On a spectacular promontory overlooking one of the world’s largest natural harbours, there is an ancient temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It is at the head of Konesar Malai (Swami Rock) on the dramatic Gokarna Bay, a seasonal home to blue whales.
Surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery on all sides, the colourful Koneswaram temple sits high above the bay, a classical-medieval complex in the Eastern Province city of Trincomalee. The site is a religious pilgrim centre, and is one of the five “Pancha Ishwarams” (abodes of Shiva) that were built in coastal regions of Sri Lanka to honor the supreme god of Hinduism.
The dates of the temple have been debated, with some scholars citing the original to around 400 BC, and later construction from as early as the 5th century to as late as the 18th.
At one time the complex was as large and grand as any in India or Sri Lanka. The grandeur was mostly lost in the 17th century at the hands of the colonial Portuguese, who razed structures, dumped some into the sea, destroyed objects, and smashed ornamentation. To salvage what they could, priests and devotees of the temple scrambled to bury their sacred objects, event taking advantage of the sea themselves rather than seeing them crushed in the raid.
The original temple is claimed by some to have been the greatest building of its age, for both its architecture and its ornamentation. It combined key features to form a typically southern Indian plan, such as a thousand-pillared hall (similar to the famous “Aayiram Kaal Mandapam” in Madurai, India) and raised platform (or “jagati”) configuration, features that had been destroyed.
The evidence for this magnificence comes from unearthing the very remnants that were buried, as well as the continued discovery of pieces at the bottom of the bay. There are also some original drawings done by Constantino de Sá de Noronha, the Portuguese governor responsible for the destruction. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that full restoration began, with the main temple rebuilt and many pieces of the old complex reclaimed.
Today the site is reborn, and there is some quite modern construction as well. And as new old pieces are recovered, they too are being returned to their original home.
Know Before You Go
The temple is on the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka, at the very end of Konesar Road. Continue past Fort Frederick (currently an army base, and formerly a British colonial fort) and follow the path lined with shops. You’ll walk through various courtyard shrines, eventually reaching the giant statue of Shiva at the promontory.
The temple requests all visitors to please respect the religious customs and propriety, including appropriate dress. Be prepared to remove your shoes.