Trinco temples under Arakan Bhikku's by Bandu de Silva

Controversy surrounds the origins of the temples at Trincomalee where today a modern Hindu Kovil, popularly called Koneswaram has been set up. Though a tradition is quoted in support of the antiquity of the modern Hindu temple dating to the time of a mythical ruler named Kulakoddayan, after the Portuguese Captain General Azavedo destroyed the old temple complex and his successor Constantine de Sa removed the material from the destroyed temples to build a fortalice overlooking the bay, nothing remained there except the Bodhi tree where occasionally offerings were made by different people to their respective deities.

This Bodhi tree like the Bodhi tree at Killiveddi in Trincomalee district (Sansoni Commission Report) and in the Jaffna peninsula (Guruge), was destroyed between 1956 and 1964. The observations by Alexander Alexander, the first British writer (1805) who was a gunner in the Trincomalee garrison in his two volume book, makes no mention of temples in his time but a small church and people performing some rites from time to time at a spot close to the sea and a young man being ordained which is obviously a reference to an ordination of a Buddhist monk (samanera). He also saw a temple nearby where the occupants looked very austere and on the walls of whose gloomy looking building were paintings of crocodiles (Makara designs?).

The accounts of the temples given by Fernao de Queyroz, the 17th century Portuguese chronicler based on records left by the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier, who had visited the place and the fathers of the order of Francis and others, which are the first available European observations on the temples, religious practices of the place and about those who were in possession of the temples, make it abundantly clear that the place destroyed by Azavedo and de Sa was a temple complex that was under the chief Buddhist monk (Mahaterunnanse) of Arakan (Rakkhanga-desa in Sinhalese texts) and was administered on the spot by another monk (Terunnanse) of lesser standing and his Ganzes (Ganinnanses). The latter were samaneras or monks in training. Queyroz makes the observation that it would take about 20 years before one could reach the status of a Terunnnanse. Another description gives a post-Portuguese origin to the word Ganinnanse in that they were not fully ordained and wore white robes to evade persecution by the Portuguese after the latter prohibited Buddhist monks and teachers visiting territories under their control. Another explanation is that Ganinnanses were laymen who remained in (white) robes in order to claim temple property which became hereditary in the family. (Tradition recorded in the Kandyan perod; also see by E. R. Sarachchandra).

Trincomalee-Arakan connection

The Buddhist connection between Arakan and Sri Lanka from around the 14th century onwards has been the subject of several scholarly studies by Sir D. B. Jayatileke using the Sinhalese text Curnika (British Library and Colombo Museum), Dr. P. E. Fernando (University Review, 1959 using the same sources) and Dr. Lodewijk Wagenaar, Director of Hague Archives, (RAS Journal, vol. XLVIII) and by the present writer (RAS Academic Sessions 2006). My efforts were directed to the evidence furnished by Queyroz which the other three writers had missed in their studies and which has been selectively used by Tamil scholars (e.g. S. Pathmanathan) suppressing the major part of Queyroz’s evidence which is not supportive of the Tamil tradition.

The known Arakan connection commenced with the founding of Maruk-U in 1433 as the last capital of Arakan “when the Golden Age of Arakan Theravada Buddhism saw the import of many copies of Tripitaka which were placed around the image of Mahamuni“. A replica of the Sacred Tooth Relic from Sri Lanka was also placed at Andaw Stupa during the reign of Min-Bin (1531-71). According to the Mahavamsa the link with Arakan was maintained even during the time of Vimaladharmasurya I (1592-1604) who, reversing the process after the Portuguese onslaught on Buddhism, successfully sent envoys to Arakan to invite bhikkus to come to the island to celebrate the much needed Upasampada and bring over Ven. Nandicakka and other monks. Vimaladharmasuriya II also sent a successful mission to Arakan (1693) and invited Ven. Santana to come over. The Colombo Museum Curnika Pota and the British Museum Rakkhangasasana Curnikava and Mahavamsa give some information about the three missions made to Arakan for this purpose. King Kirthi Sri Rajasimha like Parakramabahu VI of Kotte turned to Siam after this source dried up due to political turmoil.

An explanation for the connection of Trincomalee with Arakan, to which Queyroz refers for the first time, is not forthcoming from other sources. Queyroz mentions that the state (of Trincomalee) and the maritime areas including the surroundings of the temples (pagode) was subject to Mahaterunnanse of Arakan and the temples were administered by the Ganzes of the “Sect of Budum” who were subject to him; who also received the produce of lands at “Tambalagama and Gantale”, while a Vanea shared the administration of the interior. He states further that the chief of the Ganzes who was a Terunnanse, a man of around 40 years, was converted by Francis Xavier during his visit to Trincomalee. The events described by Queyroz fall between the historical space between 1533, around the time Francis Xavier could have visited Trincomalee and 1623/4 when Constantine de Sa built the fortalice there using the stone work of demolished temples.

The power of the “Ganzes of the sect of Budum” over the Vanniya is demonstrated by Queyroz’s reference to the fact that when he became a convert to Christianity he was stoned to death by the people of the former.

Analysis of evidence

There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the testimony of Queyroz which is based on information left behind by Francis Xavier and the fathers of the order of St. Francis who were in Trincomalee and others. It is the first detailed account on Trincomalee from a Western view that has come down to us. His account of the temples, their possession and administration and the nature of worship conducted there do not correspond with the popular Hindu tradition surrounding them but, obviously, provides an alternative dimension of the real state of affairs during the 16th and 17th centuries from the perspective of an observer who had no partisan interest in the local controversy over the temples. There is no reason for him or his sources to have ignored the Hindu tradition on the Koneswaram temple in preference to what he presented, had such an ancient Hindu tradition been present at the time. Significantly, even the name Konesar or Koneswaram does not appear in Queyroz’s record though he mentions other temples in India by name such as Ramessaram, Conjeevaram, Tripati, Tremel, (Bisnaga), Jaganati, and Vixante but he calls Trincomalee more popular than other temples and describes it as Rome of the Gentiles. Why the silence on the part of the Portuguese chronicler about the name of the temple complex at Trincomalee (he was so meticulous about details) had it been then known as Koneswaram?

This does not mean that he calls it by its Buddhist name either, but he is quite clear when he refers to the “Idol of Budum” (Buddha) in this place where sacrifices were made and emphasises that the temples were administered by the “Ganzes of the Sect of Budum” whom he says were more numerous in the country and were under a Terunnanse who was subject to Mahaterunnanse of Arakan, that the place was associated with Buddhist worship.

He repeats this in another place adding emphasis. He even makes a distinction about the areas of jurisdiction of the Mahaterunnanse and the Vanea when he says that the former held the state including the surroundings of the temples (pagodes) while the Vanea shared the area. Elsewhere he puts it less ambiguously when he says the Vanea was the lord of the interior of the country, for as we said, the maritime lands were subject to the Terunnanse (book 2, p. 245-6). Queyroz knew enough about Hinduism and Buddhism and the practioners of the two religions, Brahamins and Terunn-anses/ Gansez respectively, so as not to mix up the two, as his long discourses about the two religions show. He even refers to “Jadecas” (Yakdessa as translated by Fr. S. G. Perera) who evidently performed the sacrificial ritual and not to Brahamin priests whom one would expect to be associated with temples of Hindu worship.

The circumstances of the close relations established between Sri Lanka and Arakan during the height of prosperity of Kotte which reached a peak around 1433 when Maruk-U became the capital of Arakan and continued during the rule of Vimaladharmasuriya I of Kandy, are also in favour of Trincomalee having been under the strong influence of Arakan Buddhists. Parallels are found at Buddha Gaya when the kings of Myanmar played a key role as benefactors of that premier Buddhist centre. For example, in 1412, King Dhammacetiya of Pegu sent a contingent of craftsmen under a Sri Lankan merchant to Buddha Gaya to worship the temple and make plans for it (Ven. Dhammika: Buddhagaya).

A few remaining archaeological finds including the Padhanagara built by Aggabodhi V (8th century), the trunk of a stone Buddha statue and a better preserved “Buddha Pada” stone lying nearby would confirm Queyroz’s version (Sirisaman Wijetunge: Hela Urumaya and evidence on location).

Nature of worship

The other evidence that Queyroz furnishes concerns the nature of religious worship conducted at Trincomalee. The evidence points to more than a single type of ritual. He refers to three temples of which the one on the highest eminence was the principal one. The one nearest to the sea was given to a sacrificial ritual. The third temple does not figure in the descriptions.

The principal shrine was what attracted the mariners when they spotted it from a distance from the sea. One should not be off the mark if one concluded that this particular shrine was dedicated to a deity venerated by seafarers as it had been usual around the sea ports around the island and in other lands. An object for worship of seafarers could have attracted equal attention from mariners of different nations and faiths as the shrine at Devinuvara attracted in the 15th century (demonstrated by the trilingual inscription found at Galle) shows. The shrines at Kataragama, Adams Peak, Madhu and St. Anthony’s Church at Kochchikade are other examples of multiple participation in worship.

Considering that it was a time when a number of powerful and resourceful kingdoms had sprung up in the rest of South East Asia, commencing from Arakan and including the Pegu, Aramana, Sukhotya, Sailendra kingdoms, Sri Vijaya, Champa, Majpahat and others, and that the centre of political gravity had passed into his region (except during the period of the rise of imperial Colas), many of which were Buddhist kingdoms practising Mahayanic Tantric forms introduced from Bengal, it could be expected that links with Sri Lanka and South India and Bengal were maintained by the dynasties which ruled over these lands.

The construction in 1005 AD of a Buddhist temple at Nagapattana in Coromendal coast in South India named Chulamanivarmavihara by a king from Sri Vijaya and Kadaram (Kedah in Malaya peninsula) to which the Cola king Rajaraja dedicated a village for its maintenance, was a good example of this intercourse. Even earlier, Balaraja, another Sailendra ruler, maintained close links with South India. Later, when Colas became hostile to these kingdoms over issues of trade, Trincomalee which was under them could have played a role in the expeditions sent there.

Under the Sri Vijaya kingdom, Avalokitesvara worship became the most popular form of worship. Many examples of this Bodhisatva sculptures have been discovered all over South East Asia as far as the Philippines. Even earlier, this popular form of Bodhisatva worship especially among mariners spread even to East Africa during Kushana times as seen from hordes of Kushana coins discovered here. Trade and religious links between Sri Lanka and the South Eastern kingdoms continued during the hey day of Polonnaruva rule and we see the links continuing during the Dambadeniya rule and later Kotte and Kandyan rule. The Mahayana form of worship which commenced in and around Trincomalee in the time of king Mahasena (3rd century) became more identified with Avalokitesvara worship during the time of its popularity in South Asia. Trincomalee as the southern most port which served the commercial link with these kingdoms, came under Avalokitesvara worship in a big way. Apart from the fragments of remains of sculptures at Trincomalee, there is host of archaeological remains now exhibited at the National Museum in Colombo (also exhibited by UNESCO in Paris and London as part of the Cultural Triangle project), and of Tara, the consort of Avalokitesvara (note the famous image in the British Museum), to support the presence of Avalokitesvara worship in the Trincomalee area from 7th century onwards.

Tantrism which originated in India, first in the Yogacarya school of Buddhism and in which Nalanda where Vajrabodhi who introduced it to China played a big role (he spent five months in Sri Vijaya on the way to China), took root in South East Asian kingdoms. The Buddhist bairava worship cult as seen from such statues as a Heruka from Biaro Bahal II in Padang Lawas, King Adityavarman in the shape of a Buddhist bairava and others point to the extent to which Buddhism underwent change in these parts under Tantric influences.

The relevance of this discussion is to inquire if a cult of worship of deceased rulers of the island concentrated at Trincomalee as Queyroz refers to. The human sacrifice (as offered to goddess Kali or Durga) that had been practiced at shrines on the rock over the sea at Trincomalee (the closest to the sea), which Queyroz refers to as sepulchers of deceased rulers, could have existed side by side in bairava form as was practiced in Java.

According to Queyroz’s evidence, there were two types of sacrifice at Trincomalee. One was the where devotees “throw themselves down in sacrifice to their idols reaching the bottom in pieces being persuaded that by that leap into Hell they are lifted up to the Paradise” (Book 1, pp 66-67). The other sacrifice he refers to on the authority of Antonio Monis Baretto who was sent by Francis Xavier to help Bhuvanekabahu VII in his wars against Sitawaka and Kandy and to convert the King, was to the latter sacrificing 300 men captured in the war against Sitawaka to “the idol of Budum” (Book 2, p. 274). It can be reasonably assumed from Queyroz’s description that the second type of sacrifice could also have taken place to the idol in the shrine closest to the sea from where others sacrificed themselves rather than at the shrine which received the veneration of the mariners even though Queyroz refers to the second sacrifice as one made to the “idol of Budum”. This aspect was dealt in the earlier article “Trincomalee: Where the Spirits of Ancient Lankan Kings Roam” (The Island, 23rd December 2006).