Monday, 11 April 2016 11:53

Where The Sacred Arrow Rests

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A soaring structure rises on the expansive flat green ground of the banks of the Verugal River. An ancient banyan tree stands tall - its shade inviting; at a distance, a simple orange shrine glints on a large rock. The solitary setting hints at the divine presence on this hallowed land.

Shielding our eyes from the searing afternoon sun, we beheld the lone structure of the Verugal Murugan Temple, a kovil over 200 years old and steeped in mythology. Hindus in the area call it Chinna Kathirkamam, meaning the smaller version of the revered Kataragama Kovil in the south of Sri Lanka; as such, the rituals conducted at the old kovil strictly abide by ancient practices. Bestowing blessings on 25 villages, this abode of Lord Murugan is as sacred to them as Kataragama is to the south.

The Kandha Puranam is a recital dedicated to Lord Murugan, the god of war, commander of the army of devas and son of the gods Shiva and Parvati. According to this text, he had travelled to Sri Lanka to destroy the demon Surapadma. An arrow fired by Lord Murugan during the battle is believed to have landed on this very ground, and a simple shrine has been erected enfolding that same sacred spot. Tales are whispered about the indigenous tribes that first worshipped this land with religious fervour. Yet the elderly famously relate another tale of how Nallanathar Chettiar constructed a grand temple with treasure found under the guidance of Lord Murugan. Destroyed by the Portuguese, it was replaced with the chaste structure that stands today enclosed by a short wall.

A new kovil edifice topped with a magnificent 60 to 70-foot gopuram, with a new coat of pink and blue paint, stands on its right; it is said to boast the largest number of inscriptions of Lord Murugan's stories. The vahana, or animal vehicle of Lord Shiva and Lord Murugan, the bull on the left and the peacock on the right, flanks the entrance. A brass kodimaram, the temple flagpole, consumes the Maha Mandapa, a miniature statue of Lord Ganesh at its foot and carvings of Lord Murugan and his consorts on the top squares. The kodimaram is an indicator of the importance of the kovil as it is only constructed within main kovils. The Pali Peedam with a figurine of the peacock adjoins it, a structure that marks the boundary where Hindus must leave their ego and all ill feeling to stand before the glittering karupa kiraham (garbhagriha), or sanctum sanctorum, with a pure heart and mind. Atop the entrance to the most sacred part of the kovil that devotees are allowed to enter is a statue of Lord Murugan and his two consorts Devayani and Valliamma, the former a daughter of Indra and the latter the daughter of a tribal chief in Sri Lanka. Care has been taken to embed each element of the kovil, as it should be, assimilating art and the doctrines of Hinduism. The temple is currently being renovated, washed and painted in preparation for the annual feast.

During the 18-day mahotsavam or annual chariot procession from mid-August to September, the grounds are bright and teeming with devotees who converge here. Several ancient rituals that have been observed for centuries are conducted during the festival period, including a fire-walking ceremony, a water-cutting ceremony at the Verugal River, and the ceremony of cleansing the statue of Lord Murugan in the river. The kovil is also an important stop during the Pada Yatra - the annual walk from the north to the Kataragama Temple in the south. In 2006, despite the adversity of the war, the Pada Yatra started off from this very Verugal Murugan Temple where devotees from across the island flocked here clothed in traditional attire.

A formation of righteous rocks, metres away from the temple, atop which a shrine encases Lord Murugan's Vel, or sacred javelin, was our next venture. A golden statue of Lord Ganesh is at the foot of the rough steps; arching branches of banyan trees, wedged between the rocks, shielded them from scorching rays. The temple, concealed by trees, cannot be seen from here; however, the pink of the gopuram winks from within the leaves. On this peak a blessed few have witnessed miraculous apparitions of the Vel amongst the lush greenery and paddy cultivations enriched by the Verugal Aru that carries the waters of the Mahaweli River. Mythos suggests that in ancient times, after the Kantale community was established during the reign of King Agbo II, a Vel procession took place on these very banks annually by Murugan worshippers seeking blessings.

Mythos suggests that in ancient times, after the Kantale community was established during the reign of King Agbo II, a Vel procession took place on these very banks annually by Murugan worshippers seeking blessings.

At 12.30pm the temple bells clanged to the rhythm of the daula (drum) announcing the commencement of the second of the three daily poojas, the ringing seeking the attention of the gods. The priest, adorned in costume, chanted mantra from within the sanctum sanctorum. Carrying the Aarthi tray and Prasad of kiribath (milk rice), he first made offerings of flowers and water to the shrine of Lord Ganesh at the back, as it is customary to call for guidance from the God of wisdom and new beginnings before any auspicious activity.

Whilst the chanting continued, the handful of devotees gathered for the afternoon pooja moved to the old Lord Murugan temple. Similar to the pooja conducted at the Maha Devalaya in Kataragama, the priest covers his nose and mouth with a yellow cloth to ensure the cleanliness of the offering. Prasad of yellow rice and dhal (lentils) is offered to the shrine where the sacred arrow lay. Every ritual performed here is obedient to the ancient way. Subsequently the pooja at the new kovil is held, where offerings are made within the sanctum sanctorum and at the Lord Ganesh sculpture near the kodimaram, the mayura or peacock figurine, the navagraha - an important part of kovils that revere Lord Shiva and the Lord Vairavar shrine. The observance ends at the Chandeshwar shrine, where devotees pray and clap thrice to wake the deity from his meditation to record their presence and pleas or, as some believe, to inform him that they have not taken any temple possessions.

The ceremony now concluded, devotees gathered at the Maha Mandapam to receive holy water after which the priest marks the forehead of those present with Vibhuti or sacred ash and a pottu.

We made our way towards the sandy ground between the old and new Lord Murugan shrines and the Lord Ganesh shrine. Here the priest showed us an ancient stone slab marked with inscriptions in an ancient Tamil dialect. How deeply into the ground the slab is buried is unknown, despite efforts by townsfolk to unearth it. Local lore assumes the writing speaks of the exploits of Sri Lanka's last king, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, and his attempts to hide treasure in the area. However, the village folk remain wary of unravelling the mysterious text, as unwanted attention may disturb the sanctity and solace of the ground consecrated by Lord Murugan's arrow.

Words Keshini De Silva Photography Vishwa Tharmakulasingham and Anuradha Perera

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