Murugeysen Tiruchelvam and Koneswaram Issue

by DBS Jeyaraj, Daily Mirror, Colombo, November 19, 2022

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader and Trincomalee district MP Rajavarothayam Sampanthan wrote a politically important letter to President Ranil Wickremesinghe on September 14, 2022.   

In that detailed missive, the veteran Tamil MP pinpointed several measures being enacted under the current regime affecting the Tamil people.

Chief among these was the alleged move to construct a new road within the precincts of Trincomalee’s much venerated Saivaite Thirukoneswaram temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.

The following excerpts are from the Tamil leader’s letter to the Sri Lankan President.

“In recent days there have been some proposals which I wish to bring to your notice. Thirukoneswaram is situated inside Fort Fredrick. One enters the area from the main gate at the front of the fort. Some decades ago some Army personnel occupying part of Fort Fredrick constructed a statue of Lord Buddha on the part of the land occupied by them. People who wished to worship at Thirukoneswaram and Lord Buddha entered the fort through the main gate and worshiped. There was no other route to enter the fort and worship Lord Buddha and Thirukoneswaram.”

“In recent days a proposal has been made that a new route is opened to Lord Buddha Statue and from there to Thirukoneswaram. This is not necessary and can result in persons encroaching on the route and occupying land which can only result in the sanctity and piety of Thirukoneswaram Temple and Lord Buddha statue being diminished.”

“Some years ago some traders from Ratnapura were brought and installed on the route to Koneshwaram by a former Member of Parliament which resulted in the sanctity and Piety of this area being diminished.

“Meat and Fish were cooked in these temporary structures by these persons. A decision was taken that these persons be shifted from this area but has not been implemented.”

The Trinity: GG Ponnambalam (L), SJV Chelvanayagam (C) and Murugeysen Tiruchelvam 

“I am also informed that some persons claiming to be officials of the Archeological Department have visited this area and they could have their plans. This will only result in evil being done.


Following Sampanthan’s appeal urging that “the antiquity and Sanctity of this temple need to be preserved,” President Wickremesinghe initiated some positive action on the issue.

The cabinet sub-committee on reconciliation chaired by the president discussed the matter. Subsequently, the controversial moves affecting the Koneshwaram temple seem to have been put on hold. Also, Cabinet Ministers Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Douglas Devananda have been tasked with the responsibility of resolving the Koneshwaram as well as other issues concerning places of worship in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Though there is a lull now, what the outcome would be is hard to gauge at present.

Minister of Local Government 

However, the Koneshwaram temple issue has revived memories of a past controversy in which the question of declaring the temple precincts as a sacred area figured prominently.

The controversy resulted in a Tamil cabinet minister resigning from the Government. The minister in question was former Solicitor-General and Senator Murugeysen Tiruchelvam QC. He was then the Minister of Local Government from 1965 to 1968 in the Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake.

As is well known, former TULF Vaddukoddai MP and eminent Constitutional lawyer, Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam is the eldest son of Murugeysen Tiruchelvam.

Incidentally, last Friday (November 19th)happened to be Murugeysen Tiruchelvam’s 115th birth anniversary.

November was a month of significance for M. Tiruchelvam who was born on 19 November 1907 and passed away on 23 November 1976. These days of November, therefore, mark both his birth and death anniversaries. As such this week’s column will focus on Murugeysen Tiruchelvam with particular emphasis on the Koneshwaram issue.

What happened then regarding the Koneshwaram temple issue was this. Murugeysen Tiruchelvam known as M. Tiruchelvam or M. Tiru was the Minister of Local Government in the Dudley Senanayake-led Government of 1965 to 1970. In those Non-executive President days, the Prime Minister was the effective head of Government though nominally the Governor-General was in charge as the representative of Queen Elizabeth the second.
Sri Lanka was not a republic then.

For the first time in post-independence history, the leading Tamil political party the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi(ITAK) known as the Federal Party(FP) in English was a constituent of the ruling party.

Tiruchelvam was the representative of the ITAK/FP in Dudley’s National Government. He was the only Tamil Cabinet Minister. Tiruchelvam had been nominated to the Upper House known as the Senate to become eligible for a ministerial portfolio as he was not an elected MP.

Tiru’s Parliamentary Secretary or Deputy/Junior Minister was Ranasinghe Premadasa who later became Premier and President of Sri Lanka.

Five Abodes of Lord Shiva   

The dispute with Premier Senanayake that led to Minister Tiruchelvam’s resignation was over the issue of the famous Hindu temple Koneshwaram or Thirukoneswaram being declared a sacred area for the Hindus.

According to historian Sir Paul E. Pieris there were five ancient temples dedicated to Lord Shiva in the form of Easwaran in different littoral regions of Sri Lanka. They are called ‘Pancha Easwaram’ or the five abodes of Easwaran (Lord Shiva).

They are Naguleswaram, Ketheeswaram, Thondeeswaram, Muneeswaram and Koneshwaram.

The Koneshwaram Temple in Trincomalee is situated on a hill in the heart of Trincomalee town. It was destroyed by the Portuguese Governor Constantino de Sá de Noronha in 1623 and was rebuilt later in the 20th century.

The original Koneshwaram temple is said to have had 1000 pillars, three Rajagopurams, two abutting the sea on either side and one in the centre.

The Saivaite saint Thirugnanasampanthar composing thevaram (hymn) in honour of the Koneshwaram temple in the sixth century AD indicates the antiquity of the divine shrine.

Hindus believe that the mountain of Kailash located in Tibet is the abode of Lord Shiva and consort Goddess Parvati. Koneshwaram is referred to by some as the Dhakshina Kailash or Kailash of the South.

After demolishing the temple the Portuguese constructed a Fort encompassing the hill inclusive of the temple ruins. In later years control of the Fort passed on to the Dutch and later to the British who named it Fort Fredrick.

In early August 1968, a group of prominent Hindus representing several Hindu organisations wrote to Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and the Hindu Minister in the Government M. Tiruchelvam regarding the Koneshwaram Temple. They requested that the Fort Fredrick precincts be declared a sacred area on account of the historic Koneshwaram Temple being located within.

The question of identifying and declaring specific areas as sacred areas fell under the purview of the Local Government Ministry then.

R. Premadasa Chaired Committee   

Prime Minister Senanayake seemed amenable and instructed his Local Government minister to follow it up and “take necessary action”. Minister Tiruchelvam, therefore, appointed a three-member committee chaired by his ministerial Deputy Ranasinghe Premadasa to delve into the issue and compile a report with necessary recommendations.

The appointment of the committee on ‘Declaration of Fort Fredrick of Trincomalee, a Sacred Area’ was Gazetted on 27 August 1968.

Three days later on 30 August the Ven. Mangalle Dharmakirti Sri Dambagasare Sumedhankara Nayaka Thera of Tammankaduwe lodged a protest with Prime Minister Senanayake. According to Minister Tiruchelvam’s former Private Secretary Ram Balasubramaniam, the Buddhist monk claimed that an “ancient place of Buddhist worship” would “get into the hands of those who are neither Sinhalese nor Buddhists” because of the committee being appointed to declare Koneshwaram a sacred area. A widespread agitation was threatened if the project was not shelved immediately.

PM Dudley Senanayake was upset by the Buddhist monk’s threat. He told Tiruchelvam to suspend the committee immediately. Tiruchelvam was shocked. He asked the PM not to be hasty and sought an appointment to discuss the matter further. Events however began to overtake.

Dambadeniya’s  R.G. Senanayake   

As if on cue, Dudley Senanayake’s first cousin and MP for Dambadeniya, R.G. Senanayake raised the issue in Parliament. The Tamil-baiting RG was very active in Trincomalee those days claiming that he would liberate the district from the Tamils. He contested in Trincomalee in 1970 in addition to his pocket borough Dambadeniya and lost in both electorates.

RG taunted his cousin the Premier by asking whether Fort Fredrick precincts were going to be declared a Hindu sacred area. Dudley was on the defensive. He vehemently denied it. When RG queried about the committee, Dudley said that he had suspended the working of the committee as it had been formed by the Minister without his (Dudley’s) knowledge. Tiruchelvam being a Senator was not in Parliament to defend himself.

Tiruchelvam was angry and sad at Dudley Senanayake’s actions and words. He decided to quit the Govt. However, before doing so he needed to get his party’s approval. There was a reason for this. Former Solicitor-General M. Tiruchelvam QC had become the ITAK-nominated Minister in Dudley’s Government to help usher in the passage of District Councils as a unit of devolution.

The famous “Dudley-Chelva Pact” between Senanayake and ITAK/FP Leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam envisaged the creation of DCs or district councils.

District Councils Scheme 

In July 1968 a White Paper drafted by Tiruchelvam on the District Councils scheme was presented. But the DCs were bitterly opposed by the Opposition SLFP-LSSP-CP combine and a ‘ginger group’ of 16 backbench MPs within the UNP led by Wennappuwa’s Festus Perera.

Dudley got cold feet and backed out. He offered to resign from his Premiership. ITAK leader Chelvanayagam ruled that out as an option. Meanwhile, a disappointed Tiruchelvam wanted to quit the Cabinet in protest. But the party leadership prevailed upon him to desist and continue as a Government Minister.

Tiruchelvam, however, was determined to resign his ministerial portfolio after the Koneshwaram issue as it was a gross insult to his self-respect.

Tiru’s friends in the Cabinet like J.R. Jayewardene and V.A. Sugathadasa tried hard to change his mind but Tiruchelvam was unshaken. Nevertheless, he needed his leader Chelvanayagam’s approval.

The bond between Tiruchelvam and Chelvanayagam was unique. Chelva had been the accredited guardian of Tiruchelvam and his brother Rajendra (CCS) when they were students at S. Thomas’ College Mt. Lavinia. Their father was working in Malaysia then. Hence it was imperative for Tiru to get his leader Chelva’s permission to quit though he could have done so unilaterally.

Tiruchelvam wrote a detailed letter to Chelvanayagam outlining all that had happened with regard to the Koneshwaram issue. He said that he could no longer serve as a Minister in the Government of a Premier who had instructed him to take action on the sacred area issue and then suspended the committee which he as Minister had appointed without consulting him.

Tiruchelvam implored Chelvanayagam to permit him to resign as it was a matter of principle and self-respect.

Meeting with Dudley Senanayake   

Chelvanayagam sympathised with Tiruchelvam but wanted to engage in one more attempt to bring about a rapprochement. An appointment was obtained with the Prime Minister.

The then Kankesanthurai MP S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, Vaddukkoddai MP Appapillai Amirthalingam, Nallur MP Dr E.M.V. Naganathan and M. Tiruchelvam met with Dudley Senanayake on September 13, 1968.

Unfortunately, the meeting did not bring about desired results. Both Dudley and Murugeysen indulged in mutual recriminations. While Tiruchelvam blamed Senanayake for unilaterally intervening in his Ministerial purview after assigning him a particular task, Senanayake accused Tiruchelvam of failing to keep him informed of his proposed action. Dudley also emphasised that Fort Fredrick was under the Defence Ministry and therefore it was under his purview as Defence Minister.

There were heated exchanges between Dudley and Tiru. Many years later Amirthalingam was to recall the incident in a conversation with me. Amir observed then that he had never seen the “gentleman” Tiruchelvam lose his cool as he did on that day.

Chelvanayagam realised that no reconciliation was possible. Before authorising Tiruchelvam to quit his Ministerial post, Chelvanayagam hastily convened a meeting on September 14, 1968, at his Alfred House Gardens residence in Colombo.

Several MPs and Working Committee members attended. The situation was explained in detail by Amirthalingam. Tiruchelvam was absent. Finally, Chelvanayagam asked the attendees, what should Minister Tiruchelvam do in this situation? The answer was unanimous: Resign!


Tiruchelvam was duly notified. Having obtained the party leadership’s approval to quit, Tiruchelvam submitted his resignation letter to Prime Minister Senanayake on September 15. It was accepted immediately. On September 16 Ranasinghe Premadasa was sworn in as the new Minister of Local Government. Tiruchelvam was to later say that the PM’s volte-face had “brought to nought the unanimous wish of all Hindu religious bodies regarding Koneshwaram”.

This then is the tale of Murugeysen Tiruchelvam’s resignation as minister of Local Government in 1968.

Reasonable Use of Tamil 

As stated earlier Tiruchelvam became Local Government Minister so that he could help usher in the District Councils. This was not to be.

However, he did succeed in another important task as a Minister in Dudley’s Govt. This was in drafting the Tamil Language Special Provisions Act known popularly as the “Reasonable Use of Tamil” Act. Using his legal dexterity to the maximum M. Tiru interpreted the provision “specific administrative purposes” as meaning that Tamil “shall” be used “for all administrative purposes” regarding the north-east.

This created a furore in Parliament and J.R. Jayewardene who presented the bill in the House requested Tiruchelvam to change “shall” to “may,” but the Local Government Minister stood firm. The bill was passed. Tiruchelvam was elated.

ITAK leader Chelvanayagam summed up the Tamil mood over the bill when he said in Parliament:
“The Sinhala Only Act deprived the Tamil-speaking people of their self-respect in this country. By passing these regulations and implementing the act, this lost respect is restored in some measure.”

Amirthalingam Trial-at-Bar   

M. Tiruchelvam’s finest hour was when he appeared in the Amirthalingam Trial-at-Bar in 1976. I was a law student then and used to attend proceedings daily to witness the legal skills of GG Ponnambalam and M. Tiruchelvam. This was to be the grand politico-legal swansong of both legal eagles.

The 1976 High Court Trial-at-Bar case was against Appapillai Amirthalingam and three others (V.N. Navaratnam, K. Thurairatnam and K.P. Ratnam) for sedition. They had distributed leaflets calling for the establishment of Tamil Eelam. The then Attorney-General Shiva Pasupathy was prosecuting. The three Judges were JFA Soza, Siva Selliah and Ananda Silva.

A total of 73 Tamil lawyers including Six Queen’s Counsels marked their appearances in court for the defence. It was a spectacular sight that day when Tamils flocked to the courthouse to see this impressive turnout. It was also an occasion where Tamils sank political differences and rallied around a common cause.

Trinity or Trimoorthigal   

The scene that captured the mood of the times was that of S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, G.G. Ponnambalam and M. Tiruchelvam posing together for a photograph.

They were regarded then as the Trinity or Trimoorthigal of Sri Lankan Tamil politics. But within a year this triumvirate was no more. Tiruchelvam, the youngest of the trio passed away in November 1976. Ponnambalam died in February 1977. Chelvanayagam departed in April 1977.

Their deaths marked the end of an era in Tamil politics.

The Trial-at-Bar case where Tamils “fought” the oppressive State legally was as symbolic as it was politically explosive. The protracted Trial-at-Bar proceedings continued at Buller’s Road.

It is said that Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s address on ‘Our Political Needs’ in 1917 was the Bible of the Ceylonese movement for Independence from the British.

Likewise, I would say that Murugeysen Tiruchelvam’s address to the court in the Trial-at-Bar provided an intellectual basis for the cause of Tamil freedom in Sri Lanka.

Of Tamil Sovereignty   

M. Tiru argued in depth about the right of self-determination and Tamil sovereignty. He spoke of the Tamils as a distinctive people with their language, territory, history and common heritage and consciousness.
He also referred to the Jaffna Kingdom in detail and pointed out facts that the Tamils had lost their sovereignty on the battlefield to the Portuguese.

This sovereignty had been transferred from the Portuguese to the Dutch and from the Dutch to the British. The British had then transferred it to the Sinhala rulers who enacted the 1972 Republican Constitution without the consent of the Tamils.

While arguing that the 1972 Constitution was imposed on the Tamils, M. Tiruchelvam observed that Tamil sovereignty had not been ceded to the Sinhalese on the battlefield.

At that point, Justice Siva Selliah remarked from the bench, “Yes. We were not a militarily-conquered people.” It was truly a defining moment!

Meeting Murugeysen Tiruchelvam   

Let me conclude on a personal note. There were two occasions when I had a chance to interact with Murugeysen Tiruchelvam.

These were in the mid-seventies of the 20th Century when I was a member of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) Colombo branch and also the Colombo Thamil Ilaingar Paeravai (Tamil Youth Federation) branch. I was not a journalist then.

On both occasions, a small group of us youths was asked by the TULF leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam to meet with M. Tiruchelvam and clarify certain doubts that we raised with Thanthai Chelva.

Those were times when several Tamil youths including this writer were becoming greatly enamoured of Tamil Eelam.

M. Tiruchelvam was not in favour of separation but most sympathetic to the reasons leading to such a demand.
Tiruchelvam was charmingly gracious and answered our heated questions with cool detachment and a disarming smile. He also spoke in detail to us about issues like the Palestinian cause, Bangladesh independence and the Dravidian separatist demand, etc.

On the second occasion, we departed with an invitation from M. Tiruchelvam to visit him again soon. But this was not to be! On November 23, 1976, he was studying a case at home and passed away peacefully late at night.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at  

Comments are disabled on this page.