Temple carvings in Jaffna
What stands out on the partly ruined six-wheeled wooden chariot are
the blocks of intricate carvings. The carvings are really the work of a
master-craftsman, devoting painstaking days and weeks on his creation.
We talk about the carvings of Khajuraho, Konark and Mahabalipuram in
India, the pre-historic carvings and sculpture, the works in ancient
Egypt, Greece and Rome, while we ignore the great works of art at our
The Jaffna peninsula is a true museum of carvings, sculpture and
religious architecture. The Maviddapuram Kanthaswamy Kovil is one temple
where one could spend hours, studying the carvings on stone and wood,
and cement and mortar. After a complete walk around the entire temple
complex, it is easy to shut one’s eyes and try to imagine what the
temple would have been, 5000 years ago as a small place of worship, as
the legend goes, and after the temple was built by the Chola princess,
Maruthapura Veeravalli, who had been cured of her ailments and her horse
face had disappeared after bathing in the Keerimali tank. It is at this
kovil that the chariot stands to this day retaining much of it’s former
Temple carvings in Nallur
There had been an attempt to destroy the temple and build a church at
the site. The attempt had failed, but there is still traces of the
efforts to be seen at the main entrance to the temple. Unfortunately the
Nallur temple had been destroyed in the 16th century, but the foundation
can still be seen. The temple was rebuild at a short distance from the
original site and stands today as one of the major attractions in Jaffna.
Goddess Lakshmi is often portrayed with four hands as Gajalakshmi,
specially on the door frame or the entrance to a house. Yet in
Kankesanturai, close to the cement factory there is a very old house,
with a figure of Goddess Lakshmi above the arch at the entrance. This
figure had only two hands, when I first saw it on March 1st, 1968, since
two hands had broken off. The figure still has only two hands, as I
walked into the house on November 8th, 2011. Nobody had attempted to
restore them. Not many visitors would notice this, as the stumps of the
broken hands had been painted over and over again and are not
noticeable. Probably it was accepted as it is, even by those who were
aware of different forms of the goddess, to accept the figure as a
two-handed Lakshmi, known as Samanyalakshmi or Indralakshmi.
Incidentally this house was assigned to us as our hostel, when we
joined the Cement Corporation 43 years ago, making me realize today what
‘walking down memory lane’ really means, where a cruel war had ravaged
for over 30 years.
Keerimali tank is still a popular bathing place, and how wonderful if
all visitors could accept this as a sacred site, that people come to
bathe at this tank with the hope of curing their ailments and that the
tank has a long history behind it.
The same could be said about the Keerimali Thirutambaleswaram Kovil,
now known as the Naguleswaram Sivam Kovil. Just as the Maviddapuram
temple is said to be at least 5000 years old, the Keerimali temple is
also said to have a very ancient history, as it is identified as one of
the five ancient Siva temples in Sri Lanka, alongside Ketheeswaram in
Mannar, Koneswaram in Trincomalee, Muneswaram in Chilaw and Tondeswaram
Just as persecution and suppression cannot keep any religious faith
down for long, no one could destroy a place of worship and expect to
keep it down for long. The faithful will always re-erect the buildings,
replace the statues, carvings and paintings. Maviddapuram is also one
such place of worship, which had been destroyed and rebuilt, several
times. The wonder is how they have retained the ancient glory of the
structure every time.
Retaining traditions and preserving the atmosphere of the temples is
what we find all over Jaffna, where the artists and the sculptors have
been playing a major role.
Walking through these Kovils, we are reminded that modern art is also
like a religion, and the Art Galleries today are also like temples, with
the difference that art galleries are for the few while the temples are
for everyone, the rich and the poor, the educated and the not-so
educated. In the pre-historic art galleries in the caves too, we could
identify some of the paintings as conceptual or perceptual, depending on
how we look at them.
This was explained by a visitor to Sihigiri 1,300 years ago. “He
(i.e. the painter) by (the art of) painting, fixes even the real nature
of the very source of consciousness. Having seen, with (his) eyes, a
long (strand of) hair, he paints and fixes diverse feelings of the mind”
Religion could have been the beginning of art, if we are to believe
that primitive art forms found in caves occupied by pre-historic man
were religious symbols and images. If on the other hand art was the
beginning of religion then we could also consider that almost all
religions have survived because of art. It was the artist who did the
paintings, the sculptures and the symbols and who helped to preserve the
religious faiths and practices, during all suppressions, forced
conversions and anti-religious campaigns.
Unfortunately what is sacred art for one man could be a pagan idol
for another, which could explain the vandalism faced by ancient temples
throughout history. Tourists and curious visitors would see them simply
as works of art, which did not demand much respect.
When we look at art as a religion it reminds us that very often it is
the iconophile who creates the iconoclast, who could end up becoming a
new iconophile himself.