A citadel of faith and unity
One of the beautiful facets of Sri Lankan life is our multireligious and multicultural population. For centuries we have been a nation that respects all religions. Colombo is blessed with so many historic Hindu kovils, Buddhist temples, churches and mosques. Religion and spirituality are an integral part of this island people. Usually, most of the beautiful Hindu kovils are found in the northern and eastern provinces. However, the city of Colombo has some large Hindu kovils and my favorite is the Sri Ponnambalavaneswaram Devasthanam or the Kochikade Sivan Kovil as it is more commonly known.
The city of Kochikade is a multi-religious place with all religions represented by places of worship. Although a Christian, I was fascinated by this unique granite kovil. I was first taken here 30 years ago by my friend Maithili Sellathurai. It is perhaps the only kovil of its kind in Sri Lanka built entirely of granite. This radiant edifice manifesting the most refined form of Dravidian conceptions and embellished with art, amidst its rather dimly lit interior sanctuary, redefines the spiritual aura associated with Hinduism.
The impressive gopuram
This is my personal take on this historic kovil. Sri Ponnambalavaneswaram Devasthanam is consecrated with Sri Sivagama Sounthari Ambal (female deity) and Samedha Sornasabeswara Swamy (male deity). For over 150 years, this kovil has been an iconic monument and a spiritual beacon for devotees and tourists. Its massive structure complemented by perfect gardens accentuates the beauty and also reminds us of the dedicated work of its founding fathers and builders.
I visited the kovil several Fridays to witness the outpouring of Hindu worship and godly worship. Friday is a day revered by the Hindu community around the world. The kovil still echoed with the sound of bells and vibrating drumbeats. When you enter through the back door (facing Colombo harbor), you see large white cows pleasantly chewing grass. These docile animals make a silent contribution to the rituals of worship (kosalai) by giving up their unblemished milk which is used in Hindu rituals.
This historic temple was built only with granite. It is full of evidence of ancient Dravidian architecture and the excellent craftsmanship of sculptors that can be seen in India. An important aspect is that most of these kovils were built near the seaports of resplendent Sri Lanka. For example, Thiruketheeswaram Kovil was built near the seaport called Manthai. Thirukoneshwaram Kovil is located near the natural harbor of Trincomalee. The Naguleswaram temple is also located near the natural harbor of Kankesanthurai.
According to oral tradition, Ponnambalam Mudaliyar dreamed of being given a pomegranate fruit which, when split in half, revealed a sacred Sivalingam. Inspired and perhaps spiritually rejuvenated by this vision, he was determined to build a kovil. It is said that he bought a land full of coconut palms, from Captain John Strone. In 1857, basic work was undertaken to establish a shrine and the traditional Kovil ritual of Kumbabishekam was performed. Ponnambalam Ramanathan started a detailed construction plan, for which huge slabs of hewn granite were purchased in Colombo.
Previously, this kovil was built of brick and calcium-induced lime paste. In 1873 the kovil was renovated and another Kumbabishekam took place. According to the deed, the first male member of Ponnambalam Mudaliyar’s family would be the legal heir to the administration of the temple. After Ponnambalam Mudaliyar passed away, the administration of the temple was handed over to his eldest son Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy. But due to his untimely demise in 1905, the administration of the temple was entrusted to his younger brother Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan.
There was a massive construction operation with hundreds of skilled workers and stonemasons. By November 1912, to the delight of thousands of devotees, Sivan Kovil was firmly established. As kovil fame spread, in 1967 a Rajagopuram (tower) was built at the entrance to the east side. This gopuram has many idols. To build this temple, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan brought in diligent builders and sculptors from South India. These men excelled in building kovils and towers. Initially, this construction project began in 1907 and ended in 1912. The Kumbabishekam took place on November 21, 1912.
After reaching the main door and reverently washing our feet, we enter the kovil. The first impression was amazing, rows of stone columns stood in silent grandeur. The columns were bathed in the light of incandescent oil lamps. The flickering flames cast shadows on the stone surface. This amazing granite kovil is adorned with many idols and symbols related to Hinduism. A swarm of Tamil girls smiled and passed, carrying oil lamps and silver trays filled with fruit. Some priests greeted me with joined hands. A priest pointed out a well that is inside the kovil and said that the water from this well has not dried for over a century. Theerthak kerni or Teertha Thadakam (water reservoir) of the temple is known as “Sri Swarna Pushkarani” (holy temple pond). I realized the importance of water as a symbol of purifying purity and clarity in all religions. I remember the careful words of the Bhagavad Gita: “Forgiveness and meekness are the qualities of the possessed individual. They represent eternal virtue.
Now people have started to come for the pooja – there are six poojas every day led by nine members of the clergy. We walked past Vasantha’s mandapam, where there are five deities nestled among fresh flowers. These are joyfully revered Vinayagar, Murugan, Somaskandar, Amman and Sundeswaran. As we approach the Maha mandapam – which is the innermost place, there is absolute silence. Through an iron gate one can see the Nithiya akkini kundam – an eternal flame.
An elderly devotee told me that he is the only kovil in the country who keeps this on. On the right side of the sanctuary are animals and birds carved from wood and mounted on wheels. On entering the garden again, we saw the kovil tank. The annual float festival is a mega celebration. This kovil also attracts Buddhist devotees. Looking at the roof of the kovil from the outside, I treasured the view of the Duwarapalagar – warrior sentries daringly carved into the granite, a rather imposing sight. Two devotees I met during my last visit in 2019 recall some memories.
Dharini and Premini Ganeshwaran had been coming here since their childhood and said, “We used to come with our parents. Children, we remember that there was a large drum attached to the wall. Most of the children were banging on this drum, and the echo echoed through the stone columns. After the pooja, we came to the door side. An old man was selling bundles of green leaves. We used to buy a few bales at 10 rupees each and feed the cows in the kovil. It was both fun and also instilled in us respect for animals. On special feast days, we lit the ritual lamp with ghee. Today, as we look back, these are the memories that we treasure.
The kovil has a large reception hall frequented by the faithful, while organizing such gatherings in a pious atmosphere respecting the dignity of the kovil. Sri Ponnambalavaneswaram Devasthanam has represented a beam of hope beaming for millions of devotees, supporting Hindu traditions and rituals. I can still feel the beautiful vibrations echoing inside its magnificent stone columns. I conclude with a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “Detachment is not that you don’t have anything. Detachment is that nothing belongs to you.