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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home  > The Tamil Heritage - History & Geography > Trincomalee - Holy Hill of Siva

Trincomalee - Holy Hill of Siva

S.J.Gunasegaram (from Selected Writings published 1985)
[see also One Hundred Tamils of 20th Century - S.J.Gunasegaram
and Our Temple: Thirukoneswaram and  Welcome to Thirukoneswaram]

Trincomalee is known to the modern world as one of the finest harbours in the world; but the origin of its name and its fame from pre-historic times is associated with the sacred and ancient shrine dedicated by the early Tamils to Siva.

The antiquity of the worship of Siva has been amply attested to by scholars and archaeologists. "Among the many revelations that Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa have had in store for us", says Sir John Marshall, "none perhaps is more remarkable than the discovery that Saivaism has a history going back to the Paleolithic age or even further still, and it thus takes its place as the most ancient faith in the worlds".

In 'The History of Philosophy Eastern and Western  (published by the Ministry of Education, Government of India) we read,

"Nearly all the Saivaite gods of Hinduism are non-Vedic and are recognised as Dravidian. 'Trincomalee� is the Europeanised form of the Tamil TIRU-KONA- MA -MALAI or TIRU-KONA-MALAI, 'the Holy Hill of Lord Siva'. The hill and the shrine are known by several Tamil names.


There are other similar shrines dedicated to Siva in Ceylon and in Dravidian India. Some of the most famous are Tirukethiswaram in the Mannar district and Muniswaram in Chilaw � all in Ceylon and Tiruvannamalai, Thirukadaiyur, Tirumalai, Tirumylai, Kokannan or Kokarnam, Kokali�all in South India.

Tamil tradition has it that the wife of the mythical king of Lanka, Ravana who was a devotee of Siva, worshipped at the Koneswaram shrine.

The earliest reference in the Pali Chronicles of Ceylon to the Saiva shrine at Trincomalee is found in the Mahavamsa (Ch. XXXVII, vv. 40 44). It states that Mahesan 'built also the Manivihara and founded three viharas destroying the temple of the gods the Gokanna, Erukavilla, and another in the village of the Brahman Kalanda'. In a note below Geiger the official translator of the Mahavamsa, states, "according to the Tika, the Gokanna Vihara is situated on the coast of the Eastern sea, the two other Viharas in Ruhuna ... the Tika also adds everywhere in the Island of Lanka he established the doctrine of the Buddha having destroyed the temples or the unbelievers, i.e. having abolished the Phallic symbols of Siva and so forth."

If what the Tika says is to be accepted, Ruhuna and the Eastern coast would appear to have been early homes of Saivaism, the Tamil religion par excellence. The authors of the Pali Chronicles and the monk author of the later XIII century Tika were Buddhist priests at that time, the bitterest opponents of Saivaism and those who supported it in Ceylon. The truth and accuracy of the statements made by the commentator cannot be verified. It has however been pointed out that the unknown writer of the Tika had used his piety and his imagination rather than verify facts to explain the allusions found in the Mahavamsa.

What appears to be the truth is that Mahasen, the on time heretic, in his new formed zeal for Buddhism had ordered the destruction of all the temples of the earlier religion Saivaism including that at Trincomalee and those in Ruhuna. Ruhuna, from this and other evidences, appears to have been the stronghold of Pandyan Saivaite sub-kings who were the rulers of the district.

This is one of the strongest testimonies to Siva worship and its wide-spread influence in early Ceylon Buddhism took a long time to supplant the earlier religions - Saivaism and Vaishnavaism - which still have an abiding place in the hearts of the indigenous peoples of Ceylon. There is, however, ample evidence in Tamil religious literature to demonstrate the antiquity and the reverence with which these Saiva shrines at Trincomalee in the Eastern coast and at Tirukethiswaram in the Western coast were held by the Tamils in South India and Ceylon.

Suntharamoorthy Swamy (seventh century A.D.) and Tirugnanasmbanthar, (eighth century A.D.) two Tamil Saiva saints have left a number of Thevarams ('garlands of verses to god') of imperishable beauty celebrating these shrines. For a full text of these poems and commentaries the reader is referred to Mr. V. K. P. Nathan's 'Thevarath Thirupathikam', 1954.

That the Cholas and the Pandyans, two of the ancient historic Tamil kingdoms, had colonised the Northern, Eastern and South-Eastern districts of Ceylon, and from there Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa beginning from pre-Vijayan times has been attested to by historians.

In the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) Vol. XXX, we are told,

"According to the KALVETTU (a Tamil stone inscription referred to by Codrington), the temple of KONESAR is said to have been founded by KULAKOTTAN, son of Manuwentan in the Kaliyuga year 512 (B.C. 2591) It was destroyed by Constantine de Sa in 1624, and the material used for the construction of the Fort."

De Queyroz, the Portuguese author of the 'Conquest of Ceylon' gives the name of the king as MANU-RAJAH. 'Venthan' in Tamil is another word for KING or RAJAH.

VOGEL says,

"POLONNARUWA may have been an earlier Dravidian settlement. For it is only natural that the Dravidians entered Ceylon by the excellent port of the East Coast - Trincomalee, which as the name TIRU-KUNRU-MALAI indicates is an early Tamil settlement. From there their ships could have reached the interior of Mahavaliganga" (Vogel's letter 'Journal of Science', Vol. II, Part 1, pp. 231-232, quoted by Dr. Paranavitane).

�KUNRU�, in Tamil means a �rock' or 'hill'. MAHAVALI in Tamil is MA-VALI i.e. 'the great pathway'. Its branch the 'VERUGAL' is the Tamil 'PERUKAL' - 'flood', or 'that which overflows'.

I give below extracts from 'The Reefs of Taprobane' by ARTHUR C. CLARKE, (Harper Brothers, New York 1956)

"Swamy Rock Is one of the most historic spots on the East coast of Ceylon. For at least three thousand years, with one brief interruption of a mere century or so, the rock has been the site of a Hindu temple. The interruption was caused by the arrival of the Portuguese, who looked with great disfavour on any religion except Roman Catholicism and who were men of violent action where matters of faith were concerned.

."... We soon became aware that there was something peculiar about the sea bed over which we were swimming. Huge blocks of stone were scattered in every direction, and though all were over-grown with weeds and barnacles many had a curiously artificial appearance. At first we decided that this must be an illusion; the action of the sea can sometimes carve rocks into surprisingly symmetrical patterns. But presently we had unmistakable evidence that beneath us was the work of man, not of nature.

"The capital of a stone doorway, badly eroded but perfectly recognizable (plate 21), lay in the jumbled chaos of rocks. Beside it was a broken column, its square ends bearing on each face a lotus petal design not unlike the Tudor Rose (plates 22 and 23). As our eyes grew more skilled in interpreting what we saw, other regularities began to make themselves apparent. The ruins of some great building had been scattered along the sea-bed, where they lay in hopeless confusion. The water at the foot of the headland was quite shallow; where we were diving it was nowhere more than fifteen feet deep, and most of the broken masonry lay only about five feet below the surface. We continued our swim, often pausing to argue whether some curiously shaped stone was natural or artificial. The fragments were distributed along some two hundred feet of the shore line, and we had covered about half this distance when we came upon debris of a later civilisation."

The Temple of a Thousand Columns

Even before Buddhism came to Ceylon around 300 B.C. the rock was sacred to the Hindus, who built at least three temples on or around it. The largest of these was a colossal edifice known as the Temple of a Thousand Columns; It stood until 1624, when it was destroyed by the fanatically religious Portuguese, during their blood-stained occupation of the country.

Just below the highest point of the headland stands a new Hindu Temple. Inside the temple ranged against the far wall, is a display of five bronze gods including Siva, his consort, and the elephant god Ganesa."

On the very highest tip of Swamy Rock there stands a single column, said to he one of the pillars of the original temple. The view from this point, four hundred feet above the sea, is both magnificent and vertiginous. One can look for miles along the coast, and see far down into the water washing at the foot of the rock.

As soon an we had located a temple attendant who spoke good English, Mike and I described our under-water discoveries and tried to obtain some informatlon about the origin of the ruins. It was not until then that we had any idea of the antiquity of the place. There is evidence that a temple had stood on Swamy Rock for thirty-five hundred years; so it must be one of the oldest sites of continuous worship in the world.

"The priests In particular were anxious to locate the Lingam�the phallic symbol which is the emblem of Siva Worship which one might reasonably suppose to have been one of the first things the Portuguese iconoclasts threw into the sea....... However, the immense jumble of stone, natural and artificial, covering so many thousands of square feet of the sea bed made any systematic search hopeless The best that we could do was to photograph the most clearly defined pieces of architecture so that those concerned would know just what was lying in the sea at the foot of the rock.

"The battered stone work at the foot of Swamy Rock was probably the most photographed under-water ruins in the world. (Plate 20).

The destruction of the temple began on the Hindu New Year's Day 1624, when the Portuguese soldiers disguised as Priests mingled with the worshippers and so entered the sacred precincts. They waited until the temple was deserted by the New Year's Day crowds, who followed the procession down the hill and left only a few Priests on Swamy Rock. Then plundering started; probably all those left in the temple were killed, and in a few hours the accumulated treasure of about two thousand (three) years was looted. The Konesar Temple to give its proper name was one of the richest in Asia.

It must have contained a fortune in gold, pearls and precious stones, and though the Portuguese must have captured most of this wealth, they did not get it all as was demonstrated three hundred years later.

"In 1950 some workmen were digging a well inTrincomalee when they came across metal about a yard below the surface. Further excavation revealed the statues of three Hindu Gods which were handed over to the authorities they comprised more than a hundred pounds weight of gold and copper alloy.

"The five statues which now stand in the new temple are among the finest examples of Hindu bronze sculpture known to exist. In particular, the seated figure of Siva, which dates from about the tenth century A.D., is regarded as a master piece these were found about 500 yards from the temple... it would be most interesting to go over the rest of the Swamy Rock with a metal detector.

After the looting of the temple, the building was destroyed and the masonry either thrown into the sea or used to construct the fort which still guards the foot of the hill. Some of the temple's original stonework can still be identified in the European building, and by the entrance to the fort is a stone slain containing a curious inscription, which has been translated as follows:

'O King ! The franks shall later break down the holy edifice built by Kulakoddan in ancient times; and it shall not be rebuilt nor will future kings think of doing so.'

Constantine de Sa records the existence of the prophecy and was sufficiently impressed to send a translation to Lisbon. (The prophecy is certainly remarkable as it was apparently carved centuries before the Portuguese arrived).

"In any event, the men who looted the temple did not long enjoy their gain. Six years later de Sa and his army of three thousand men were enticed into the jungle in the hope of finally conquering the reigning monarch. With the Portuguese were troops of local militia, who had learnt the lesson from the fifth column tactics the Europeans had used to enter and over-throw the temple. The Ceylonese recruits turned on the interlopers and slaughtered them to the last man.

"Siva the god of destruction, had worked his revenge. Today, more than hundred years later, he is still worshipped on Swamy Rock, while the men who smashed his temple are forgotten and their empire destroyed."...



TAMIL DICTIONARIES give the following meaning to 'KO' and 'KON'.

(1) KO � (a) KING (b) a man in his prime (c) bull (d) cow (e} hill or mountain.

KOVIL = KO + ILL. = where the 'king' or 'god' lives

KOKANNAM = KO + KANNAM = 'KO' bull (here the emblem of Siva) + KANNAM 'ear', �cheeks', also 'face'.

(The Sanskritised form of KOKANNAN, KOKANNA, is GOKANNA, GOKARNA).

(2) (a) KON = 'King', �master', �lord', 'god'. KONESAR - The God of the MOUNTAIN, 'Siva'. KONESWARAM - The temple of Siva. KONA-MA-MALAI - The great hill of Siva.

KON- 'a shepherd', 'a chief'.

KONAN - One who belongs to the shepherd community.

KONAR - 'a shepherd', 'a chief'.

There are a large number names with 'KON' as prefix or suffix � KONAK, ALAGAKONAR, WERAKONE, ILANGAIKONE, SINNAKONE etc

HERAS -- (INDO-PROTO-.MEDITERRANEAN CULTURE) states that the old pre-ARYAN name for Himalayas was VEN-KO. VEN = white; KO = {'Mountain')



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