The Munneswaram Festival
by Derrick Schokman
We next hear of Munneswaram in the Kokila Sandesa in the time of Parakrama Bahu VI of Kotte, when the bird messenger travelling from Matara to Jaffna passed the kovil. The temple flourished during the reign of Parakrama Bahu VI. He gifted several villages and ricelands for its upkeep. Interestingly a sannas to this effect was discovered sometime ago and its legality was upheld in the Chilaw courts.
The Portuguese, when they ruled the maritime regions, no doubt attracted by the reputed wealth of the kovil, destroyed it completely in 1578, all except the basement and used the core of the building as a chapel.
King Kirti Śrī Rajasinghe of the Kandyan Kingdom had the superstructure rebuilt in the 1750s. The Kalasam or kotha on top is made of silver, a fine work of art and culture displaying the best of South Indian Hindu architecture.
The kovil was renovated again in 1875 by the efforts of Brahma Sri Cumaraswamy Kurukal. Improvements were effected again in 1919 and 1963 by public support from Hindus all over the island.
The sandstone and limestone building faces E-W in the traditional manner. A new gopuram marks the entrance in the east. At the west end is the inner sanctum or garbagraham in which the Shivalingam or phallus is housed, representing the generative power of the god. The lower part is much older dating back to the Kotte period as evidenced by an inscription of King Parakrama Bahu VI.
The supremacy of Siva over Brahma and Vishnu, the other two megagraba in the Hindu Trinity, which makes him creator, preserver and destroyer, three in one, is interestingly shown by a carving on the stone lingam.
At the top is a swan, at the bottom a boar, and in between a flame of fire. It symbolically represents a story told in the Linga Puranam about a dispute that took place between Brahma and Vishnu as to who was the superior. Suddenly a flame rose up between them.
Brahma, assuming the form of a swan rose up to the top to find the source. Vishnu, assuming the form of a boar delved down into the earth to do the same thing. Neither was successful and it was then that they realised that Siva, represented by the flame, was the most superior.
The annual Munneswaram festival is an important part of the Temple calendar. It lasts for 27 days usually in the months of August and September. The festival begins with the hoisting of the Temple flag. This is followed by 13 days of internal devale peraheras conducted in the outer area of the Maha Devale.
Devotees visit the Temple to attend the pujas and make their offerings. Booths are specially erected outside for the sale of food, drink, brassware, pottery, cloth, images etc. On the penultimate day of the festival there is a very special car procession, when the god's image is placed upon a huge wooden juggernaut and pulled around the temple by devotees.
On the next and final day of the festival, two large chariots gaily decked are drawn by the devotees to the Deduru-oya for the diya-kepima or water-cutting ceremony. Images of Siva or Mahaisvaram and his consort Parvati or Uma take pride of position between the two chariots. The statue of Gane Deviyo or Ganesha goes in front with that of Skanda (Kataragama Deviyo) following, the two sons of Siva.
After the diya-kepima and whatever rituals have been performed, the procession goes back to the Temple along a decorated route through Chilaw town, accompanied by nagasalam music.
On the way back the procession passes the two devales attached to the kovil - the Aiyanayake devale dedicated to Aiyanar (T) or Aiyana (S), presiding deity over forests, fields and irrigation reservoirs, and the Maha Badhra Kali devale dedicated to Kali who represents the destructive side of God Siva.
Another special feature of Munneswaram is the celebration of the nine-day festival of navarathri in honour of the three major sakthis or consorts of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva - three days to each consort. Parvati or Uma is the consort of Siva, Lakshmi is Vishnu's consort and Sarasvati is Brahma's - bestowers of fruitfulness, wealth and wisdom respectively.
This festival, which takes place in October, is mentioned here because it is more impressively and elaborately performed at Munneswaram than anywhere else eg. the daily Chanka abisheka with 108 chanks, khumba puja, special yaga, chanting of vedas and other ceremonies.