Mannar is the tip of Sri Lanka closest to India, across the famous Ram Setu that joins the two countries. If on the Indian end of Ram Setu, we have the Rameshwaram temple, the Sri Lanka end has the Thiruketheeswaram temple. It was a bustling port town till medieval times and hence connected to the rest of the world. Today, it is a quaint coastal town that tourists have not completely forgotten.
I reached Mannar in the evening after a long drive from Colombo, stopping at a couple of places on the way. It was a really small place with minimal facilities at the hotel. In the morning I set out to see the temple that I was there to do a story on. It fascinated me as on the way, I had read a full book on the story of this amazing temple.
Mannar Thiruketheeswaram Temple
Legend of Thiruketheeswaram Temple
The story of this temple connects it to the Sagar Manthan or the churning of the oceans. When the nectar was being distributed, an asura came and sat in the row of Devtas. As soon as Vishnu realized this, he used his discus to cut him into two pieces. However, having taken the nectar, he was already immortalized. The two parts of his body are what is now know as Rahu and Ketu. The former being the head without a body and the latter being a headless body.
It is believed that Ketu worshipped Shiva here and he was the first one to install the Shivalinga here. Hence the temple is named after him – Thiruketeeshwara.
Mannar is also believed to be the land of Vishwakarma, the divine architects who along with his sons has built the best of places. Traditional Sthapatis or architects trace their lineage to him.
Mandodari, the chief queen of Ravana came from this region, as she was the daughter of Mayan, one of the sons of Vishwakarma.
History of ThiruketheeswaramTemple
It is said that the grandeur of this ancient temple matched that of the Rameshwaram temple across the sea. It was patronized by the major kings of South Indian dynasties like Cholas. Tamil poet-saints wrote poetry in praise of this temple, though we do not know if they really visited this temple. Even the Chinese traveler Huan Tsang mentioned this temple in his travelogues.
Portuguese came and they erased the temple completely. There was no sign left of this temple and the forest grew in this region. Slowly the temple was erased from the memory too. In the 19th CE, a young man from Jaffna called Arumugam Navalar studied Shaiva Siddhanta and worked on taking it to the masses. It is then that he came across the poetry of Nyanmar Sampandrar and Sundrar talking about a temple of the lord of Ketu.
Navalar started a mad hunt for the temple including digging the forests randomly. He eventually discovered a huge Chola era Shivalinga that is still worshipped in the temple. This was the re-birth of the temple. People first built a small one-room temple and then over time, collected funds and kept expanding the temple. In between interruptions came when there was civil unrest when the temple remained inaccessible to the public. It also lost a lot of Mathas that were around the temple although no major harm was done to the main temple.
Read More – Ramayana Era Temples of Sri Lanka
When I visited, the expansion work was still going on. Even the Indian government and ASI have supported the work of building this temple.
Visiting Thiruketheeswaram Temple
Since a major expansion work of the temple is going on, the temple was moved to a makeshift space and the worships were going on there. I even witnessed a wedding taking place there.
A tall Raj gopuram of the temple with a huge bell on one side welcomes one inside the temple. Temple bell here was ordered from England and it is a unique feature of the Sri Lankan temples. You always see one or two temple bells on either side of the main gopuram. Looks like a church influence especially because they are usually sourced from Europe.
Just outside in a small temple-like enclosure that has an ancient Nandi Murti in it.
Grabhagriha has a new Shivalinga that was brought here from Rameshwaram, where it came from Kashi. I was thrilled to see a Shivalinga from Varanasi being worshipped here. A smaller temple on the side is dedicated to Gauri Amman and there is a lovely Murti of her in the sanctum.
Newly built 100-pillared mandapa leading to the sanctum has murtis of Ketu, Mandodari, poets Sampandrar and Sundrar, Chola kings, and two warriors riding the horses as if guarding the temple. Other pillars have rows of Shiva Tandav poses as sculptures, Ganesha sculptures, Vishnu sculptures, and forms of Devi. They are interspersed with celestial dancers like Urvashi and Rambha. Ceilings have depictions of Navagrahas, Sun, zodiac signs, Kamdhenu, and Sri Yantra.
Read More – Places to See in Jaffna
Priests told me that Palavi is representative of Ganga, and how Shiva comes to Parvati’s chambers every night and comes back to his chamber in the morning where he meets Ganga as Pallavi water is used for his Abhishek. How stories continue to live!
Temple Tank – Palavi Teertham
A temple is not complete without a temple tank. This temple has a huge tank called Palavi towards the north of the temple. It is said that once upon a time it was a river that was comparable to Ganga. Tank water is used for all the rituals of the temple including the Abhishek. Other rituals like last rites are performed on its banks too.
A pavilion has been built around it where the deities would sit when they step out of the temple. Lots of birds can be seen flying around.
There is another tank in front of the temple close to a cow shelter.
Temple has a lovely collection of ancient bronze murtis that are duly dressed in fine clothes. Noticeable among them are the Chola era murtis of Nataraja and Somaskanda. There are murtis of 63 Nyanmar poet-saints that we see in many Shiva temples across Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.
The 10-day annual festival of the temple takes place around the full moon day of Vaishakh month. All other Hindu festivals like Shivaratri, Navaratri, Ganesh Chaturthi, Skand Sashthi are celebrated in the temple. Being a Shiva temple, Monday is special for the temple.
Meeting the Sthapati
My biggest reward for visiting this temple was meeting the Sthapati R Selvanathan and his wife Ponni. They were taking care of the current phase of expansion, adding the smaller temples surrounding the main temple, building a new vimana, or the superstructure. I spent two days listening to them and this was my education on what goes on behind the scenes of temple architecture.
Some of the things I learned include:
There are different types of stones, classified as male, female, and gender-neutral. Each has its own purpose. For example, only a male stone can be used to carve a Shivalinga.
There are different types of temple maintenance routines. Some of these include regular maintenance that must be done every 12 years. There is planned expansion which must be done in accordance with the original plan of the temple. There is a maintenance routine prescribed for temples that may have fallen out of use due to any reason and for temples that have been desecrated intentionally.
Read More – Iconography of Nataraja
I learned about the music that is inbuilt in temples and the stories that they tell.
I saw them drawing designs on stone and then chipping off what is not needed. In fact, I tried my hands at shipping some stone and under the guidance of experts, it seemed simple enough.
Other places to see in Mannar
This is a small fort that you see as soon as you enter the island town after crossing the causeway. It was first built by the Portuguese and then captured by the Dutch and finally came into the hands of the British. It simply tells you the colonial past of the region.
Read More – Galle Fort in Sri Lanka
You can simply walk around the ruins and see the structures and some rooms. There are some inscriptions but I could not gather much here. Most roofs are gone. The children were playing cricket when I visited it in the evening.
The ancient bridge that connects Sri Lanka and India can be seen in the form of sandbanks. You can go close to the sea and do some watersports like paragliding here. What is interesting here is water on one side is aggressive while the other side is absolutely peaceful.
What you see is a lot of sand dunes as far as your eye goes and then a small shimmer of seawater. I was told on a clear day you can easily see the Rameshwaram temple from here.
Motels hotels and restaurants here would display the porous floating stones that float on water.
Doric Bungalow near Mannar
Ruins of an old bungalow hanging delicately on a cliff overlooking the sea. This was the site of pearl fishing for ages, mentioned in ancient scriptures. The fishing passed on to colonial powers and they minted money from the pearls they got from here. A board outside the bungalow describes the inhuman methods that were used to find the pearls beneath the water. Divers who were mostly locals were used to collect oysters.
Today it is an absolute ruin but a lovely windy place when you go on top. I must add it is a bit risky to climb it as there is no aid available close by in case of any problem. A small lighthouse style tower stands close to it.
Shrine of Our Lasy of Madhu
This is a popular Christian church located a little far away from Mannar.
It is a giant ancient tank dating back to 5th CE.
Boabab trees are popular here with tourists. They are a sign of trade with Africa at some point in time.
Mannar and the areas around it are excellent for birdwatching. With a lot of salt panes around, that look breathtakingly beautiful, there are so many birds around. Vidathaltheevu is a fishing village famous for birding. You can see piles of salt naturally gathered here forming interesting circular patterns as they solidify. Local villagers fill them in baskets and take them home.
See if you can spot a small-sized Ass in the streets here. These came here with the trade from far away.
- It is a small town so tourist facilities are limited. There is a big resort in Talaimannar. Most in town are small and basic hotels.
- You get typical south Indian food like Idli, Dosa, and Wada at most places. Noodles and fried rice are also popularly available here. Thali is also available at places.
- It is best to have your own transport arrangement or travel through an authorized travel agent in Sri Lanka.
- You need 1-2 days to completely explore this region.
- Being close to the sea, the area is a bit sensitive, and security officials may stop you for verification at times.