The highway from Colombo to Jaffna snakes through coconut groves, orchards and paddy fields. Pretty bungalows sit snugly on both sides of the smooth road and most towns alongside wear a prosperous, languid look. Then one enters Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged northern province.
The opulent bungalows give way to smaller dwellings. The towns no longer look prosperous, though the paddy fields, the coconut groves and the fruit orchards look productive enough. A careful look at the creased faces of the people reveal the decades of hardships and humiliation, despondency and acute discrimination, bloodshed and banishment.
The countryside, once littered with bodies, now tells the heart-rending tales of broken families and lives, of torture and deaths and of a genocide that few outside the country know about. Fewer still know about the Taliban-like destruction of Hindu temples by the Sri Lankan army and Sinhalese Buddhist mobs, especially during the 26-year-old war between the Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan government forces.
According to Sri Lanka’s Department of Hindu Religious and Cultural Affairs, 1,479 temples were destroyed in eight war-affected districts of the country’s northern and eastern provinces between 1983 and 1990. But that, say many, is a conservative estimate and the actual number of temples damaged and desecrated by the Sri Lankan armed forces till the end of the war would number around 10,000. While some are being restored, most are still in ruins and a few have even been converted into Buddhist viharas and temples.
Jaffna town itself has some small temples which are in ruins. Sri Lanka’s armed forces did exactly what the Taliban did to the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001 – they fired mortar shells at the temples, blew off their roofs and relented only after the garbha griha (or sanctum sanctorum) of the temples stood completely damaged. Not content with that, they destroyed the idols in the temples and desecrated the places of worship. While the world condemned the Taliban, the Lankan army’s abominations went largely unreported.
Large swathes of the northern and eastern provinces are still pockmarked by remnants of the war – shelled-out houses and temples, devastated families living in squalid refugee camps, a large presence of Lankan armed forces, fear writ large on the visages of a beaten people. Many areas are still out of bounds for civilians. Even in areas “released” by the armed forces, the forces occupy the best private houses that they rebuilt after they had destroyed them. The owners of the houses do not dare lay claim over their properties.
We visited Myliddy, a small town about 20 kilometres north of Jaffna city. All residents of the town were forcibly evacuated and bundled off to refugee camps, far away, in the early 1990s. The reason: Myliddy was close to the Palali military base and the presence of civilians was considered to be a security threat. After evacuating the civilians, most houses in this once-prosperous town whose economy was driven by the lucrative shark fishing were bombed and destroyed while the good ones were occupied by army and naval officers.
Only a part of the town, about a quarter of its original area, was released to the inhabitants in early May this year. While only about 40 families were allowed to return to their original homes, which they are now struggling to rebuild, the government has no schemes to offer assistance for rebuilding houses and other structures damaged by the armed forces; the rest have been herded into small, one-room houses built with assistance from other countries, including India. These “colonies” are fenced, and entrances guarded by police and army sentries. They are also located next to army camps so that an eye can be kept on the Tamil inhabitants. So deep is the fear of the army that not even one of the inhabitants could muster the courage to speak of their sufferings. A few of them cried and their tears told a thousand heart-wrenching tales.
Sri Lanka looks like a teardrop in the Indian Ocean, and quite aptly so, say Tamil activists. The Tamils of the island nation have been subjected to unimaginable brutalities, and religious and cultural persecution, for many decades now. Millions have shed tears, and lakhs their blood. All because, say Tamil activists, the majoritarian Sinhalese Buddhists have tried their best to subdue, subjugate and cleanse the nation of Hindu Tamils. And, naturally, their prime targets have always been the Tamil Hindus’ temples that have not merely been places of worship, but have also anchored the cultural, linguistic and civilisational identity of the Tamils.
The naval station at Myliddy, set up after evacuating the civilians, has an ancient temple dedicated to Krishna. However, this temple is in ruins and is out of bounds for civilians. A sacred well that was part of the temple complex has reportedly been filled up with concrete by the men in uniform. Despite many requests from devotees, the Lankan navy has not allowed any priest, leave alone devotees to enter the temple to conduct the daily puja.
Many other temples have also suffered a similar fate. And not just the smaller temples, even famous ancient ones that used to attract pilgrims from India, have been destroyed, occupied and made out of bounds for devotees. It was only after a lot of pressure that some of them have been “released” to civilians.
Destruction of the Pancha Ishwarams
Five (pancha) Iswarams, or abodes of Shiva, have dotted the coastline of Sri Lanka for centuries and have existed long before the advent of Buddhism in that country. All five have been subjected to repeated attacks by foreign invaders and, of late, by the Lankan armed forces.
They were Thiruketheeswaram and Munneswaram temples in the West, Thondeswaram in the South, Thirukoneswaram in the East and Naguleswaram in the North.
Also known as Ketheeswaram, this temple is more than 2,600 years old. Legend has it that Mayan, the ruler of the ancient kingdom of Manthottam and the father of Mandothari, the wife of King Ravana, built this temple to worship Shiva. It is also said that Ketu, the planetary god, worshipped Shiva at this temple and thus the temple came to be called Ketheeswaram. It also finds mention in the Skanda Purana. Literary and inscriptional evidence attests to the upkeep of the temple by kings of the Pallava, Pandyan and Chola dynasties, who contributed to its development up to the late sixteenth century.
Portuguese Catholic colonialists started invading the island from the early sixteenth century and attacking the temple. In 1575, the Catholic zealots used cannons to reduce it to rubble. Some of the remains of the temple, including beautifully-chiselled stone slabs can be found under the sea. The Portuguese used stones and wood from the temple to build the Mannar fort, a Catholic church and the Hammershield fort at Kayts.
The ruins of the temple were discovered, and the Shiva linga unearthed, only in 1894. After years of strenuous efforts, it was rebuilt and with the restoration of the holy Palavi Teertham (or pond), the works were completed in 1949. But the island authorities were not too keen on puja starting once again and only an intense agitation by the Thiruketheeswaram Temple Restoration Society led to kumbhabhishekam being performed at the shrine in August 1952.
The outbreak of the civil war after the anti-Tamil Black July pogrom in 1983 brought the Lankan armed forces in close vicinity of the temple. They set up a large base in the area and restricted movement of devotees into the temple. The army ultimately took over the temple in July 1990 and banned entry of any civilian, including the priests and caretakers, into the complex. After that, they carried out a systematic desecration and destruction of the temple. The army stole jewellery and other valuables from the temple. The most heinous act of desecration was the disfigurement and the gouging out of the third eye of Somaskanda (Shiva), the temple deity, by Sinhalese Buddhist soldiers.
The Lankan army demolished most parts of the temple, except the garbha griha and, like the Portuguese invaders, used stones, bricks and timber from the temple to construct a rampart on one side of the temple. The sacred pond was used as a swimming pool. Lankan soldiers, in an act of deliberate desecration, never bothered to take off their boots while entering this or any other temple.
Though the army has vacated the temple premises, the Thiruketheeswaram Temple Restoration Society, which is now rebuilding portions of the temple, has been urging the government to remove the army from the area, but without any success.
About 20 kilometre north of Jaffna, this ancient temple derives its name from the legendary sage Nagula Muni. The sage was meditating for decades at Keerimalai (“keeri” means mongoose in Tamil and “malai” means hill) and due to the rigours of his meditation, came to resemble the mongooses that frequented the hill. The sage bathed in a nearby pond and regained his original form. In gratitude, he established a temple with a Shiva linga. Later, Prince Vijaya (543-505 BCE) who migrated from the kingdom of Vanga (present-day Bengal) to become the first recorded king of the island and the ancestor of the Sinhalese people, rebuilt the temple on a grand scale.
The temple was destroyed by the Portuguese and the remains were vandalised. It was rebuilt over centuries, and by 1948, when the island gained independence, it had regained its glorious form.
Following the outbreak of the civil war in 1983, the Lankan army occupied the temple and drove away all civilians within a three kilometre radius of the seaside shrine. The army severely restricted entry into the temple and gave permits only to the priests, a caretaker and a handful of devotees to enter the temple everyday for pujas. The army mysteriously vacated the temple in early October 1990, but it soon became clear why.
“At around 4pm on 16 October 1990, fighter jets of the Sri Lankan Air Force dropped two bombs over this temple complex. One fell in front of the complex, destroying the temple chariots and other buildings while the other fell on the southern courtyard destroying the living quarters of the priests. Luckily, no one was killed. But two days later, around 4.30pm on 18 October, the Air Force again bombed the complex, killing a huge number of pilgrims (Tamil activists say 180 were killed) who had gathered for the Kedara Gowri fast. The entire temple and the gopuram (the entrance tower) was completely destroyed. We managed to run and take shelter in a nearby building,” recalled the octogenarian head priest of the temple, Sivasri Naguleswara Kurukkal.
The temple was re-occupied by the army which vandalised whatever remained. “I wrote to the government many times and even (then) president Chandrika Kumaratunga visited the ruined complex. I could come here under army escort in 1995 and everything was in ruins then. The government, after repeated requests and pressure from us as well as other countries, allowed the reconstruction of the temple. Pujas started after a mahakumbhabhisekham in February 2012,” Kurukkal, who escorted Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the latter’s visit to the temple in March 2015 and conducted special pujas for the latter, told Swarajya.
Restoration works are still on and the gopuram, whose reconstruction is being financed by the Indian government, will be ready by March next year. But the Lankan army and navy have a huge presence in the temple’s vicinity and that acts as a disincentive for Tamil Hindus to visit the temple freely without any fear. Incidentally, the Naguleswaram temple was not the only one destroyed by aerial bombing by the Lankan Air Force. The Thurga Thevi temple at Tellipalai Jaffna, a centre of great veneration, was also bombed in May 1992, resulting in the deaths of about 95 people and destruction of the entire temple complex. This temple is yet to be rebuil
Also known as Koneswaram, this temple is considered to be the Dakshin Kailasa (or the Kailash of the South). Sitting atop Koneswar Malai (Koneswar Hill), a promontory that overlooks the Indian Ocean in Trincomalee district, it was one of the grandest structures of its times with a thousand-pillared hall, elaborate bas-relief ornamentation in black granite and multiple gold-plated gopurams that were visible from a long way into the ocean.
This temple, dating back to 400 BCE, is described in the Vayu Purana, and is the birthplace of Patanjali, the compiler of the Yoga Sutras. The Dakshina Kailasa Puranam and Manmiam works note it as Dakshin Kailasa (Mount Kailash of the South) for its longitudinal position (it is exactly on the same longitude as Mount Kailash) and pre-eminence. It also finds mention in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Konesar Malai may have been the site where Yoga originated and some scholars have suggested that the worship of the almighty god Iswara on the promontory is the most ancient form of worship existing.
The Portuguese destroyed the temple in the seventeenth century and with the debris, built a fort at Trincomalee. This fort was dismantled by the Dutch in 1665 and named Fort Frederick. The loot of the temple by the Portuguese was described as one of the biggest loots in medieval times.
Though the site of the ruined temple remained sacred to the Hindus, no worship of any kind was permitted by the Portuguese, and the Dutch after them. Since 1950, the discovery and recovery of the remains of the temple from the seabed, and the subsequent construction of the temple, started. Worship resumed at the restored temple in March 1963. However, since the new temple was located inside the fort now occupied by the Lankan army, devotees found it inconvenient to visit the shrine. In 1968, the Tamil Federal Party demanded that the temple complex be declared a “sacred zone”. Many Buddhist shrines were being declared sacred zones at that time. But this was not allowed and this crisis permanently damaged ties between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The Lankan army that was in occupation of Frederick Fort banned entry of devotees into the temple complex and forbade any pujas.
Then began the systematic vandalisation of the temple by Lankan soldiers and Buddhist monks and mobs. In early 1993, the temple was partially destroyed by Sinhala Buddhists with the front doors of the garbha griha being burnt down and temple utensils destroyed. The priests’ quarters were damaged. The desecration of the temple triggered intense anger among Tamil Hindus and after many petitions, then president Ranasinghe Premadasa allowed access to the temple only to the head priest, the custodian of the temple keys, a cleaner and four devotees on a daily basis, subject to permission from the army authorities at the fort. The priests and the devotees could not perform any pujas and could only light lamps. Only on festivals were a large number of people allowed inside the temple, but were forbidden from performing any pujas. But in May 1996, the army authorities arbitrarily put a cap on the number of people who could enter the temple during Hindu festivals at 50. On 21 September 2008, the chief priest of the temple, Sivashri Kugarajakurrukal, was assassinated in a campaign that has targeted Hindu priests in the region.
The army continues to occupy the fort within which the temple complex is located and repeated pleas by Tamil Hindus to move the army out have been turned down. Massive restoration work on the temple commenced in 2015 only after President Maithripala Sirisena, who is reportedly not as rabidly anti-Tamil as some of his predecessors, came to power in January 2015. Once complete, Thirukoneswaram will become one of the most magnificent temples of the Indian sub-continent.
This temple, the fourth of the Pancha Ishwarams, could escape destruction during the war only because the temple complex includes a Kali temple that is revered by Sinhala Buddhists. Located in the Puttalam district of Sri Lanka’s northwestern province, the complex is made up of temples dedicated to Shiva, Ganesha, Ayyanayake (a Sinhala deity) and Devi Kali.
Munneswaram was destroyed twice by the Portuguese zealots, but first Rajasinghe 1 (1581-1593) of the Sitawaka kingdom rebuilt the temple, and then Rajasinha (1747-1782) of the Kandyan Kingdom had the superstructure rebuilt in the 1750s.
Since then, Munneswaram has attracted Tamil Hindus and Sinhala Buddhists, the latter outnumbering the Tamil Hindus on most days.
Kankesanthurai, apart from being the home of the famous Naguleswaram temple, is also known for its Maviddapuram Kandaswamy temple which is believed to be 1,200 years old. In the early 1990s, the northern part of Valikamam region where this ancient temple is located was declared a high security zone and about 3,000 residents of the area expelled by the Lankan army. The priests of the temple were also deported, after which the temple was bombed, all the valuables looted, the murtis smashed and the garbha griha desecrated by slaughtering cows in it. After the end of the war, the army has eased restrictions and now allows worship in the temple, which is being rebuilt with donations from devotees.
Mallakam is a small town about six km north of Jaffna. The 1,000-odd residents of this town, too, were evicted one night in June 1991 by the army. “We were given just 30 minutes to come out of our houses and assemble on the main road. We were allowed to take only one bag each. They (the army) then took us to refugee camps in Mannar and we have lived there ever since,” said K Ganeshalingam, who now lives in a new township of Keerimalai near the Naguleswaram temple and next to an army camp. All the houses of Mallakam were then looted and destroyed by Lankan soldiers.
Mallakam was recently “released” by the Lankan army and some of the original residents have started trickling back. But many have migrated abroad and those who are returning are finding it very difficult to rebuild their lives. Most of the houses were demolished and everyone has lost their life’s savings. The Lankan government refuses to help them rebuild their homes and lives.
Mallakam had a beautiful temple dedicated to Devi Lakshmi. It was looted and shelled by the Lankan army. Once the area was released, residents installed a small murti of Ayyappa in the garbha griha of the temple. But Sinhalese Buddhist army soldiers keep a close watch. I offered an Indian currency note to the deity at this temple; the next day, word reached me that Lankan soldiers had questioned the priest about the identities of people visiting the shrine and who had offered the Indian currency note. Locals say that the Buddhist soldiers check the donations offered at the shrine everyday and, on some days, keep a portion of the offerings.
“The Lankan army is blatantly and shamefully involved in propagating Buddhism by demolishing temples, building viharas and Buddhist temples and facilitating settlements of Sinhalese Buddhists in Tamil areas, besides terrorising and driving away Tamils from their lands,” Sachithananthan told Swarajya. Of late, he says, Christian bodies and evangelical groups have also started targeting Hindus for conversion and the Lankan administration and police are backing the Christians.
He takes us to Devanpiddy, a village near Vellankulam, a small town about two hours’ drive from Jaffna. Vellankulam is in Mannar district. The village has about 200 Tamil Catholic families and more than 250 Tamil Hindu families and the two communities dwell in two separate hamlets. “The Catholic parish priest of Devanpiddy came to the Hindu part of the village on the morning of ‘pongal’ (January 14) this year and planted a large cross at the village square very close to the Pillaiyaar temple. He didn’t have any permission to do so and the Hindus appealed to the district authorities and the police to remove the unauthorised cross planted near the temple just to provoke them, but their pleas went unheard. Ultimately, fed up with official apathy, the Hindus uprooted the cross on 23 April this year. The next night, the parish priest led a group of drunken vandals to attack the temple and demolished parts of it, apart from smashing the murti of the deity. An uneasy calm prevails now,” he says.
Post 2009 (when the civil war officially ended), many rabidly anti-Hindu Christian evangelical groups like the Pentecostal Mission, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Sound of Trumpets, funded by the West, have become very active in the conflict-ravaged northern and eastern provinces of the island nation. And, say Hindu Tamil activists, they are being actively encouraged by the Sinhalese state. “Hindus form 40 per cent of the population of Mannar, but there are no elected Hindu representatives, all are Christians. The district administration is packed with Christians, while the police force is mainly Buddhist. Hindus were once in a majority in the district. But the war saw Hindus fleeing to other countries and their properties have been taken over by Buddhists and Christians who are determined to wipe out all Hindus. This is happening in other districts as well,” said Sachithananthan, who has appealed to Hindu organisations all over the world, including India, for help in preserving the Tamil Hindu identity.
“The Sinhalese motive is to wipe out Tamil Hindus from Sri Lanka and they are working very determinedly towards that goal,” says Sachithananthan. And with the drastic fall in the number of Tamil Hindus in the country, the temples have become more vulnerable to Sinhala Buddhists. They claim, based on some deliberate distortions of history, that Buddha had wanted the island nation to be an exclusive preserve of Buddhists and, hence, Hinduism has to be rooted out of Sri Lanka.
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