A citadel of faith and unity | Daily News

A citadel of faith and unity

A side view
A side view

One of the beautiful facets of Sri Lankan life is our multi-religious and multi-cultural population. For centuries we have been a nation that respects all religions. Colombo is blessed with so many historic Hindu kovils, Buddhist temples, churches and mosques. Religion and spirituality are very much part of this island people. Usually most of the beautiful Hindu kovils are found in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. However Colombo city does have a few grand Hindu kovils and my favourite is the Sri Ponnambalavaneswaram Devasthanam or the Kochikade Sivan Kovil as its more commonly known.

The town of Kochikade is a multi-religious venue with all religions represented by way of places of worship. Although a Christian, I have been fascinated by this unique granite kovil. I was first taken here 30 years ago by my friend Maithili Sellathurai. This is perhaps the only such kovil in Sri Lanka built fully with granite. This radiant edifice manifesting the finest form of Dravidian designs and embellished with art, amidst its rather dimly lit inner sanctum redefines the spiritual aura associated with Hinduism.

The impressive gopuram

This is my personal perspective on this historic kovil. The Sri Ponnambalavaneswaram Devasthanam is enshrined with Sri Sivagama Sounthari Ambal (female deity) and Samedha Sornasabeswara Swamy (male deity). For more than 150 years this kovil has been an iconic landmark and spiritual beacon for devotees and tourists. Its massive structure supplemented by picture perfect gardens accentuates the beauty and also reminds us of the dedicated work of its founding fathers and builders.

I visited the kovil on many Fridays to witness the outpouring of Hindu worship and pious adoration. Friday is a day venerated by the Hindu community globally. The kovil always resonated with the sound of bells and vibrant drumbeats. As you enter from the rear gate (opposite the Colombo harbour) you see large white cows amiably chewing grass. These docile animals make a silent contribution to the rituals of worship (kosalai) by yielding of their unblemished milk which is used in the Hindu rituals.

This historic temple was built only with granite. It is replete with evidence of the ancient Dravidian architecture and excellent craftwork of the sculptors which one sees in India. An important aspect is that most of these kovils were built close to the seaports of resplendent Sri Lanka. For instance, Thiruketheeswaram Kovil was built near the seaport called Manthai. Thirukoneshwaram Kovil is located near the natural harbour of Trincomalee. Naguleswaram Temple is also located near the Kankesanthurai natural harbour.

According to oral tradition, Ponnambalam Mudaliyar had dreamt that he was given a pomegranate fruit, which when split in half revealed a sacred Sivalingam. Inspired and perhaps spiritually rejuvenated by this vision he was determined to build a kovil. He is said to have purchased a land full of coconut trees, from Captain John Strone. By 1857 basic work was undertaken to establish a shrine and the traditional kovil ritual of Kumbabishekam was performed. Ponnambalam Ramanathan began a detailed building plan, for which huge slabs of cut granite were procured to Colombo.

Earlier this kovil was built using bricks and calcium-induced lime paste. In 1873 the kovil was renovated and another Kumbabishekam took place. According to the deed, the first male member of Ponnambalam Mudaliyar’s family would be the legal heir to the temple administration. After the demise of Ponnambalam Mudaliyar, the temple administration was handed over to his elder son Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy. But due to his untimely demise in 1905, the temple administration was handed over to his younger brother Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan.

There was a massive building operation with hundreds of skilled workers and stone cutters. By November 1912 to the delight of thousands of devotees the Sivan Kovil was firmly established. As the fame of the kovil spread, in 1967 a Rajagopuram (tower) was built on the east side entrance. This gopuram has many idols. To construct this temple, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan brought down builders and diligent sculptors from South India. These men excelled in building kovils and towers. Initially, this building project was started sometime in 1907 and it ended by 1912. The Kumbabishekam took place on November 21, 1912.

After reaching the main door and reverently washing our feet we enter the kovil. The first impression was stunning, rows of stone columns stood in silent grandeur. The columns were bathed in the light of glowing oil lamps. The flickering flames created shadows on the stone surface. This amazing granite kovil is adorned with many idols and symbols related to Hinduism. A bevy of Tamil girls smiled and passed by, carrying oil lamps and silver trays loaded with fruits. A few priests greeted me with clasped hands. A priest pointed out to a well that lies inside the kovil, and says the water of this well has not gone dry for more than a century. Theerthak kerni or Teertha Thadakam (water tank) of the temple is known as ‘Sri Swarna Pushkarani’ (holy temple pond). I realized the significance of water being symbolic of cleansing purity and clarity in all religions. I recall the prudent words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Forgiveness and gentleness are the qualities of the self possessed. They represent eternal virtue.”

By now people started coming in for the pooja – there are six poojas every day conducted by nine clergymen. We went past the Vasantha mandapam, where there are five deities nestled amidst fresh flowers. They are a joyfully venerated Vinayagar, Murugan, Somaskandar, Amman and Sundeswaran. As we neared the Maha mandapam – which is the innermost place, there is absolute silence. Through an iron grill one can see the Nithiya akkini kundam – an eternal flame.

I was told by an elderly devotee that this is the only kovil in the country that keeps this alight. On the right side of the sanctum there are animals and birds sculpted in wood and mounted on wheels. As we entered the garden again, we saw the kovil chariot. The annual chariot festival is a mega celebration. This kovil also attracts Buddhist devotees. Gazing at the kovil roof from outside I cherished the view of the Duwarapalagar – warrior sentinels engraved boldly in granite, quite an imposing sight. Two faithful devotees I met on my last visit in 2019 recollected some memories.

Dharini and Premini Ganeshwaran had come here since childhood and said, “We used to come with our parents. As children we remember there was a large drum fitted on a wall. Most of the children used to tap this drum, and the echo would resonate within the stone columns. After the pooja we used to come to the side of the gate. An old man used to sell bundles of green leaves. We used to buy few bundles at 10 rupees each and feed the cows in the kovil. This was both amusing and also inculcated in us the respect for animals. On special festival days we used to light the ritual lamp using ghee. Today as we look back these are the memories we cherish.”

The kovil has a large reception hall patronized by devotees, whilst conducting such gatherings in a pious atmosphere upholding the dignity of the kovil. The Sri Ponnambalavaneswaram Devasthanam has stood as a radiant beacon of hope to millions of devotees, sustaining Hindu traditions and rituals. I can still feel the beautiful vibes that resonated from within her magnificent stone columns. I conclude with a quote from Bhagavad Gita: “Detachment is not that you don’t own anything. Detachment is that nothing owns you.”

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