Ancient and medieval Hindu temples in Sri Lanka
Hindus say that in ancient Sri Lanka there were five sacred Hindu
temples dedicated to Siva. They were Munnesvaram, Kataragama,
Kailayanatar kovil in Nallur, Tirukketisvaram in Mantota and
Tirukkonesvaram in Trincomalee. However, it is not easy to find
information which confirms this. The earliest available reference to
Munneswaram says that Parakrama babu VI (1412-1467) renovated
Munneswaram. The earliest reference to Kataragama is in the Jinakalamali.
(15th century). The Pandyan rulers of Jaffna built the Kailayanatar
kovil, Nallur in the 13th century.
A festival in Vavuniya Sri Kandaswami kovil
Dathavamsa, (12 century) speaks of a Hindu temple (devalaya) at
Mantota in the reign of King Meghavanna Abhaya. (301-328). Two Sinhala
inscriptions of the 10 century refer to the prohibition on slaughtering
cows at Mantota. These references to a Hindu temple at Mantota are taken
as references to Tirukketisvaram. The saints Campantar and Cuntarar, who
led the Saiva revival in South India in the 7th century, had each
produced a hymn in honour of Tirukketisvaram.
Tirukkonesvaram in Trincomalee is the most important of these
temples. It is said to be very old, R.Vigneswaran in his book ‘Rock cave
temple of Thirukoneswaram’ (2002) says the first temple was constructed
as a cave temple in 2590 BC. It was built over an existing Siva lingam.
There was a settlement of Tamils near the temple. This temple fell
into the sea during a flood and is still there. The gopuram survived and
a second temple was then built by King Manikka Raja in 1300 BC.
This consisted of three temples built at three levels, on the
promontory facing the sea. The Siva temple was built directly upon the
gopuram of the original cave temple. (Sunday Observer 8.12.02 p 42.).
Historian S Pathmanathan notes that according to the Mahavamsa king
Mahasen had a dispute over the ‘temple of the gods’ at Trincomalee.
Saint Campantar has sung a hymn to the shrine at Trincomalee.
Trincomalee can be identified in the hymn because the hymn says that
large quantities of gems, pearls sandalwood and aloe wood could be found
at the site.
Pathmanathan says Indian records speak of a Siva temple named Gokarna
in Malaya dvipa. Malaya dvipa is probably Sri Lanka. ‘Tiru’ means holy,
‘malai ‘means hill and ‘kona ‘comes from Gokarna. Three poetic works
from Tamilnadu, titled ‘Taksina kailacapuranam’ (14th century), ‘Konecar
kalvettu’ (16 century) ‘Tirukonacala puranam ‘(18 century) as well as
local texts written after the 14 century also provide information on
The remains of 14 Hindu temples have been found in Polonnaruwa dating
from the 11th century. They are mainly Saivite, but a few temples
dedicated to Vishnu, Durga and Ganesa have also been found. Siva devale
no 1 in Polonnaruwa and the temples in Padaviya, Gantale and Budumuttuva
(on Puttalam Rd in the Kurunegala district) are dated to the 12th
A bronze seal, datable to 12th or 13th century was found at Padaviya.
It is the only seal found so far, which was issued by a temple. South
Indian merchants were associated with the Hindu temples at Anuradhapura,
Polonnaruwa, Mantota and Padaviya.
Devotees in Kataragama
The Cholas, who ruled over the Rajarata in the 11th century, were
patrons of Saivism. Siva Devale No 2 at Polonnaruwa is dated to the
Chola period. Five Siva temples that can be dated to Chola period have
been identified at Moragoda and Buddhanehela in Padaviya.
There was also a Hindu temple in Gantale and another at Madirigirya.
They were maintained by south Indian merchants. Chola inscriptions found
at Mantota refer to two Siva temples, Rajarajesvaram and
Tiruviramisvaram which no longer exist.
Magha of Kalinga invaded with south Indian troops and ruled over
Rajarata from about 1215 to 1232.According to local tradition Subramanya
temple at Tirukkovil is associated with Magha. The vimana, which is the
only remaining part of the temple, has been dated to 13th century. Vira
Saivism was introduced during Magha’s time. Vira Saivism rituals
continue to this day in the Hindu temples of the eastern littoral.
Hinduism seems to have been restricted to the Tamils. The remains
identified as Hindu temples at Anuradhapura, were set among the ‘Tamil
ruins’ in the northern sector. Five sets of remains were identified.
Illangasinha, speaking of the medieval period, pointed out that ‘these
Siva temples in the Sinhala areas by no means suggests that the faith
had a Sinhala following.
Almost all inscriptions found in these places are in Tamil and the
prayers were made in Tamil, indicating that these were for the Tamil
Kiribamune says the Hindu temples enjoyed the goodwill of the Sinhala
kings. Vijayabahu I (1055-1110) built some of the Hindu temples found in
Polonnaruwa. He also supported a Hindu temple at Gantale. Vijayabahu I
had to take note of the fact that he had a large group of Tamils under
him. Parakrama bahu I (1153-1186) built 13 Hindu temples and restored 79
other temples. These temples do not exist today. The Murukan temple at
Nallur in Jaffna is dated to Buvaneka bahu VI (1470-1478).
Over 17 bronze images of a variety of Hindu gods, showing high
workmanship were found in Polonnaruwa. Most were from Siva devale no 5.
Sirimal Lakdusinghe, as well as the Indian art critic, C. Sivaramamurti
were of the opinion that there was a Sri Lankan school of Hindu
sculpture. The Saiva bronzes discovered at Polonnaruwa carry distinctive
characteristics which show that they belong to a school of Sri Lanka
There is a proposal to declare Munneswaram, Tiruketiswaram and
Koneswaram as Heritage sites. Bandu de Silva points out that the
sanctity of Tirukketisvaram and Koneswaram temples is based on mere
folklore rather than proven historical facts. The historical records
indicate that three Buddhist temples stood on the hill over looking the
Trincomalee harbour. The Portuguese demolished the temples and used the
material for a fortress. This Buddhist connection should not be
(The writings of H.B.M .Illangasinha, S. Kiribamune, D.G.B. de
Silva and S. Pathmanathan were used for this essay).