Art, Culture & Heritage of Thirukoneswaram

Often, the allure behind a historical site or architecture of a heritage construction descends from its history and story. What makes the building significant and what culture influenced a particular piece? How did the monuments come to be and what do the inscriptions mean? Our tropical island is a product of many subsequent historical movements, of riotous colonization and rich cultural ancestry. Each province of Sri Lanka holds a distinct cultural influence and identity, the consequences of a vast spectrum of heritages. The focus of conversation that is the Koneswaram temple is specific to the Eastern province and its multicultural background; from the ruling of Sri Lankan Kings to the colonization of the Portuguese, the Thirukoneswaram temple is the aftermath of diverse influences, each destruction and ruin, origin and restoration builds the story of the legacy behind this temple.

The name ‘Koneswaram’ originates from the Hindu God, Shiva also called Eeshwar or Eeshwarar, who reigns over the mountain of Holy Konam thus, the name Thirukoneswaram. The word ‘Konam’ is believed to have come from the old Tamil word meaning ‘peak’. Koneswaram also takes on alternates names from ‘Dakshina Kailayam’ a Sanskrit influence to mean ‘Mount Kailash of the South’ or ‘Aathi Koneswaram’, where ‘Aathi’ means ancient. According to a 16th century Portuguese historian Diogo de Cuoto, the Koneswaram was one of the five Eeshwarams that led the ancient lands of Sri Lanka – the rest, and still existent Ketheeshwaram, Munneshwaram, Naguleshwaram and the now destroyed Tenavaram.

The architecture of the Koneswaram is an eminence spoken of greatly throughout history for its Dravidian inspired thousand pillared halls and Jagathi expanses, elaborate bas-relief sculptures, rich black granite monuments and gold-plated towers. A letter written much later, in 1613 by Jesuit Manuel Barradas would recall the Koneswaram as a "... massive structure, a singular work of art. It is of great height, constructed with wonderful skill in blackish granite, on a rock projecting into the sea, and occupies a large space on the summit." Aside from the glorious architecture, religious sculptures and paintings that existed in the temple, Koneswaram was also celebrated for its capacity to hold such cultural and heritage belongings from the priests who’d preserved the temples and the eventual restoration holding ancient pieces of worship that recorded the eras and people of then.

The story of Koneswaram begins during the era of the Tamil Pallava, Chola and Pandya empires in 205 BC when the Chola King Elara Manu Needhi Cholan renovated the already existing temple on the summit of the rock peninsula. Constructed with Karungal, a hard black granite material with dexterously carved with classical temple sculptures by the Indian sculptors and architects of the temple. Its most recognized feature is the thousand pillar hall, ‘Aayiram Kaal Mandpam’ that mirrored the Dravidian cities. The Dravidian architectural style is one that’s an architectural dialect in the style of temple design and architecture that emerged from the south of India and from Sri Lanka. The thousand pillared hall was used to host cultural and religious events and was later dubbed the Temple of Thousand Pillars by the Portuguese. In the renovation, a temple city was built – with the temple at its centre – and consisted of smaller temples and shrines that were dedicated to Gods and Goddesses such as Ganesha and Shakthi. The temple city was recognized not only for its Dravidian architecture but also for its raised platforms ‘Jagati’, a feature that had been destroyed and its gateway tower ‘Gopuram’ which was said to be visible to sailors approaching Sri Lanka from the sea.

This beautiful architecture however, would soon be brutally destroyed years later by the Portuguese. The Koneswaram temple was eminent to not only the Sri Lankans but also to the Portuguese; a famous author and Portuguese Catholic priest, Fernão de Quieroz was recorded to have described the beautiful space as the ‘Rome of the Pagans of the Orient’. But alas, in the 17th century when the Portuguese-Dutch war began, they were in the process of strengthening their place in Asia through the construction of a fort in Trincomalee where the temple was situated and required the assistance of Jaffna King, Ethirimana Cingam. The refusal and disagreement between the two would then lead to the ruination and destruction of the temple. Over hundred Hindu temples and shrines, relics and religious structures would crumble at the hands of the Portuguese. 

The story of the Koneswaram continues three hundred years later, after gaining independence from the British rulers, the ruined relics and religious sculptures would be unveiled and rediscovered, which would then be celebrated and re-installed at the site. Renowned author Sir Arthur C. Clarke and photographer Mike Wilson discovered, during their journey scuba diving, ruins of the temple, original stone sculptures and inscriptions that recorded the history of the temple. In his book ‘The Reefs of Taprobane’ 1957, Sir Arthur C. Clarke would publish the results of his finds and describe the artistic discoveries, explaining that they were, ‘among the finest examples of Hindu bronze sculpture known to exist’ and particular bronze statue of Shiva seated a masterpiece.’

The legend of the Koneswaram would endure, the Koneswaram reopening in 1963, the 3rd of March, as the Tamil Hindu people restored the temple with its idols and ruins recovered; images and pictures installed now carry on the story of the Koneswaram that was 400 years ago and its architecture remembered through not only the people but also its recordings in the visual arts. What we know and understand now are results of studies and observations from recorded materials, pictures that illustrated the temple legacy, inscriptions and pieces of literature that comprehend the cultural nuances of the Sri Lanka that once was and its influence into what is now. The lands of Trincomalee are lush and rich with the culture and heritage of the Koneswaram – its architecture and sculptures a reminder and impact of the society and environment it was created from.

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29th January, 2021 Applied Art