Sea, rock and temples | Sunday Observer

Sea, rock and temples

7 July, 2019
The front view of the magnificent Koneshwaran Temple with a gigantic statue of Lord Shiva
The front view of the magnificent Koneshwaran Temple with a gigantic statue of Lord Shiva

For several decades, the Swami Rock in Trincomalee, one of the holiest sites of worship in the country had become more accustomed to the sound of gunfire than the chanting of prayers. The road leading to the sacred site remained deadly and desolate. But since the end of the war, devotees and tourists have been flocking in their thousands to pay homage to a place said to have been venerated for ages by Buddhists and Hindus.

Today, Fort Frederick, which encloses the Swami Rock, is a busy area. The once lonely stretches are teeming with busloads of pilgrims and schoolchildren visiting the area from all parts of the country. It is a scenic drive through a cluster of bays within the main Koddiyar Bay. The Koneshwaran Temple on the hillock has the reputation of being the best –known pilgrim and tourist attraction where people of all religions and walks of life gather, when they visit ‘Trinco’, as people call the city.

Trincomalee may take its name from the site of this temple – perhaps from the Tamil words Tirukonamalai, ‘mountain sacred to Konesvara (Shiva).’ We had a long cherished desire to visit the Swami Rock and its Hindu Temple, heading towards Trincomalee on the picturesque A15 highway passing the Kinniya Bridge during our journey through Somawathiya and the adjacent Trikonamadu jungle.

As the sun began to filter its rays from the eastern horizon, we headed towards the fort bypassing many streets in the town. We reached the fort entrance and proceeded along the Fort Frederick road and caught a glimpse of schoolchildren in single file climbing the hillock while having a great time.

Our vehicle entered Fort Frederick. The Swami Rock was visible from here and we could see the Koneshwaran Temple and the impressive statue of Lord Shiva. We got down at the entrance to the fort to get a different perspective of the Dutch built entrance where we came to know that the doorways of the entrance were built replacing the granite door frames of the Hindu Kovil.

The ancient Sri Gokanna Raja Maha Viharaya was our first stop at the fort. The chief incumbent of the temple was very helpful. A flight of steps leads to a standing statue of the Buddha and a white Dagoba. The lime-stone built sections of the ancient rampart walls of the fort have become part of the temple today, and from here you can catch a panoramic view of the entire town.

Visitors to Trinco normally begin their sightseeing at Fort Frederick. It was originally built by the Portuguese in 1624 as Pagoda Hill, and later rebuilt by the Dutch whose gateway bears the year 1675.

The British named it in honour of Frederick, the Duke of York, in 1803. A century and a half of British fortification can be found around the fort grounds – vaults, gun emplacements and other such necessities, both above and below the ground. History chronicles that it was constructed using the remnants of the Konesar Temple which was destroyed.

The winding road shaded with a multitude of trees and flanked by old buildings led us to the topmost through trade stalls. At the north easternmost tip of Fort Frederick’s promontory is a cliff known as Swami Rock, dropping 360 feet (110 metres) directly into the sea. On its topmost pinnacle is the Tirukoneshvaran Kovil, rebuilt on the site of the fabled ‘Great Pagoda’ – the Dakshana Kailayam, the Temple of 1,000 Pillars – that was destroyed in the 17th century by the Portuguese. During the British occupation of the Fort, Hindus were allowed restricted worship with the permission of the British Military.

The Kovil restoration was completed in 1963. Three ancient bronze images and a Shiva lingam, the latter found by divers at the bottom of the cliff beneath the temple, were installed to worship. In the recent past, the temple has been restored many times - its present appearance is splendid and impressive.

Colourful statues of Hindu deities and vibrant mural paintings tell stories of its glorious past. Once we reached the cliff, we came upon the Kovil where a stupendous 80-foot high colourful statue of Lord Shiva reached the blue skies overhead. Overwhelmed by this magnificence we continued to the Kovil that stood behind the massive statue, created by Sthapathi V. Sukumar, a South Indian sculptor. Wherever we went, we caught a glimpse of bright and colourful statues which adorn the temple ground. Poojas (services) are especially colourful at dusk on Fridays.

At the edge of the rock cliff outside the temple is a tree decorated with numerous tiny wooden cradles with babies. These symbolize little cradles, tied by married couples in the wind, so the gods may hear their wish for a child.

We bowed our heads in reverence to the temple that is deemed to be one of the five prehistoric Ishawarams of Lord Shiva. Later on, we strove to piece together the story of Konesar Temple that has stood in Trincomalee for centuries.

Koneshwaran or Konesar, also known as the Temple of the Thousand Pillars has faced turbulent times during its existence only to rise up again proving the immense spiritual resilience that prevails at the sacred site. The current edifice was built in the 1960s and endeavours to capture the resplendence of the lost ancient temple.

As a Dutch legend goes, on the Swami Rock is a pillar it is said, erected as a memorial to the beautiful daughter of a Dutch official- Francina Van Rhede- who flung herself into the sea from the escarpment, in despair, because of her faithless lover, a seaman who sailed away. The spot is popularly known as ‘Lovers’ Leap.’

Stairs surround the topmost part of the rock and it is fascinating to walk along colourful ribbons that hang from trees, enjoying the cool sea breeze and the panoramic view, discovering statues that have been arranged for worshiping. If one glances over the protected railing on the other side, the ripping waves of the blue ocean below could be seen.

Numerous legends are woven around this hallowed site. To cite just one enthralling legend it is said that King Ravana, a devoted follower of Lord Shiva, attempted to take the Koneshwaran temple to his ailing mother.

However, when he was trying to hoist the rock, Lord Shiva had made Ravana drop his great sword thus creating a jagged vertical cliff known as Ravan Vettu, which could be seen near the temple entrance. A visit to this corner of Trincomalee is a must if you visit the East.