Munnicuvaram (Munnesvaram) Kovil:
Its History, Ceremonies and Layout
Published in Uppsala Studies
in the History of Religions (2) 1995, pp. 68-71. © Uppsala
A brief history of the Munnicuram kovil
Among the renowned Siva kovils which emerged in various
parts of Ilankai, Munnicuvaram kovil at Cilapam in the
western part of Ilankai was prominent and extolled as a
kovil of great antiquity. The presiding deity is called Sri
Munnainathar ('Lord of antiquity') and the goddess is Sri
Vativampika Devi (‘goddess of beautiful form’). Munnicuvaram
being a great Saiva shrine became a centre of highest
devotion where people of various categories paid homage to
the presiding deity. Thus this is extolled as a sacred site
(punya ksetra), and renowned for its murti, ('deity'),
sthala ('sacred place'), and tirtha ('sacred ford') aspects.
In addition to its mythological significance having a
tradition of epics and puranas, the kovil has a long and
significant history. The ancient tradition of this kovil
has attracted the kings who reigned in different periods.
The inscriptions attached to this kovil bore record to the
wealth which the successive kings with true devotion
provided to the regular service of the kovil. This kovil
appears to be one of the important temples in the territory
of Kotte in the fifteenth century. The Tamil inscription of
the Parakramabahu VI (1412-1467) found in Munnicuvaram
reflects the patronage extended by this king by granting
land and money to the kovil and its brahmin priests. The
king took interest in the renovation of the kovil too. The
kovil is mentioned in the Kokila Sandesaya which was written
in his reign, and we can presume that this kovil would have
had a long tradition and its origin would go back to a
period earlier to this King.
The royal patronage to the kovil of Munnicuvaram continued
until the 16th century, and during this period another ruler
of Kotte Parakramabahu IX (1509-1528 A.D.), donated
extensive lands to the kovil by recording in a copper plate
inscription. It records his visit to this kovil and the
It is worthwhile to mention here that any donation or
contribution for renovation of a Saiva kovil is honoured as
a 'holy act' (punya karya) in Saiva tradition. Since this
kovil is claimed to be an ancient one, the kings and the
people would have developed a high devotion and these grants
reflect as the token of their devotion. As a result of this
Munnicuvaram attracted more devotees who visited on
pilgrimage and attained similar prominence to that of
Tirukkoneccuram. At the same time it developed to be a
centre for Saiva religious and cultural activities and
rituals were performed in accordance to the prescribed form.
More communities were settled around the kovil to attend to
the various activities of maintenance of this great kovil.
The rise of Portuguese power in the Kingdom of Kotte in the
16th century led to the downfall of this kovil. The
Portuguese soldiers caused a complete damage to this
flourishing kovil by razing it to the ground in 1578.
This seems to be a common incident in the history of the
most of the leading kovils in Ilankai. Whenever these kovils
met with devastation or damage by any force, the kings,
priests and people with great devotional spirit engaged
themselves in restoration activities and caused the regular
kumbhabhiseka to be held accordingly.
Kumbhabhiseka ceremonies held in Munnicuvaram
The renovation activities and the consecration ceremonies
are said to be the special features in the history of the
kovils. The devastated Munnicuvaram kovil was renovated in
the eighteenth century by the Nuvaran King Kirti Sri
Rajasinha (1747-1782 A.D.) and the kumbhabhiseka ceremonies
were performed in the year 1753. For the regular
performance of the daily and special rituals of the kovil,
he made a grant of extensive lands to the priests of the
kovil, through a copper plate in the same year. The
maintenance of this kovil later became the responsibility of
the priests. N. Coomaraswamy Kurukkal (1816-1909 A.D.),
who was a leading priest attached to this lineage of priests
of this kovil, took a great initiative to renovate the main
sanctum (garbhagrha, 'womb-house'), the main hall
(mahamandapa), and the semi-hall (ardha-mandapa) and
performed the consecration of the kovil in 1875 A.D.
During the period of M. Somaskanda Kurukkal (1886-1940) of
this kovil, a kumbhabhiseka ceremony was held under his
guidance and leadership in 1919. It is appropriate here to
mention about the priesthood who were the custodian of
agamic tradition and we can mention the contributions of M.
Somaskanda Kurukkal as an example. He was well versed in
vedic and agamic texts, paddhatis (ritual manuals), grammar
and philosophy. He possessed a good knowledge in the fields
of silpa-texts and was familiar with the prescriptions of
image-making. He was an exponent in performing the special
rituals in kovils and widely performed kumbhabhiseka in the
major kovils in Ilankai. He had travelled widely in India
and witnessed the kumbhabhiseka rituals performed there. He
had initiated fruitful discussions with the priests versed
in agamic ritual traditions.
It is worth to mention here that during this period, he
contributed by holding the position of chief-advisor
(sarvabhodaka, 'one who is skilled in all the rituals’), in
the kumbhabhiseka ceremony held in Sri Meenakshi
Sundaresvara kovil. This is a clear incident which shows
that the agamic traditions were prevelant in kovils both in
South India and Ilankai.
The priests from Ilankai too were honoured in South India
for their versatility in agamic rituals. In maintaining
the traditions of this kovil, another kumbhabhiseka was
performed in this kovil on a grand scale in July, 1963,
during the adminstrative period of S. Balasubramania
Kurukkal, after completing the main renovations In the
kovil. The kumbhabhiseka of this kovil (which forms the
special aspect of this paper) was performed on 4th July
1991, under the supervision and guidance of Prof. K.
In analysing these historical events in this kovil, we can
say that this kovil has stood as a centre for maintaining
the Saiva traditions and agamic ritual systems. Also we are
in a position to know the lineage of the priesthood that has
contributed to the development of this kovil tradition.
Munnicuvaram kovil lay-out
This kovil stands as a great monument surrounded by
various other small shrines. To the south-east of the kovil
is one kovil dedicated to Vinayakar ('the god who has no
Lord above'). A kovil dedicated to Aiyanar ('deity of
reverence') is situated in the northeast corner of the third
path-way of the kovil. The Kali (black-goddess) kovil stands
m the northern part of the chariot pathway and in the
southern direction of the outer courtyard of this kovil is
situated another Vinayakar kovil. Thus this area is honoured
by the devotees as a sacred place.
The kovil that faces to the east consists of three pathways
around it. A sacred pond is situated in front of the kovil
and a Bo-tree stands by the side of it, glorified as the
tree of the kovil (sthala vrksa). The main sanctum here is
the one which is largest in comparison to other kovils in
Ilankai, and finial in the structure above the sanctum
(vimana 'the one which is well measured') is also large in
proportion. The various architectual aspects of this kovil
conform to the prescriptions laid down in the agamas.
The garbhagrha and the adjoining hall (ardha mandapa) are
built in granite stone keeping to the traditional art of
Siva linga is installed in the main sanctum of this kovil,
which is also large in size. Siva as the undivided causal
principle is worshipped in the linga. His more manifest
aspects are represented in various other images. The linga
represents the male aspect and the pitha as a yoni
represents the female principle complementing the male
principle of linga; both together reflect the Siva-Sakti
concept. In Saiva tradition the linga is the most sacred and
highly venerated object. Hence Siva linga is installed in
the garbhagrha 'womb-house' of any Siva kovil.
The daksina murti ('the god facing the south') is installed
in the southern direction of the outer wall of the main
sanctum, the sculpture of which is one of the best
production of a skilled artist. The lingodbhava murti ('the
god manifests in the linga') is enshrined in the western
wall of the main sanctum. A separate shrine is dedicated to
Sakti who faces to the south. Separate shrines are allocated
for the surrounding deities (parivara devatas), such as
Vighnesvara (‘Lord of Obstacles'), Murukan, Turkkai (Durga:
'Goddess who is difficult to transgress'), Visnu and
Bhairava (‘terrific form').
Candesvarar is installed in an independent shrine in the
northeast of the main sanctum. Lord Nataraja ('Dancing
King') is in bronze idol enshrined in a separate hall. A
kovil for the nine planets (navagraha) also finds a place in
the hall adjoining the sthambha mandapa (flagstaff hall).
Another special aspect to be mentioned is the installation
of the bronze icons of 63 devotees of Siva (Civan-atiyars),
in a shrine room. There are other forms of Siva:
Candrasekhara murti,(the god with the crescent moon as the
ornament in the hair'), Bhiksatana (‘roaming beggar'), and
Somaskanda ('the god with Uma and Skanda), in bronze are
installed for worship.
The various halls (mandapas) add to the magnificent
structure of this kovil. Next to the central sanctum is the
sacrarium (ardha mandapa). This is followed by the maha
mandapa (main-hall), nrtta-mandapa (dance hall),
(flagstaff hall), vasanta-mandapa (spring hall), and
yaga-sa1a (sacrifice hall), reflecting the architectural
aspect of this kovil. There are six daily worships (pujas)
held and various special rituals are performed according to
the agamic prescriptions.
 B. Sivaramakrishna Sarma, Sri Munnesvara Varalaru
[The History of Sri Munnesvaram Temple] (Colombo: The
Colombo Co-operative Printers' Society Ltd.,
Colombo,1968), p. 4 ff. See also C. Rasanayagam, Ancient
Jaffna. (First published in 1926) (New Delhi: Asian
Educational Services, New Delhi, 1984), p. 83: M.
Somaskanda Kurukkal, Sri Munnesvara Manmiyam, [The
Glories of Sri Munnesvaram] (Colombo Virakesari
Printers, Colombo, 1949), pp. 13-34.
 S. Pathmanathan, "Buddhism and Hinduism in Sri
Lanka: Some points of contact between two religious
traditions (circa A.D. 1300-1600), Lanka, No 4, ed.
Peter Schalk, March, 1990. pp.102-103. Also see P.E.
Peiris, "Nagadipa and Buddhist Remains in Jaffna",
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon Branch,
XXVI, No. 70, (1917), pp. 17-18.
 B. Sivaramakrishna Sarma, op. cit., pp.50-51.
 S. Pathmanathan, “Buddhism and Hinduism in Sri
Lanka: Some points of contact between two religious
traditions” (circa A.D. 1300-1600), loc. cit.
 S. Somaskanda Kurukkal, op. cit, p. 36.
 Ibid., p. 37. Also see B. Sivararnkrishna Sarma. op.
cit., p. 10.
 B. Sivaramakrishna Sarma, op. cit, p.10.
 Somaskanda Kurukkal, op. cit., p. 38. The title
'kurukkal' is given to a priest who has gone through the
expected initiation to become a chief priest, well
versed in performing the special rites of the temple.
 B. Sivararnakrishna Sanna, op. cit., p. 40. Also
ref. K. Kailasanatha Kurukkal, Caivauirukkovir kiriyai
neri [Ritual traditions of Saiva Temples] (Colombo: The
Hindu Literary Society, Colombo. 1963). pp. vii-xii.
 For a detailed discussion on the process of
kumbhabhiseka held in 1963, see Sri Munnesvaram Sri
Vativambika sameda Munnanatha Swamy Devasthana Maha
kumbhabhiseka Souvenir (Munnesvaram, 1963), pp. 70-78.
 K. Kailasanatha Kurukkal, Professor Emeritus and a
scholar in Sanskrit, is well versed in the theory and
practical aspects of temple rituals and agamic