East Sri Lanka. The intent is to celebrate His place in the Sri Lankan Tamil inheritance. Siva presides over our destiny amidst our turbulent history.
The Names of Siva
Siva, God almighty, has many names in the Hindu tradition. The 9th century Tamil text, the Tiruvachakam, uses several to designate him. Amongst others, Siva is called the First (Munnon), the Great One (Periyon), the Ancient One (Pazhaiyon), the Precious One (Ariyon) and the Wonderful (Athpudan). He is termed the Sage (Ayyan), the Helper (Tunai Aalane), the Giver of Every Grace (Karunai Aalane) and the Only Ruler (Aal-udai Oruva). He is referred to as the Teacher (Tesane), the Guardian (Kaakum En Kaavalan), the Great Light (Per Oli), the Only Wise (Arivane) and the Lord of the Southern Pandya Land (Ten Paandya Naataane). He is named the Warrior Strong (Por Ere) and the One (Oruvan). These names illustrate the supremacy and benevolence of Siva. He is the Infinite, Almighty Lord (Alavilaap Pemaane) who is The First and Last (Muthal Antham Aayinaan). He is infinitely kind and compassionate.
The Grace of Siva
His grace is manifold. One prayer in the Tiru-vachakam is the Tiru-chatakam or ‘the one hundred verses’. This song of triumph narrates the spiritual journey of the Tamil saint Manikka vachakar and describes Siva’s benevolence. Manikka vachakar speaks figuratively of ‘being alone’, ‘tossed by the turbulent waves’, ‘troubled by a storm mid-sea’ and ‘caught in the jaws of a monster’. In desperation, he ‘seized Siva’s raft’ and was in turn ‘shown the boundless, fertile shore’. Siva provided him ‘a royal seat’ and ‘revealed things not shown before’. The Lord caused him to ‘hear things not heard before’ and ‘dispelled his fear’. Here was a metaphor of Siva’s grace in the unsteady journey of life.
The Tiru-chatakam teaches us that a devotee has none to fear. He is no longer any one’s vassal. Siva will ‘lift him high’ and ‘take him for His own’ despite the imperfections and failings. As Manikka vachakar narrates, Siva is the remover of all ills ‘even if it be through hell’s abyss or house and home on fire’. He is the sole refuge and ‘in mercy teaches the devotee all’. He causes one ‘to know the higher path’. Siva is the ‘giver of every grace’ and is the Only Light (Tani chudare).
Its important to add that Hinduism is not a monotheistic faith. It has never been and will never be one! In Hinduism, truth is one, the paths are many. The religion upholds the unity of all being, not just the divine.
There are numerous centers of old Hindu worship that dot the Sri Lankan landscape. The ancient temple in Trincomalee is one. The word Trincomalee is derived from the Tamil ‘Tiru-kona-malai’ which translates as ‘the sacred hill of the Lord’. Megalithic urn burials were excavated in Nilaveli a few kilometers away from this site. The archeological findings included black and red ware pottery and iron tools dated to the 3rd century BCE. Remarkable parallels exist between these urn burials and those excavated in Tamil Nadu. Both regions had evidently shared the same early iron age culture.
The Siva temple in Trincomalee is located in a region of considerable antiquity. Chapter 35 verses 40 and 41 of the Pali chronicle, the Mahavamsa indicates that King Maha Sena had destroyed three Deva temples, one of which was in Gokarna, another name for Trincomalee. He built a Buddhist vihara on the site of the earlier Deva temple in the 4th century CE. Trincomalee was called Gokarna in Sanskrit and Gokanna in Pali. Gokarna in Sanskrit translates as cow’s ear and signifies a place of Saivite Hindu worship.
The new Buddhist Vihara evidently did not last long if one were to accept the tradition of the Vayu Purana also dated to the 4th century CE where Chapter 48 verses 20 to 30 refers to a hallowed Siva temple on Tri-kuta hill on the Eastern seaboard of Lanka. Tri-kuta refers to Trincomalee. The Tamil Saivite saint, Tiru-Gnana-sambandar sang of the glories of this Siva temple in the 7th century. The Nilaveli inscription in the 10th century refers to a land grant of 1,710 acre equivalent donated for the upkeep of this same shrine.
Kachi-appar Siva-acharyar, author of the Kanda-puranam, compared the sanctity of this temple in Trincomalee with that of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. Aruna-girinathar visited this shrine in the 15th century. An unverified tradition has it that Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, of the 2nd century BCE was born in Gokarna ‘situated to the South East of India’. This uncorroborated tradition was reiterated by Tiru-mular in his 10th century Tiru-manthiram. The Yoga Sutras is the cornerstone of Yoga, a school of Hindu philosophy intended at the development of one’s mind through discipline. If this tradition is indeed correct, it would place Trincomalee in the pan-Indic intellectual arena, much as Anuradhapura already is given the latter’s role in the development of Theravada Buddhism and the Pali language.
Portuguese travelers in the 17th century described this Siva Temple of ‘a Thousand Columns’. They referred to Trincomalee as the ‘Rome of the Pagans’. In April 1622, the Portuguese General Constantino de Sa Noronha razed the temple to the ground and used its materials to build a fort. The Sinhalese king Rajasinghe II of Kandy took immediate steps to construct a successor Siva temple in Tampalakamam 24 kilometers to the west of Trincomalee. Tampalakamam was then part of the Kandyan kingdom. This was an act of Hindu piety by a Buddhist king. The main temple was rebuilt in its original location, albeit on a smaller scale, three hundred and forty one years later in March 1963. In September 2008, the Chief Priest of the Temple – Sivasri Kuharaja Kurukkal was killed in an event not unrelated to the conflict. The shrine has had a volatile history.
Its time to repose our trust in the God of our forefathers who stood by us in the past, will stand by us in the present and will protect us in the days to come. The verses of the 7th century Tiru-Naavuk-arasa Naayanar assume a salience here.
We are subject to no one;
We do not fear death.
We will not be deterred by hell’s tortures, we do not tremble.
We shall exult, we do not know disease, we will not submit.
Eternal joy is our lot;
Sorrow is not for us.
We are the irredeemable slaves of Siva.