Koneswaram temple

Posted on: April 27, 2011

Koneswaram temple

Koneswaram temple

Shiva temple front gate with the bell tower
Koneswaram temple is located in Sri Lanka

Koneswaram temple
Location in Sri Lanka
Coordinates: 8°34′57″N 81°14′44″ECoordinates: 8°34′57″N 81°14′44″E
Proper name: Thiru Koneswaram Kovil
Tamil: திருக்கோணேச்சரம்
Country: Sri Lanka
Province: Eastern
District: Trincomalee District
Location: Swami Rock (Konamamalai), Trincomalee
Architecture and culture
Primary deity: Shiva
Architectural styles: Dravidian architecture
Date built: Unknown; earliest reference 3rd century CE, latest reconstruction 1952 CE

Koneswaram temple (Tamil: திருக் கோணேச்சரம் கோயில்) (also historically known as the Konesar Kovil, the Temple of the Thousand Pillars and Maccakeswaram Kovil of Konamamalai) is an important Hindu temple in Trincomalee, Eastern Province, Sri Lanka venerated by Saivites throughout the continent. The primary deity is the Hindu god Lord Shiva in the form Konesar. At its zenith, Koneswaram was of considerable size and heralded as one of the richest and most visited temple complexes in Asia. Built atop Swami Rock, a rocky promontory overlooking the Trincomalee harbor, the temple has lay in ruins, been restored, renovated and enlarged by various royals and devotees throughout its history. Koneswaram is heralded as a grand seat of Shiva worship in the 6th-7th century CE Tamil hymn canon Tevaram. Its bronze idols from the 10th century CE reflect the high points of Chola art. The temple has been administered and frequented by Tamil Hindus and is located in Trincomalee, a classical period port town.

Koneswaram was developed in the post classical era, between 300 CE and 1600 CE by kings of the Pandyan and Chola empires as well as local Vannimai feudal chiefs, with decorations and structural additions such as its thousand pillared mandapa hall furnished by kings of the Pallava dynasty and the Jaffna kingdom. Its characteristically large gopuram towers were visible to sailors at sea. This culminated in Koneswaram becoming one of the most important surviving buildings of the classical Dravidian architectural period by the early 17th century, forming a large complex housing shrines to many Hindu deities. Koneswaram Kovil owned the entire property and land of the town and the surrounding villages, ownership of which was affirmed through several royal grants in the early medieval period. Services were provided to the local community with the Kovil’s revenue.

In 1624, the Koneswaram temple was largely destroyed by Portuguese colonials. Hindus built a successor temple at a nearby site in 1632 CE – the Ati Konanayakar temple in Tampalakamam – to house some of the destroyed temple’s idols, where they are still worshipped. In the 1950s, the ruins of the original temple were discovered underwater beside Swami Rock by Sir Arthur C. Clarke and a friend. It was rebuilt of much more modest dimensions at its original site by local Hindu Tamils 450 years after its destruction. Surviving sculptures and idols at the site are reinstalled in the reconstructed building. The Lingam form of Shiva here is believed to be Swayambhu and was retrieved from the ruins. Legends surrounding the temple associate it with the popular epic Ramayana with Swami Rock connected to Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology. The temple also has been a source of conflict between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils due to claims and counter claims of its historicity.

The modern temple is built based on classical Dravidian Hindu architecture. The annual temple festival attracts Hindus from around the country.



In Tamil, Koneswaram refers to the holy shrine and the presiding Shiva deity’s names are Koneswaran or Konesar. The name of the coastal peninsula town where it lies, Trincomalee, is an anglicized form of the Tamil word “Tiru-kona-malai”, meaning “Lord of the Sacred Hill”;[1] Thiru comes from the Tamil for “sacred”, Kona means “Lord” or “Chief” in the language while Malai in Tamil means mountain or hill.[1][2][3] Another meaning for the word Kona in Tamil is peak, and other definitions for Tirukonamalai include “sacred angular/peaked hill” or “three peaked hill”.[4][5] The temple was constructed atop Swami Rock, also called Swami Malai or Kona-ma-malai, a cliff on the peninsula that drops 400 feet (120 metres) directly into the sea.[6]

The Sanskrit equivalent of the deity’s name is held to be Gokarneswara and the name of the port town in Sanskrit, Gokarna or Gokarna Pattana. Gokarna is also a place name in India and Nepal associated with Shiva temples.[7] In Pali the city was known as Gokanna Pattana.

Although the exact date of the Koneswaram temple’s birth is not universally agreed upon, inscriptional and literary evidence of the temple’s history and practices from the postclassical era (c 500 CE – 1500 CE) attests to the shrine’s classical antiquity. Kaviraja Varothiyan’s Tamil poem inscribed on the 17th century CE stone inscription chronicle of the temple, the Konesar Kalvettu, gives the shrine’s date of birth as circa 1580 BCE.[1] Tradition holds that the Tamil Chola prince Kulakottan extensively built/renovated the Koneswaram temple and the Kantalai tank, responsible for irrigating plains belonging to the shrine.[8] According to historians S. Pathmanathan and Paul Peiris, Koneswaram temple has a recorded history from 300 CE. Pathmanathan states Koneswaram was probably established by the mercantile communities that frequented the island from the 4th century BCE ancient Kalinga region in India, where another temple dedicated to Gokarnasvamin at Mahendra mountains is found.[9] Due to royal patronage by various Tamil dynasties, the temple was developed and already well established from the early classical to medieval era. Hindus built at least three great stone temples with gopura on Swami Rock during Koneswaram’s zenith, with the principal temple of the complex at its highest eminence.[10][11][12]

Koneswaram is venerated as one of 5 ancient Iswarams of Lord Shiva on the island.[13] Heralded as “Dakshina Kailasam”/”Then Kailasam” (Kailash of the South) because it lies on exactly the same longitude as the Tibetan mountain Mount Kailash (the primary abode of Shiva),[13] Koneswaram has attracted thousands of pilgrims from across Asia, and from the 6th century CE, has been glorified as one of 275 Shiva Sthalams, or holy Shiva dwellings on the continent.[13] The historical literature Mattakallappu Manmiam (Batticaloa Manmiyam) that chronicles the history of Tamil settlement in Batticaloa, describes Koneswaram as one of the nine most important and sacred sites in the world for all Hindus.


Timeline of Koneswaram temple
(BCE – 1982)
Founded as a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva (BCE)
Destroyed by Mahasen (334-361)
Temple restored by Kankan (“Kullakottan”) (438)
Mentioned by Campantar in Tevarams (Circa 700)
Mentioned in several stone inscriptions (Circa 1000 – 1200)
Mentioned in Dakshina Kailasa Puranam (1380-1410)
Visited by Arunagirinathar (1468)
Destroyed by the Portuguese (1645)
Successor temple built in Tampalakamam (1650-1690)
Mentioned in Konesar Kalvettu (1750)
Restored by Society for restoration of Koneswaram, Trincomalee (1952 )
Renovations by concerned Tamils (1982)
Kullakottan’s restoration

Medieval Tamil chronicles such as the 18th century Yalpana Vaipava Malai and stone inscriptions like Konesar Kalvettu recount that the Chola royal Kankan, a descendant of the legendary King Manu Needhi Cholan of Thiruvarur, Chola Nadu, restored the Koneswaram temple at Trincomalee and the Kantalai tank after finding them in ruins. He visited the Munneswaram temple of the west coast, before settling ancient Vanniars in the east of the island. According to the chronicles, he extensively renovated and expanded the shrine, lavishing much wealth on it; he was crowned with the ephitet Kulakottan meaning Builder of tank and temple.[8][14][15] Further to the reconstruction, Kulakottan paid attention to agriculture cultivation and economic development in the area, inviting the Vanniar families to the area including Thampalakamam (Tampainakar) to maintain the Kantalai tank and the temple itself. The effects of this saw the Vanni region flourish.[16][17] Modern historians and anthropologists agree as historically factual the connection of the Vanniars with the Konesar temple, but consider the story of Kullakotan to be mythical based on the travails of historical figures such as Gajabahu II, Kalinga Magha or a Chola regent of Sri Lanka.[18]

6th-7th century CE hymn, Pallava Dynasty

In the 6th century CE, a special coastal route by boat travelled from the Jaffna peninsula southwards to the Koneswaram temple, and further south to Batticaloa to the temple of Thirukkovil.[19] Koneswaram temple of Kona-ma-malai is mentioned in the Saiva literature Tevaram in the late 6th century CE by Thirugnana Campantar.[20] Along with Ketheeswaram temple in Mannar, Koneswaram temple is praised in the same literature canon by the 8th century CE Nayanar saint Sundarar in Tamilakkam.[21] Koneswaram henceforth is glorified as one of 275 Shiva Sthalams (holy Shiva abodes glorified in the Tevarams) of the continent, part of the “Paadal Petra Sthalam” group. The only other holy temple from Eela Nādu (the country of the temple as named in the Tamil literature) is Ketheeswaram.[22][23] During this period, the temple saw structural development in the style of Dravidian rock temples by the Tamil Pallava Dynasty.[24][25] This occurred during the era of Pallava King Narasimhavarman I (630 – 668 CE) and the conquest and rule of the island by his grandfather King Simhavishnu (537 – 590 CE), when many Pallava-built rock temples were erected in the region and this style of architecture remained popular in the next few centuries.[26][27] The 8th-10th century CE Kanda Puranam (a Puranic Tamil literature epic and translation of the Skanda Puranam) authored by Kachiyappa Sivachariar of Kanchipuram describes the Koneswaram shrine as one of the three foremost Shiva abodes in the world, alongside Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu and Mount Kailash of Tibet.[1] Koneswaram temple is mentioned in the 10th century CE Tamil Nilaveli inscriptions as having received a land grant in the Tamil country of one thousand seven hundred and ten acres (two hundred and fifty four vèli) of dry and wet land to meet its daily expenses – revealing the temple’s role in providing various services to the local community by 900-1000 CE.[28][29]

10th-12th century CE Chola empire

Trincomalee figured prominently during the medieval golden age of the Tamil Chola Dynasty, due to the proximity of the Trincomalee bay harbour with the rest of the continent and its benefits for the Chola’s maritime empire. The Koneswaram temple and the adjacent region formed a great Saiva Tamil principality.[8] Residents in this collective community were allotted services, which they had to perform at the Koneswaram temple.[8] The 1033-1047 CE Tamil inscriptions of the nearby Choleeswaram temple ruins of Peraru, Kantalai and the Manankerni inscriptions reveal the administrative practices of the Chola King Ilankeshvarar Devar (Sri Cankavanamar) with the Koneswaram shrine and the Trincomalee region at the time.[30][31] The Palamottai inscription from the Trincomalee district, found amongst the inscriptions in nearby Kantalai, records a monetary endowment to the “Siva temple of Then Kailasam (Kailash of the South)” by a Tamil widow for the merit of her husband. This was administered by a member of the Tamil military caste – the Velaikkarar, troops deployed to protect shrines in the state that were closely associated to King Ilankeshvarar Devar.[31][32] King Gajabahu II who ruled Polonnaruwa from 1131-1153 CE is described in the Konesar Kalvettu as a devout worshipper of Lord Shiva and a benefactor of the temple of Konamamalai.[33][34]

Pandyan dynasty (1263 CE)

In 1263 CE, the Tamil Pandyan Dynasty king Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan intervened on the island to defeat a usurper of the northern Tamil throne; he proceeded to implant the Pandyan insignia of a “Double Fish” emblem at Kona-ma-malai.[1] Historically, the Pandyans were known to have sculpted two fishes facing each other on the ceilings of their multi-storey temple gopurams once they were completed (and left it with one fish in case it was incomplete). Swami Rock at this time is described as “Kona ma-malai, around which the ocean waves swept pearls, gold, precious stones, and shells from the depth of the ocean and heaped them along the shore.” Local residents contributed to the wealth of the temple under the Pandyan’s rule of the north of the island.[1] The 13th century CE Tamil stone inscription in Kankuveli village records the assignment by Vanniar chief Malaiyil Vanniyanar and Eluril Atappar of income and other contributions from the rice fields and meadows of the village to the Koneswaram shrine.[35]

Jaffna kings (1215 – 1620 CE)

The Tamil Aryacakravarti dynasty kings of the Jaffna kingdom paid homage to the Koneswaram shrine, offering gifts of gold and silver. Among the visitors were King Singai Pararasasegaram and his successor King Cankili I.[36] King Jeyaveera Cinkaiariyan (1380-1410 CE) had the traditional history of the temple compiled as a chronicle in verse, entitled Dakshina Kailasa Puranam, known today as the Sthala Puranam of Koneshwaram Temple.[24] Saint Arunagirinathar Swamikal, in circa 1468 CE, paid homage at Koneswaram on his way to Kadirkamam.[24][34] At Koneshwaram, he offered a garland of Thiruppugazh verses in praise of the Sthalam. “The population” he stated, “at Koneshwaram, where the deep ocean rolled its furious waves, was vast, the temple well organised and the priests well versed in the Four Vedas.[24] A rich collection of local texts written since the 14th century CE record the traditions pertaining to the shrine, including Konamamalai temple’s use of the alternate name “Maccakeswaram”.[30] A temple of a thousand columns, during this medieval period, Koneswaram attracted pilgrims from around the Coylot Wanees Country and across Asia, becoming one of the most visited and richest temples on the continent. Portuguese Catholic priest and author De Quieroz described it as the “Rome of the Hindus of the Orient more frequented by pilgrims than Rameshwaram, Tirumalai, Kanchipuram or Jagannath in Orissa.” Furthermore, he described the splendor of the famous temple of Tenavarai at its zenith as similar in its greatness on the island to Koneswaram.[37]

Location of Koneswaram temple on Swami Rock

17th century destruction

The shrine was demolished on April 14, 1624 CE, the Tamil New Years Day, by the Portuguese general Constantino de Sá (who called it the Temple of a Thousand Pillars).[1] The main statue was taken out to town in a procession during the festive occasion, during which time Portuguese soldiers entered the temple dressed as Brahmin priests and began robbing it. In an act of religious zeal, the temple was then levered over the edge into the sea. Fleeing priests buried some of the temple’s statues in the surrounding area. Temple stones and its carved pillars were used to construct Fort Fredrick to strengthen the colonists’ influence over the eastern seaboard of the island. The Koneswaram temple had been paying protection fees of 1280 fanams a year to the Portuguese.[38] Between 1639–1689 CE, the Ati Konanayakar temple was built in nearby Thampalakamam to house the idols on procession that survived.[39][40] The destruction of the Konesar temple is historically viewed as the biggest loot of one of the richest temples of Asia. Gold, pearls, precious stones and silks collected for more than 1000 years were robbed within a few hours.[41] A site plan by De Quieroz states: “On the first rise to the summit of the rock was a Pagoda, another at mid-ascent, and the principal one of them all at the highest eminence, visited by a concourse of Hindus from the whole of India.”[10] In his dispatch to the King of Portugal, Constantine described: “The land of the Pagoda is 600 fathoms long and 80 feet at its broadest, narrowing to 30 feet. Regarding a prophetic inscription he found at the site, he added. “When I went there to make this Fort, I found engraved on the Pagoda, among many other inscriptions, one that ran thus: Kulakottan has built this pagoda…”[42]

Swami Rock (18th – 20th century CE)

Swami rock in 1870, prior to the reconstruction of the temple. Local residents used to offer services to a pillar in memory of the destroyed temple

No ceremonies were permitted to take place on Swami Rock until British rule of the island, when pilgrims were permitted to return and worship Shiva at the fortressed sacred site.[41][43] By the mid 19th century, sailors and other pilgrims visited the rock, broke a coconut and said prayers, performing sacred rites every January. Fruits and other offerings were often cast over the edge of the cliff, falling to the ruins below.[44][45] The Tamil Thirukonasala Vaipavam on Koneswaram was written by V. Akilesapillai in 1889, and published in 1952, sixty years later.

Idol recovery and 20th century reconstruction

Lovers’ leap at Swami rock. It is 350 feet above the sea level and looks straight down into the ocean below.

In 1950, the original shrine’s gold and copper alloy bronze statues from the 10th century CE of a seated figure of Shiva (in the form of Somaskanda), Shiva as Chandrasekhar, his consort goddess, another statue of the goddess Parvati and later Lord Ganesh were found by the Urban Council of Trincomalee buried 500 yards from the Koneswaram site.[12][34][46] They were taken in procession around the region before being reinstalled at Koneswaram. Other Koneswaram statues that survived remain at the Ati Konanayakar temple.[39][40] A pillar from the original temple stands under a decorated tree on Swami Rock. In 1956, while scuba diving, photographer Mike Wilson and author Arthur C. Clarke uncovered ruined masonry, architecture and idol images of the sunken original temple — including carved columns with flower insignias, and stones in the form of elephant heads — spread on the shallow surrounding seabed.[6][47] The pillar as well as the ruins display Tamil Pallava architectural influence of the 3rd-9th century era, corroborated by the discovery of Pallava Grantha script inscriptions in the area that suggest the Pallava dynasty took a keen interest in the temple.[24] The divers retrieved the legendary Swayambhu lingam from the ocean floor, a large natural stone obelisk that, according to legend, was one of 69 naturally occurring lingams from time immemorial originally found on Mount Kailash of Tibet and housed in Koneswaram by King Raavan – his most sacred power object from mythological times. This lingam was reinstalled at the Koneswaram site. Publishing their findings in the 1957 book The Reefs of Taprobane, Clarke expresses admiration for Swami rock’s three thousand year veneration by Hindus.[12] Identifying at least three Hindu temples as having been built on and around Swami rock, Clarke describes the 10th century CE Koneswaram idols as “among the finest examples of Hindu bronze sculpture known to exist”, the seated Shiva Chola bronze “a masterpiece” and the battered stone work at the foot of Swami Rock as “probably the most photographed underwater ruins in the world.”[12] 450 years after its destruction, Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu people of Trincomalee rebuilt the Koneswaram temple in its present form in 1952.

Some of the artefacts from the demolished temple, including the translation of Kullakoddan’s inscription, are kept in the Ajuda Library of Lisbon (Bibliotheca da Ajuda), along with a painting and map of the original shrine. The stone inscription discovered by the temple’s destroyer has a Double-Fish insignia and its engraved prophesy warns of the “coming of the Franks” after the 16th century. The prediction read “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!.”[12] Pandyan king Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan’s insignia of the old Koneswaram temple is seen today at the entrance to Fort Fredrick.



Iconography of Ravana, the mythical king of Lanka depicted on the temple walls

According to one Hindu legend, Shiva at Koneswaram was worshipped by Indra, king of the gods.

King Ravana of the epic Ramayana is believed to have worshiped Lord Shiva in the sacred lingam form at Koneswaram circa 2000 BCE; the cleft of Swami Rock is attributed to Ravana’s great strength.[1][13] According to this tradition, his father-in-law Maya built the Ketheeswaram temple in Mannar. Ravana is believed to have brought the swayambhu lingam in the temple to Koneswaram, one of 69 such lingams he carried from Mount Kailash.

With the legend of the smiling infant, James Emerson Tennent describes “one of the most graceful” of the Tamil legends connected to the Temple of the Thousand Columns atop Swami Rock. An oracle had declared that over the dominions of one of the kings of the Deccan impended a great peril which could only be averted by the sacrifice of his infant daughter, who was committed to the sea on an ark of sandalwood, eventually reaching the island, just south of Trincomalee at a place that in the mid 19th century was still called Pannoa (smiling infant). After being adopted by the king of the district, she succeeded over his dominions. Meanwhile, a Hindu prince, having ascertained from the Puranas that the rock of Trincomalee was a holy fragment of the golden mountain of Meru, hurled there during a conflict between gods, arrived at Swami Rock and constructed a temple of Shiva. The princess, hearing of his arrival, initially dispatched an army to expel him, but ended up marrying the prince to end the war, and later attached vast rice fields of Thampalakamam and built the great Kantalai tank to endow the temple and irrigate the surrounding plain. Upon her death, the prince shut himself inside the pagoda of Swami rock, and was later found translated into a golden lotus on the Shiva altar.[48]

Another tradition holds that during his rule in 113 CE, King Gajabahu I marched from his southern strongholds to the Konesar Kovil with the intention of demolishing it and converting it to a Buddhist temple. When nearing the Kantalai tank, he is believed to have been miraculously cured of his blindness by a Hindu, and henceforth converted to Hinduism. The tank is said to be named on this account Kandalai meaning “eye grows” in Tamil.[34]

Buddhist claims and conflict

A temple dedicated to a deity in “Gokarna” city is mentioned in a 5th century CE religious and historical literary work called Mahavamsa. It mentions that Mahasena (334–361) a Mahayanist zealot known for his temple destructions, who ruled a central kingdom of the island from the southern city of Anuradhapura destroyed temples dedicated to a deity in Gokarna and built Buddhist Viharas in its place. A 12th century commentary on Mahavamsa indicates that the destroyed deity temple had a Lingam – a form of Shiva in it.[9] The interpretation of deity temples into specifically a Siva temple by the commentary on Mahavamsa is disputed by Sinhalese writers such as Bandu De Silva.[49]

Sri Lanka has had a history of conflict between its minority Hindu Tamils and majority Sinhalese Buddhists since its political independence from Great Britain in 1948 which led to the Sri Lankan Civil War. Since the 1950s Sinhalese Buddhists have claimed that the Tirukoneswaram temple was originally exclusively a Buddhist temple. They cite and interpret historical information of three Pagodas at the Koneswaram site as alluding to Buddhist temples.[49] Buddhists have also claimed that the site was the location of the ancient Gokanna Vihara built by King Mahasena.[50] It was also based on an assertion made by historian Senarath Paranavithana in reading a 12th century Sanskrit donative inscription made by a Chodaganga Deva found in the Hindu temple’s premises. The inscription reads that Deva visited Gokarna. No evidence, archaeological or otherwise, supports the claim the Vihara existed at the site.[51] Other sources indicate that the complex may have had a Hindu and Buddhist sections prior to its destruction.[52] In 1968, the unity government of majority Sinhalese dominated United National Party and the minority Tamil dominated Federal Party collapsed over disagreements about declaring the holy Hindu site a protected area. The Prime Minister at the time Dudley Senanayake, after receiving a letter of complaint from a prominent Buddhist monk about a committee appointed by a Federal Party Minister to study the viability of declaring the site protected, disbanded the committee. The Federal Party withdrew its support to the government following that action.According to journalists like K. T. Rajasingam and T. Sabaratnam, this incident had negative repercussions towards the future cooperation between Tamil and Sinhalese communities.


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