Nallur Kovil festival captivates Northern youth | Sunday Observer

Nallur Kovil festival captivates Northern youth

11 August, 2019

The Northern Province is blissfully adorned with Hindu kovils that have embellished her glorious Tamil history. Divine veneration is deeply rooted in the culture of the Tamil speaking people for centuries, and worship has sustained these communities. Central among these brilliant kovils is the magnificent Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil. Her resplendent religious aura draws pious Hindu devotees from many parts of the world. This kovil has an amazing heritage, and will remain as the iconic landmark of Jaffna.

The red and white wall of the kovil can be seen hundreds of yards away before you reach it. The Northern sun seems to gently light up the golden gopuram (tower). I was in Jaffna last week, and hundreds of people were already busy at the kovil making arrangements for the grand festival. I soon engaged in conversation with some learned devotees.

The Nallur Festival in August is the island’s longest festival. It spans 25 days of vibrant chariot processions, drumming, dancing and acts of self-mortification, piously perfomred in honour of the War God Skanda. The festival must be in full swing now.

Ancient history reveals that Sri Lanka boasted of pancha ishwaram – five temples dedicated to Lord Shiva along the coastal regions. Naguleswaram in the North, Ketheeswaram, North West, Koneswaram, East, Munneswaram, West and Tondeswaram, South. This bears testimony to the Hindu communities that once thrived here, before the invading Portuguese destroyed these temples, under the command of General Philippe de Oliveira. The great epic Ramayana also makes reference to Hindus in Sri Lanka. For decades, this temple has been a sanctum where devotees gathered in their thousands. Inside the temple, Murugan, god of War, is venerated as he makes manifestation in the form of the vel (chariot). Thereafter, a new temple was built by Puvaneka Vaahu, a Chief Minister of Kalinga Magha. This is substantiated by the records of the Yalpana Vaipava Malai written in 1736 by the poet Mailvagana Pullavar.

The King of Jaffna, Kalinga Magha supported the building of the temple. The capital of the Jaffna Kingdom moved from Karanthodai, Vallipuram to Nallur and Pooneryn over the centuries. Years later, King Kanagasuriyan regained the kingdom and administered the beautiful kovil. Many are unaware that Nallur was once the capital of Jaffna’s kings when the rajadhani was built with four gates, with a temple at each gate to invoke divine protection. The four temples were Veyilukantha Pillayar Kovil in the East, Veeramakali Amman Kovil in the West, Kailaya Vinayagar Kovil in the South and Sattanathar Kovil facing the North.

Adjacent to the rajadhani was a marketplace, referred to as Mithurai Santhai. There were opulent mansions for the ministers. Years later the warrior Cankili II, the last king of Jaffna resided near the previous temple (the remains of his small palace can be seen as a total ruin today).

The Hindus of the North remained faithful and in 1734 work began with eagerness to restore the Nallur Kovil, which was being built for the fourth time during the reign of the Dutch. The challenge was accepted by Ragunatha Mudaliyar who worked at the kachcheri. The present land was commonly known as Kurukkal Valavu (garden of the priests). The seventh custodian of the temple, Arumuga Mapaana Mudaliyar worked tirelessly to upgrade the kovil. He built the first bell tower in 1899. The fortified wall which demarcates the temple was built by him in 1909. Kumaradas Mudaliyar, the tenth custodian is credited with restoring the temple to its present state.

Nallur kovil boasts four gopurams and six bell towers. The variegated designs on the ceiling are brilliant and Dravidian forms of architecture originating from South India are very much in evidence. Ancient temples were built with sandstone and granite. Every temple has a garbhagriha (Sanskrit for womb) the innermost sanctum where the statue of the primary deity is venerated. The southern side has a pond and garden (poonthotam). The temple has shrines for Lord Ganesh, Vairavar and Sooriyan. The Kandaswamy Kovil incorporates the iconography of Hindu cosmology. The Vedas depict time in four epochs (yugam).

The Maha Raja Gopuram, stands proudly on the northern skyline. It is a commanding nine-storied tower adorned with many intricate statues. A gopuram is a monumental tower at the entrance to a temple and is topped with a kalasam, a stone finial.

Sri Lankans know the splendour associated with the festival of the Nallur Temple in August, when multitudes of devotees gather in worship. Smiling young girls were engaged in worship. The sarees of the women were a riot of colour. Young men were seen is white veshti.

The fragrance of flowers and burning incense permeated the air. The ceremonies will begin with the ritual of kodiyetram, hoisting of the flag. The orange hue of the flag symbolises the sun, which dispels darkness and the saffron shading depicts fire, which is a purifier.

The colourful festival with much pomp and tradition dominates the Northern peninsula for almost 25 days. The word pooja in Sanskrit means reverence and adoration. Commencing annually at 6.15 am, the flamboyant – Ther thiruvila – festival of the chariot is the highlight. Hindus venerate the silver throne (simmasanam) where Lord Shanmuhar and his consorts are placed. The silver throne was handcrafted in 1900 by the seventh custodian. Delightful chants of aro-hara resonate over the next few days.

The pulsating drum beats at the festival are almost deafening. The throne is reverently carried on the shoulders of hundreds of worshippers, amidst an oblation of flowers. The heavy ropes of the chariot are pulled with zeal. One would be lost in this ocean of devotees. The faith of the northern youth was amazing. It would be good for Sri Lankans of other religions to travel to Jaffna and understand the cultural richness of this festival. Our unity as a nation made up of diverse religions and traditions is our strength. The scintillating Nallur festival will continue to enrich young Hindu lives.