Dedicated to the great Hindu deity Shiva, Koneswaram Temple is perched above cliffs at the end of a peninsula at Trincomalee, a popular tourist town on Sri Lanka’s north-eastern coast. The modern-day temple also marks the site of a notorious incident of plunder, vandalism and murder by 17th-century European imperialists.
In 1622, on April 14th – Tamil New Year’s Day – Portuguese soldiers sneaked into the temple grounds while most of its priests were busy with a religious procession outside. They looted it, slaughtered any priests and temple staff they could find and finally, somehow, managed to topple most of the temple over the cliff-edge and into the sea. What survived of the original complex was destroyed two years later, with the Portuguese using its stones for the construction of Fort Frederick, a military fort further along the peninsula that now serves as a garrison for a regiment of the Sri Lankan Army. According to Koneswaram Temple’s Wikipedia entry, its treatment at the hands of the Portuguese is regarded as ‘the biggest loot’ of a temple in Asia.
Later, under British rule, Hindu pilgrims were allowed to visit and worship at the place of the old temple, but it wasn’t until the 1950s, after the British had departed and Sri Lanka become independent, that moves were made to restore it. In fact, not all the old temple’s artefacts had been stolen by the Portuguese. Some had been spirited away by priests, buried to ensure their safety and forgotten about – and in 1950 the local council accidently dug up statues of Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva, Parvati and Ganesh whilst excavating a well a half-kilometre away. Also, in 1956, a trove of items from the fallen temple, including columns with flower carvings and stone elephant-heads, was discovered by scuba divers exploring the seabed off the peninsula. One of these divers was the filmmaker and photographer Mike Wilson. Another was the celebrated science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, no less, who would eventually become a long-term resident of Sri Lanka.
In the same waters, in 1962, Wilson located and recovered a yet-more important relic from the temple – a Swayambhu Lingam, a round stone obelisk that according to legend hadn’t been fashioned by human hands but had formed naturally on the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet and later had been transported to Sri Lanka by the fabled demon / god Emperor Ravana. Wilson claimed that the Lingam provided inspiration for the obelisks in Clarke’s most famous work, the screenplay and tie-in novel he wrote in collaboration with Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). However, Clarke – who’d penned an account of their 1956 discoveries in a non-fiction book called The Reefs of Taprobane (1957) – denied this.
In 1963, nearly three-and-a-half centuries after the destruction of the original, a restored Koneswaram Temple was unveiled – not on the same physical scale as its medieval predecessor, but hopefully, thanks to its commanding view of the Indian Ocean and to it having some of the same artefacts on display inside, imbued with a similar spiritual atmosphere.
As you walk up the incline towards the temple, you’re greeted by a huge blue statue of Shiva hunkered comfortably by the entrance, gesturing with four arms and four door-sized hands. In the temple-building beyond that, you aren’t allowed to take photographs – a shame since much of its décor is very photographable. I particularly liked a statue of the afore-mentioned Emperor Kavana, depicting him as a nine-headed deity with multiple arms fanning out behind him – so many arms that he resembles a mutant octopus. Two of those arms play a sitar-like stringed instrument with a tenth head planted at one end and an additional hand planted at the other. I did find a picture of the statue on the temple’s Wikipedia entry, so I will sneakily borrow and reproduce that.
© Gane Kumaraswamy / From Wikipedia.org
The temple is also worth visiting for its geographical position. Especially picturesque is a nearby knob of grey-brown rock jutting over the ocean waves, a path and flights of steps looped around it. The path’s seaward edge is lined with blue railings and gold-patterned pillars with dainty lanterns on top. Along its inner edge, the rock-face contains cavities with more, gaudily-coloured Hindu deities. Trees grow on the rock above and below the path and steps, their branches reaching down and reaching up, dappling the walkway with sunlight and shade.
A word of warning, though. You have to remove your shoes before entering the temple area and bringing a pair of socks to pad around in is essential. That’s because after the sun rises, the temple’s paving stones warm up and are soon too hot for bare feet to tread on. The morning that my partner and I visited there, my partner forgot to bring socks with her. So, as a solution, I went in alone for about 20 minutes and left her standing outside in the shade of a tree. Then I came out, lent her my socks and took her place under the tree while she went in and explored.
My vigil under that tree wasn’t boring. Other visitors would arrive, sans socks, and I amused myself watching them hop barefoot from baking paving stone to baking paving stone like manic versions of Michael Jackson at the end of the Billie Jean video.