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Trincomalee Temples Under Arakan Bhikkus - part II

The ancient port of Trincomalee, referred to as Gokanna or Gona Thittha in the Mahavamsa occupied a very strategic and central position in maritime activity in the Bay of Bengal... It was the southernmost point from which ships sailing to South East Asia and further departed and returned after the voyages (Queyroz). The coastline north of Trincomalee harbour was dotted with small landing places. The 8th century Tiriyaya Sanskrit inscription which was evidently incised by a group of merchant-mariners from Northern Indian ports speaks of the amity that prevailed among mariners and between them and the populace. The same inscription refers to the earlier visit of two merchant-mariners by the names Tapasra and Vallaka (Pali: Tapassu and Bhalluka) which the tradition associates with the Buddha’s first two lay disciples who traded between the east Indian ports and lands beyond. Queyroz who gives a long description of the port, bay and sea environs says that the Trincomalee, Cottiyar and Batticaloa ports "commanded the whole Gulf of Bengal".

Sri Lanka had maintained close relations with lands across the Bay of Bengal including South East Asia and the Far East. Trincomalee’s place in these maritime links can be assumed on the basis of its strategic and spatial significance. There is substantial evidence in the chronicler traditions of Sri Lanka and those of other lands across the Bay from very early times pointing to close economic, social and cultural relations among them some of which we discussed in earlier parts. The lands of Arakan (Rakkhangadesa), Pagan (Pegu), Ramanna (Aramana), Siam (Ayodhya), Campouchia (Kambuja), and Java (Yava-dvipa), to mention a few, had looked to Sri Lanka for Buddhist texts, relics, learned monks and architects. In later centuries, it was Sri Lanka’s turn to look to these countries for sources of inspiration when Buddhism declined here.

On the Indian side, there are also records going back to the 5th century BC, besides the tradition about the Sinhalese, that connect Kalinga with Trincomalee (Bhaddacaccana). It can also be surmised that that the Kalinga prince who sought refuge in the island and later entered the Buddhist Order landed at Gokanna.

Gokanna and Tirukonamalai

In early historical records of the island present day Trincomalee has been referred to as Gokanna or by its variants from the 3rd century BC. There were at least seven such references in the chronicler tradition by that name up to the time of the 13th century inscription of Parakramabahu I. That points to a stable Sanskritic-Pali and Sinhalese tradition relating to the place for over a millennium commencing from pre-Christian times (Dharmadasa).

The term "Tiru-kona-malai" appears for the first time in the 10th / 11th century Nilaveli (Tamil) inscription. The first reference to the Konesvaram temple also belong to the Cola period of history (11th and 12th centuries) (Gunasingham); but where it was located is not indicated. Apart from the Nilaveli inscription, another reference is found in Manankeni inscription of the Cola Ilankesvara-deva. The dates of these two inscriptions which refer to Tiru-kona-malai tally with the date that can be assigned to Kulakudayan, the legendary prince of the Tamil tradition from Cola-mandalam who appointed Vanniyas to take care of it. It also fits into the second part of the fable where reference is made to Gajabahu (II) who made endowments to the temple. This king who ruled from Gantalava was known also for his patronage to Hinduism.

The next textual reference to Trincomalee is found in the Portuguese sources which we have discussed above. The name is represented in several forms, each writer preferring his own rendering. Some of these are: Triquilmale (p. 68), Triqulimale (p. 236), Triquinmale, (p. 734) (Queyroz). The chronicler’s attempt at explaining the etymology of "Triquilmale" as meaning the "mountain of the three Pagodes" could be construed as a reference to places of Hindu worship but this need not be so as the word "koil" was a term common to both Tamil and Sinhala (kovila) and denoting an abode of a deity that does not exclude a Buddhist deity. Queyroz seems to have used the Indian usage whoever may be the deity worshipped there; but what is more important is the evidence he brings out of the nature of worship that is discussed below.

The Matale Mahadisawe Kadaimpota, a work of the Kandyan period, mentions Trincomalee as "Tiri–mangala" and "Tirikunamale".

The name Gokarna could have been derived from the name of the port Gokarna on the western coast of India, which was sacred to Siva. The attempt to associate the Vayu Purana reference to Gokarna as a place in the East (of Sri Lanka) on the basis of Apte’s translation of the Purana (this has been brought back again by Pathmanathan) has been contested on the ground that the translation is defective (Dharmadasa).

Trincomalee as a place of worship

Going by the Sri Lankan chronicler tradition itself, there is no doubt that Trincomalee has a long tradition of being associated as an important place of worship. Being a major port, it could be expected that it was in the chain of landing and departing places for Buddhist monks and pilgrims who frequently travelled between India and Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries of South East Asia and beyond later, when Buddhism was the most active of missionary religions.

Besides the tradition and later inscriptional evidence concerning the stupa at Tiriyaya, the first reference in the main chronicles of the island and other works point to the construction of a shrine at the end of the Seru tank enshrining one of the teeth of the Buddha (3rd century BC). The place has been identified as the dagoba in ruins at present day Thoppur (Somapura) built in the memory of Soma-devi. As we noted, tradition as well as the 8th century inscription refer to the dagoba at Tiriyaya built in the time of the Buddha himself.

As for the shrines at Trincomalee itself, there are conflicting claims. The Mahavamsa states that King Mahasena (3rd century AD) destroyed devalaya and built Buddhist temples there. What these devalaya were is not clear. The tendency had been to treat them as Saiva temples. That is going by the Vayu Purana’s doubtful reference to "Gokarna" as a place in the East and the exegesis furnished by the 11th century commentary to the Mahavamsa (tika) which gives the additional information that Mahasena destroyed places of worship of other faiths (kudhitta) including Sivalingas. In the use of key word kudhittha there is definitely an exclusion of reference to Siva temples. Scholars have suggested that these were Jaina temples, which had been present in the island even earlier. Considering that Jains displaced Buddhists even at premier centres of Buddhism like the Nagarjunakonda / Amaravati / Trikuta area in the early centuries, this prospect cannot be excluded. Jainism became popular with Indian traders like Buddhism.

There is no mention of Mahasena destroying places of Hindu (Siva) worship in Trincomalee where he erected the Gonagamka vihara by the sea. The link with Hinduism is a mere hypothesis. Mahasena being an adherent of the Mahayana tradition, destroyed even the premier place of worship of Theravada monks, the Mahavihara. A point to be considered here is if Saivism in the form of linga worship had developed to that extent in the island at the time. The Mahavamsa commentary was compiled at a time when linga worship had penetrated the island under the imperial Colas when the northern parts of the island came under them. The Saiva temples built at that time with linga as the central object of worship can be seen even today at Polonnaruva and not before that. The 12th century Mahavamsa commentary (Tika) (Geiger) exhibits anti-Saivite feelings which could have understandably resulted from the preferential treatment Saivism received under the Cola rule of the island at the time.

There had been other cult practices in the island before Buddhism was introduced and some of the Buddhist shrines were built on spots where these cult practices obtained. The building of Mirisavetiya at the abode of Yakkha Marichi is a case in point. There, the later tradition obliterated the idea of the Yakkha cult and introduced a rather strange etymology (the king consuming chillies without offering to monks!) to explain the name of the dagoba. The Gokanna area was associated with the Yakkha cult during the time of Pandukabhaya (5th century BC). Mahavamsa evidence shows that cult practices continued there even later in the 6th century (Mahanaga) and the 7th century (Manavamma). These practices continued even in Portuguese times as we noted in Queyroz’s account of sacrifices and the presence of a "Jadecas" (Yakdessa) who was killed by the Portuguese captain, and even to British times (Gunner Alexander’s Book on himself, 1805). Probably, it was these early cult practices that Mahasena eradicated before building the Gokanna Vihara and other temples.

The Buddhist temples he built could have been Mahayana temples that centred on Bodhisattva worship. As a port the place could have been an inviting spot for mariners who frequently used it during their travel between South East Asian lands and the Indian subcontinent including Sri Lanka, for the worship of the popular Bodhisattva of the seafarers in these regions, who was Avalokitesvara. The images of this Bodhisattva were erected at other port cities like Weligama, (existing even today), Totagamuva (existed in the 15th century but destroyed by the Portuguese) and Mantota (destroyed) (see J. H. Holt, Buddha in Crown). Queyroz’s reference to the excitement caused among marines when they saw the shrine from afar in the sea also points to the continued belief in the association of the place with a deity of seafarers.

The origins of the Hindu shrine at Trincomalee (now referred to as Konesaram) are obscure (Gunasingham, CJH, vol. I, no. 1, 1975, p. 67), though fables accord it a very ancient antiquity that does not stand the scrutiny of history. The Hindu tradition of King Gajabahu coming to destroy the Konesaram temple and to build a Buddhist temple in its place being miraculously cured of his blindness when he reached Gantalava and having become a Hindu as a result of the miracle is clearly a reminder of the account of Mahasena in the Pali chronicle of destroying the devalayas and obviously invented to counter that historical tradition. Gajabahu II (11 century AD) who was a contemporary of Parakramabahu I and ruled over the Pacina Desa which incorporated the Trincomalee region was a benefactor of Hinduism. He is the one associated with the introduction of the Pattini cult which the tradition has mixed up with Gajabahu I (Gananath Obeyesekere).

Dr. S. Paranavitana has assigned a 12th century date to Kulakudayan, the legendary prince from Cola-mandalam, who, according to the fable, Kalivettu, visited Trincomalee having heard of the temple and appointed Vanniyas to provide services to it. That interpretation also fits the reference in the fable to Gajabahu II making endowments to the temple.

All that can be said about these legendary claims that have been more recently documented by Patmanathan, is that the fame of the temples and their wealth had been quite high, so much so that there seems to have been periodic contentions about their control.

The Gokanna Vihara had been well endowed by rulers like Mahasena (3rd century), Aggabodhi II (7th century), builder of Gantalava (Hugh Nevil), Aggabodhi V (8th century), who built the Padanaghara, the remains of which were discovered along with Buddha images of the early centuries) and that kings of Kotte and Kandy continued the practice.

The present Hindu tradition appears to have grown later after the Buddhist monks (Ganezes) were converted (some killed) and when the new generation of South Indian immigrants moved in after the Sinhalese left the place when the temples were destroyed and a fortalice was constructed in 1623/4 by Constantine de Sa. Early 19th century British investigators noted that the Malabar (South Indian) people they met at Gantalava had no knowledge of the place about such an ancient and important reservoir or its destroyed channels, (Brohier) and Trincomalee Government Agent Hugh Nevil’s diary records Tamil residents of Kokkilai directing him to the Sinhalese to find out the etymology of the name of Kokilai. These examples illustrate the situation well. These British officials were not unjustified in concluding that the people they met were late arrivals in these places. So was the evidence of later Hindu idols placed on the foundation of the earlier Buddhist temple at Gantalawa (Brohier).

South Indian workers were brought for building fortifications in Sri Lanka. Even the Matale Maha Disawe Kadaimpota (Kandyan period) refers to Tamil labourers (demala kollanlava uliyam karava) being employed in the Uliyam service to construct the fortress of Trincomalee. As these works were over they settled down in the districts they worked in, as Rycloff Van Goens’s memoir states in respect of the construction of the fort at Galle. Administration reports of Government Agents of Trincomalee also show how masons from Jaffnapatam visited the villages in Kaddukulam Pattu pretending to be "tank-menders" and how they fleeced unsuspecting Sinhalese villagers. Similarly, bands of Sepoys brought by the Dutch from Cochin were allowed to settle down in Panama Pattu as husbandmen after their disbanding illustrate the point.

Depopulation of Trincomalee and the district

Historians have attributed the destruction of the ancient Rajarata civilization to frequent invasions from the 13th century onwards. More particularly, they cite the "devastation" caused by Magha of Kalinga that is entrenched in the Sinhala-Buddhist psyche and repeated by Buddhist monks, as the main cause for the shift to the southwest. This seems to be an exaggerated view that seems to hide a number of factors during the colonial period commencing from the Portuguese, Dutch and British forays into ancient Rajarata that was referred to as the Vanni.

As the early Portuguese, Dutch and British records reveal, the Rajarata had not been completely abandoned, although the South Indian invaders who had no permanent interest, left when conditions became unfavourable. Queyroz says that when the fortress was built at Trincomalee after destroying the temples, there were large cultivation tracts under them in Gantalava and Tambalagama, whose produce the Ganezes received from some fields, in which, "as we have already said, they sowed 3000 amunam of nele, in two crops, each of which made 4000 moyo of rice, besides other vegetables crops." The farmers left for the jungles of Kottiyarama (now Somapura Seruvila area) except for 15 or 20 who remained.

The British noted the presence of a line of Sinhalese villagers in the thickly wooded Kaddukulam pattu itself, though reduced to a few households in each village. These were villages like Moraveva, Gomarankadawala, obviously, villages on the ancient route from Tiriyaya, Kucchchiveli, to Anuradhapura. One notable feature about these villagers was that even under their impoverished conditions, disease ridden and emaciated bodies, they still cared for their village tanks every season.

A few British administrators have rightly put their finger on the real causes of the decline of the ancient Rajarata though their views have not received correct focus in view of the general tendency to speak of the abandonment and shift to the southwest; or the greater interest in commerce as one of the reasons. These were the vexations caused by continuous forays by troops of colonial powers from the time of the Portuguese to the British, the spread of diseases like parangi, introduced by the Portuguese which took a good toll of life in the whole country till the 20th century, cholera and small pox. (Bertolacci and J. P. Lewis).

A study of port cities in the south and west and the east of the island should indicate that trade and commerce had been an ancient feature of the economy of the country which has not been brought into the historical stream despite several studies on ports in the island.

The evidence of Queyroz shows that the Trincomalee area was agriculturally productive in the 16th and 17th centuries and Tambalagama and Gantale (note his spelling) had been yielding substantial crops. Their abandonment resulted after the temples were destroyed and the Ganinnanses who administered the fields were converted or killed and a fortalice was built near the site where the temples once stood. The Dutch were able to increase the yields of crops in the area after they took over its direct administration. They even examined the prospects of renovating the Gantalava tank and channels to further improve agriculture. The final abandonment of the area took place under early British rule when it remained neglected. It was after that new settlers from South Indian coast and Jaffna peninsula were introduced.


Portuguese sources have added to our knowledge about historical events in the island. Pof. C. R. de Silva stressed at the Conference on Commemoration of 500 years of Portuguese connection with Sri Lanka held in Paris in December 2005 sponsored by the Gulbeikien Foundation of Portugal, the importance of using new material which has become available to us for interpretation of history. Commenting on the Tirukonacalpuranam, obviously a work of no great antiquity, Dr. S. Pathmanathan stated at the same Conference that the Portuguese as testified by Fernao Queyroz, destroyed this temple (Koneswaram) while several Sri Lankan schlars who participated at the conference, which was said to be evaluating Portuguese evidence from new light, listened in mute silence.

In the light of the evidence quoted above in this aricle from Queyroz’s work itself, what was stated by Dr. S. Pathmanathan cannot be considered a correct interpretation of Queyroz’s evidence but a gross under representation, suppression of evidence and misrepresentation. He has completely suppressed Queyroz’s reference to Buddhist monks (Terunnanse and the Ganezes of the sect of Budum) who were subject to Mahaterunnanse of Arakan being the administors of the temples. Queyroz is quite specific that what was destroyed by the Portuguese were pagodes, which were under the administration of Ganezes of the sect of Budum who were subject to Mahaterunnanse of Arakan, which observation he repeats and their immediate chief, the Terunnanse was converted by Francis Xavier. The additional quotations by Dr. Pathmanathan from the Dutch official Van Sanden and the son of Constantaine de Sa or the plan of the temple do not alter the situation (Hindu Temples of Sri Lanka, Kumaran, 2006). His quotes from Charles Pradham can be ignored as of no relevance and importance; and Paul E. Pieris’s five "Iswaram" theory was rejected by the Royal Asiatic Society where he presented it.

The question could be raised if the monks of Arakan and their administrators, the Terunnanse and "Ganezes of the Sect of Budum" could have been presiding over a complex of temples given to heterogeneous forms of worship. That is not an easy question to answer with the evidence we have. The evidence of the Portuguese chronicler Do Couto on the shrine at Devinuvara concentrates on the destruction of a shrine devoted to Hindu worship (in the form of Vishnu or Upulvan) according to tradition, which was the attraction for mariners. There is reference to the magnificent chariot several storeys high, which was set on fire; which was charecteristicsof a Hindu temple; and to other (minor) shrines in the premises, which reference is lacking in respect of Trincomalee pagodes in Portuguese description. (Couto leaves out the Buddhist temple which received the patronage of many Sinhalese kings around which other forms of worship grew) but refers to the Chinese settlement at Devinuvara.

The rituals at Devinuvara and Kataragama shrines were in the hands of Kapuralas, a feature noted in shrines on the Eastern coast as well. Tirukkovil too, as observed by Queyroz was under Ganezes, (Ganinnanses). The Ruined Buddhist stupa in the Dighavapi jungle in the last century was on the verge of being converted to a Hindu shrine (called Cami-male), when my wife’s maternal grandfather, the late G. M. Simon de Silva, a prosperous entrepreneur from Kalmunai/Akkarapattu, saved it by clearing up the place, erecting a flower altar and installing a stone Buddha statue, and establishing a Bhikku to reside there. The Bhikku lived on a tree-top avasa until he was gunned down by a marksman!

Some of this material was presented by the writer at the Royal Asiatic Society Academic Sessions in 2006.

by Bandu de Silva
Sunday Island - January 6, 2007

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Added April 7, 2007
Updated April 12, 2007
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