What was the Fate of Icons of Hindu Deities
During the Portuguese Period in Eelam?

Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam

Reading the article in Tamilnation.org titled, “Our Temple: Thirukoneswaram,” contributed by Paragnanam Sathasivam, in April 2001, the source of which was, “Thirukoneswaram, An Ancient Hindu Temple” 1986, by S. Arumugam reminded me of an event in my village of Periyavillan, Jaffna.

The relevant quote from the article is, “The Pandaram took these statues and a few remaining pooja utensils (as they were the articles demanded by Portuguese) to Thambalakamam Lake for safety. In the morning, the ultimatum expired and the Thirukoneswaram temple, worshipped by more than five hundred generations was blasted to destruction. The hill on which the temple stood was called Swami Malai. There was no worship at Thirukonamalai for nearly 180 years, until 1803, and no temple for 377 years, until 1963.”

One day, in 1944, my father told us that Vairavar appeared in his dream and told him that he is in the well next to the Vairavar temple on the main road at the edge of the village that my father looked after. The adults around him teased him that he had too much toddy the night before. He insisted that the Vairavar he saw in the dream was made of stone and did not look like the Trident that represents Vairavar, which was in the temple. He thought that some vandals had taken the Trident symbol of the Vairavar and thrown it in the well. We did not pay any attention to what he said. He went to the temple and checked and found nothing missing.

The Vairavar temple had a thatched roof on six posts, a clay floor, and a platform on which was planted the Trident. Next to the temple is an abandoned well in the small piece of land owned by my family. I remember that the well was always full of murky water with moss and seedlings growing around the inner wall. The stone bund around the well was broken in many places. Children were warned not to go near the well because it was so dangerous. The water level was always very high, especially during the rainy season when floodwaters ran into it and almost filled the well. There was no lever (thula) to draw water.

My father had told us many stories about his prayers to Vairavar and Pillayar and that his prayers were always answered. He was not satisfied about what the people thought about his dream. My mother told him to hire someone to empty the well and see it for himself.

After a few days he arranged for the well to be emptied. A new thula was installed. We all went to see the event. When a village well was emptied and cleaned it was a big event, especially for the children. Two people would walk up and down the thula while another person guided the rope and woven bucket (paddai), drawing water and pouring it into the channel. Young men took turns doing the work. It was thrilling to see persons being let down, one by one, into deep wells, holding on to the rope while standing on the paddai. They would stand knee deep in the well and pull all the moss out, churn the water, and get all the dirt and leaves into the depression called the paddaikidangku where the paddai would dip and draw the last of the pool of water. Frogs and fishes were carefully lifted out first and put back in when the well filled up. Fresh clean water falls from the fissures of aquifers near the bottom layers of the well wall. The sound of the spring filling a deep well is a joy to listen to. When I was old enough walking the thula was a skill I enjoyed performing often for balance, coordination and strength.

The well next to the Vairavar temple was never used. The water was brownish and we could not see the bottom. As the water level went down, many of those who doubted father’s dream stood near the well and looked down in anticipation. Some said that father’s dream was true because he prayed every morning and evening. Others attributed his dream to toddy and arrack, which he was fond of, and over indulged in often.

As the water level reached the bottom of the well some people said they saw something bulky under the water. Others said it was a large stone. A person was lowered down. He lifted out a stone about two feet long covered with mud and moss. It was brought up in the paddai. My father took it out and washed it gently. It was a smooth carved granite stone with three short points on one end and rounded on the other. That was the first time I saw a stylised version of the Trident. It was beautiful. My father hugged it gently and cried. We were happy that father’s dream had come true. As children we were in awe that his dream had come true. But we were also worried and scared that our nightmares could also come true.

No one remembers ever seeing a carved stone Vairavar in the Vairavar temple or in the Pillayar temple a 100 yards away. People advanced many theories as to how it came to be in the well. Some said that robbers or drunkards had taken it and thrown it in the well long, long ago. People talked about what had happened to the Pillayar statue two years before. Robbers took the tiles off the roof above the inner sanctum of the Pillayar temple and took away the statue and other pooja related items in the temple. It was not until a few days later that someone decided to look into the well in the temple premises and found the Pillayar statue that the thieves had thrown in.

A month or two after the recovery of the statue my father rebuilt the Vairavar temple with cement walls and tiled roof. Vairavar was installed in a Kumbabishekam ceremony on Thaipongal day and every Hindu family in the village came to celebrate the occasion. It became the fourth Vairavar temple in the village where Pongal was performed. I gave no thought to the event all these years until I read the article on Thirukonesvaram.

The statue of Vairavar was still there in the temple when I last saw it in October 1999. But, on the opposite side of the road is the bombed out skeleton of the house where the son of the carpenter who performed the carpentry works on the temple lived. The bomb dropped by the jet plane fell on his house and killed him instantly in 1992 during Kobbekaduwa’s operations. Carpenter Sivakolunthu had worked on many houses in the village and in surrounding villages. He also had the honour of steering the chariot at the Pillayar temple. The chariot still remains in the shed. His name will not appear on the government list of Tamil civilians killed. Now, next to the temple are the security post and the defence bund built by the Sri Lanka army.

My father also built one of the other three Vairavar temples in my village, all of which were away from the main road interior to the village. The celebrations of Thaipongal at night, the children lighting crackers while watching the rows of pots with fire under them boil over are reverent, joyful, and affectionate memories of events in our village.

My father’s only public protest against the government was when he took his turn for a day to sit with thousands of others and fast in front of the Kachcheri in Jaffna in April 1961. He could never have imagined at that time that his youngest sister’s grandson, not yet born, at the age of thirty would become a Maaveeran in the year 2000 fighting for the rights of the Tamils against an insensitive and racist government.

 In 1959, my father retired to one of the other Vairavar temples he built, which was away from the road, and lived next to it in a hut until he died in 1966. The pictures of my high jumping in Los Angeles and at the Tokyo Asian Games, and my Asian Games gold medal that I sent to him hung on a wall of the Vairavar temple which was his last home. I have not visited that temple since 1982 when I took my family to show where my father lived during the last years of his life. Since 1992 that area has been under Sri Lanka army occupation and is thought to be full of land mines.

I hope those readers who are specialist in the Portuguese and Dutch era in Jaffna can shed light on what happened to deities in temples in the Jaffna Kingdom during that era. Was the Vairavar statue found in the well hidden there by devotees in a similar fashion to the Konesvaram temple statues hidden in Thambalakamam Lake to save them from the Portuguese?