Thiruketheeswaram: the Site of a Temple from Pre-Historic Times

Thiru Arumugam, being an article presented recently in The CEYLANKAN, Journal of the Ceylon Society of Australia. No. 3, August 2021

Thiruketheeswaram is located about eight km north of Mannar Town. It is on the coastal mainland of Ceylon, near the seashore on the direct coast road from Mannar to Jaffna. It has been the site of a Temple dedicated to Siva from pre-historic times. The place name of Thiru-Kethu-Iswaram has been devised as follows.  ‘Thiru’ means sacred or holy and “Iswaran” is another name for Siva. As regards ‘Kethu’, Charles Pridham in his 1849 book A Historical, Political and Statistical account of Ceylon and its Dependencies describes how the gods asked Vishnu to prepare an elixir which would make them immortal. The elixir was prepared by churning the oceans but a demon who was a bystander also managed to drink the elixir. When Vishnu realised this, he cut off the demon’s head, but he was too late as the elixir had already made him immortal. The two parts became Rahu and Kethu, which are significant planets in the Hindu astrological system. In order to propitiate his sin, Kethu (Fig. 1) wandered from place to place and ultimately reached the shores of Lanka. He performed severe penances and he   was ultimately blessed with the Lord’s vision and the place where this occurred was named Thiru-Kethu-Iswaram or Thiruketheeswaram.

Mandodari was the wife of Ravanna. Her father Mayan was a descendant of Visvakarma, the progenitor of the tribe of artisans. The legendary belief is that Mayan built the temple at figThiruketheeswaram for daily worship by his daughter.

Fig. 1 Kethu

Paul E Pieris, the eminent Historian and Civil Servant, was the first Asian to be admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge where he finally obtained a D. Litt degree. In a Paper presented to the Royal Asiatic Society in Colombo in 1917 (Vol. XXVI, No. 70) he stated that a temple existed at Thiruketheeswaram before Vijaya arrived in Lanka in the sixth century BC. “Long before the arrival of Vijaya there was in Lanka five recognised Iswarams of Siva which claimed and received adoration of all India. These were Thiruketheeswaram near Mahathittha, Muneswaram dominating Salawatte and the pearl fishery, Tondeswaram near Mantota, Tirukoneswaram near the great bay of Kottiyar and Naguleswaram near Kankesanturai”.

The Poet Mailvaganam in about 1736 wrote the book “Yalpana Vaipava Malai” which is a record of the historical traditions of Jaffna. He confirms that Vijaya was a great temple builder and re-built the temple at Thiruketheeswaram. “He (Vijaya Raja) was a staunch worshipper of Siva, and began his reign by dedicating his city to that god and building four Sivalayams as a protection for the four quarters of his infant kingdom. In the east he erected Konesar Koyil at Thampala-kamam; in the west he re-built Thiruk-kethichchuran Koyil; in the south he raised Santhirasekaran Koyil at Mathurai; and in the north he constructed Thiruth-thampa-lesuran Koyil at Thiruth-thampalai at the foot of Keerimalai”.

 The adjacent ancient Port City of Matoddam

Adjacent to Thiruketheeswaram at the sea outfall of the Palavi river was the ancient Port City of Matoddam, also called Mahatittha. This was one of the largest ports in ancient Ceylon and was a port of call for ships from all over the world. When Vijaya got down his bride from India she is believed to have disembarked at this port with her retinue. B J Perera, the eminent historian, describes the port as follows in an article in the Ceylon Historical Journal, January 1952: “Although Mahatittha (Matoddam) is first mentioned in connection with the landing of Vijaya’s second wife, there is no doubt it was used as a port by the Tamils long before the Aryan settlement of Ceylon. The existence of the Temple of Thiruketheeswaram, the origin of which is not covered by any existing historical records, is an indication of the antiquity of this port. Indeed, Mahatittha is the only port in the Island which can be called a buried city. Today the site of the port, presents a vast mound of piled up ruins in which coins and beads are laid bare by every shower of rain. The ruins of Roman pottery, coins and articles of foreign origin found here, are the first definite evidence to prove that Mahatittha was a great port in the early centuries of the Christian era”. The writer can personally vouch for this as a schoolboy he has personally collected in the 1940s, pottery shards, beads and even uncut semi-precious stones at this site. To continue B J Perera’s quotation:

“ … judging from the regular references to this port in literary works belonging to different periods we may infer that it continued to be the chief port for Rajarata up to the end of the 12th century. There is not the least doubt that the great emporium of trade referred to by Cosmos was Mahatittha. The testimony of Cosmos relating to the importance of Mahatittha is attested to by finds of different types and forms of pottery from Rome, Arabia and China”.

Visitors to Matoddam from the West came from Rome, Arabia, Persia, Phoenicia, Ethiopia, and Greece and from the East they came from China, Java and Burma. There were also many Indian visitors. They came not only to purchase pearls and gems from Ceylon but also to trade goods with other foreign visitors to the port.

By about the 15th century the decline of the popularity of the port began. The ports in Galle and Colombo were expanding and attracting foreign shipping. Additional problems were caused by cyclones silting up the Gulf of Mannar. As a result, foreign ships with a large draught could no longer navigate the Gulf of Mannar and they went to Pamban in India. Nowadays the sea adjacent to Thiruketheeswaram is completely silted up and is very shallow and the port city of Matoddam, famous for centuries, has disappeared with hardly a trace of its former existence.

Indian sages extol the glories of Thiruketheeswaram

In the seventh century AD a resurgence in the practice of Hinduism commenced in South India, as Jainism gradually faded away. The resurgence was spearheaded by 63 Sages or “Nayanmars” who traversed the land holding discourses, giving lectures and talks, composing and singing hymns and holding prayer meetings. Among these Sages was Thiru Jnana Sampanthar who composed 384 cantos of religious verses. One of these cantos of eleven verses was devoted exclusively to Thiruketheeswaram. The verses describe in detail the city of Matoddam and the temple at Thiruketheeswaram on the banks of the Palavi River. The descriptions are so detailed that it appears that the Sage visited the temple.

Another one of the 63 Sages was Sundaramoorthy who lived in the ninth century AD. He composed about a hundred cantos of religious verses, one of which contains ten verses devoted exclusively to Thiruketheeswaram. These verses also describe Matoddam and Thiruketheeswaram in detail. An interpretation of Verse 10 of his Thiruketheeswaram canto commences as follows:

O glistening city of Matoddam, plentiful and abundant,

            Where the darkly shimmering sea embraces the land.

            In the vibrant gardens, bees echo melodious harps.

            There in Thiruketheeswaram, the divine Lord resides …

The net result of these compositions was that Thiruketheeswaram Temple became well known in South India and attracted visits from many pilgrims in the Middle Ages.

 Portuguese era

The Portuguese arrived in the western areas of Ceylon in 1505 and began their temporal and spiritual conquest of Ceylon. When they heard about the pearls which were being harvested in the pearl fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar, they moved northwards in 1540. In 1560 they started building a Fort in Mannar Town. By 1590 they had established a foothold in the Jaffna Peninsula and Thiruketheeswaram was also under their suzerainty. They then started demolishing all the temples in the regions under their control and it is believed that the temple in Thiruketheeswaram was demolished by them at about this time. Stones from the demolished Temple were taken to extend the Portuguese Fort in Mannar Town.

Hugh Nevill (1847-97) was a member of the Ceylon Civil Service. He published a Journal called “The Taprobanian” and collected Ceylonese artefacts. About half the items in the Ceylon Collection in the British Museum originated from the Hugh Nevill collection. In an article in his Journal written in December 1887 titled “Mantota, its Temple and ancient Trade” he wrote: “This city [Matoddam] was a great emporium, the population of which mainly belonged to the Kadiyar race, when it attracted the cupidity of the Portuguese … The trade of the port was then shattered, and when the Portuguese finally destroyed Tamil rule in 1590, the old port [Matoddam] was abandoned in favour of Mannar which could be defended by the shallow channel between it and the mainland, from a sudden surprise by land. When they finally took possession, they sacked and burned the city of Mantotte, and razed its ancient Temple to the ground”.

The net result was that for the first time since pre-historic times there was no temple in Thiruketheeswaram, a situation that continued to exist for the next 300 years.

Revival of Thiruketheeswaram

Arumuga Navalar (1822-1879), who was born in Jaffna, started a revival movement. Among his many activities was a campaign to rebuild temples which had been destroyed earlier. He brought to public attention the existence of Thiruketheeswaram, the site of an ancient temple now covered by the jungle tide. As a result, an application was made to the Government Agent to release the land, which was Crown land, for rebuilding of the temple. Sir William Twynam, the Government Agent, Jaffna, decided to visit the site and see the place himself. He visited the site on 22 May 1887 and made the following observations in his diary: “From Mantai went first to the site of the ruins of the ancient temple Tiriketchuram. The ruins of the ancient temple should I think be explored and the matter is one that I believe deserving the attention of the Government … For years past people have been groping amongst the ruins for coins, jewellery, the remains of riches of the ancient temple … I have now come to the opinion from what I saw today that the Government should not dispose of the site until it has been thoroughly explored under the supervision of some competent person”.

There was, however, no ‘competent person’ to carry out this exploration at that time as H C P Bell was appointed later in 1890 as the first Archaeological Commissioner and Head of the new Archaeological Survey of Ceylon, and initially limited his field of work to Anuradhapura.

With growing pressure from the general public, Government Agent Twynam finally decided to hold a public auction at the Jaffna Kachcheri on 13 December 1893, to sell the tract of 44 acres of Crown land comprising the original temple site and surrounding ruins. The land was sold to the highest bidder, R R Palanyappa Chettiar for just over 3000 Rupees, he had raised the money by public subscription.

 Exploration of the site

The purchasers did not waste time and in January 1894 S T M Pasupathy Chettiyar set out to the site to begin exploration. He was supported in his activities by the Saiva Paripalana Sabhai,            an organisation whose Objects included “ … to establish, repair and renovate Saiva temples”. The first objective was to find the exact location of the ancient temple. A team of 300 labourers was engaged and excavations began. Over a period of six months they traced the foundation walls of the original temple. The foundation was of granite and it appeared that the walls had been of limestone with the upper portions in brickwork. The remains of an ancient well were also found.

Fig 2 Somaskanda

They also found an ancient granite cylindrical Lingam. This is an abstract or aniconic representation of Siva and an emblem of generative and destructive power. An ancient granite Nandhi was also found, this is a seated bull which is the gate guardian of the abode of Siva. It is generally found at the entrance to temples and faces the deity. Among the other finds was  an ancient granite statue of Ganesha and an exquisite bronze image of Siva and his consort made in Chola style and attributed to the 14th century (Fig. 2).

The Lingam that was found could not be used in the holy of holies in a new temple because it had been desecrated when the temple was destroyed 300 years earlier. Across the Palk Straits opposite Talaimannar there is in India a very large famous temple in Rameswaram. The authorities there became aware of the situation in Thiruketheeswaram and generously donated an ancient Lingam which they had obtained from Benares. This Lingam was installed in a small temporary temple built in Thiruketheeswaram on the exact location of the historic ancient temple and consecrated on 28 June 1903.

John Still, author of the well-known book “The Jungle Tide”, was Assistant Archaeological Commissioner and in 1907 he carried out some excavations at Thiruketheeswaram. He reported on his findings in Government Sessional Papers of 1911: “A great feature of the place is the stretch of sand hillocks on the eastern side of the principal ruins. This space is bare of scrub and is absolutely covered with debris, a little brick and very few tiles: but quantities of pottery, glazed and unglazed, glass of various colours, chank shells and ornaments made from them are to be had for the trouble of picking them up … Thiruketheeswaram offers the most promising field of research if excavations could be carried down deep, and over a considerable area”.

A fund-raising campaign was started to build a permanent temple and construction work started a few years later. This was completed and on 20 June 1910 a permanent temple was consecrated on the site of the ancient temple. Thus, the temple which was demolished in 1589 was resuscitated; but the humble beginnings of 1903 and the unpretentious temple of 1910 still remained to be built into a major temple, comparable with its former glory.

A M Hocart, Archaeological Commissioner, carried out investigations at Thiruketheeswaram from 1925 to 1928. The report on his findings is in the Ceylon Journal of Science dated 01 February 1928: “Excavation on a large scale than had been possible were begun in June 1926 at Mantai or Thiruketheeswaram, the Mahatittha of the Mahawamsa. This mound is the best accumulation of debris so far known in Ceylon and should yield a complete chronological series of pots, beads and other antiquities. As so far nothing more has been done to scratch the surface, it is too early to say anything about the site” (My emphasis).

Palavi – an ancient water course reclaimed

 It is customary for most major Hindu temples to be adjacent to water, either the sea, river, lake or tank. The hymns of the seventh century sages described Thiruketheeswaram temple as being on the banks of the Palavi River. At Thiruketheeswaram in the early twentieth century there was no such body of water to be seen and furthermore fresh water was in short supply in the dry season when the wells went dry.

One day in 1948 a search party, which included a water diviner, set out from the temple and walked around the surrounding scrub jungle to find a source of water. When the group were on a small mound about a kilometre south of the temple, the water diviner said that there was water underground. When they cleared the scrub, they found that they were standing on the crest of an earth dam which had been wilfully demolished, probably at the same time as the demolition of the temple in the sixteenth century.

Fig. 3 Palavi Tank

Sanmugam Arumugam was the Divisional Irrigation Engineer, Northern Province at that time and Thiruketheeswaram came under his purview. He initiated the task of restoring the breached dam and all work was completed in January 1949. The resulting Palavi Tank (lake), restored after more than 350 years, can be seen in Fig. 3. Maha Sivarathri is the most important festival of the year in the Temple and the Palavi Tank plays an important role in the festival. Thousands of pilgrims bathe in the Tank and fill pots of water which they take to the Temple and pour over the principal deity.

Temple Restoration Society formed

 In October 1948 the Thiruketheeswaram Temple Restoration Society (TTRS) was formed. It is this Society that was responsible for carrying out all major construction and improvements to the Temple since then. Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan was in the Ceylon Civil Service and was Permanent Secretary to three Prime Ministers. He was later appointed as a Senator and a Minister. In 1952 he became the President of TTRS, and held this post until his sudden passing away in 1965. During his period of Presidentship major improvements to the Temple were undertaken. Under his stewardship by 1960 granite shrines were constructed for Siva, his consort Gowri, Ganesha and several other minor shrines in the inner temple premises were completed.

Fig. 4 Bell Tower

Progress in the 1960s

By 1960 the new shrines mentioned in the previous paragraph were completed and the consecration ceremonies were held on 31 October 1960. A belfry tower was also erected for the temple bell. The bell was cast in England and is four feet in diameter and the gross assembly weighs two tons. On a still day, the temple bell can be heard at a distance of about three or four kilometres. The bell and its tower were erected in 1961 and can be seen in Fig. 4.

In 1962 a Gurukulam or training centre for priests was inaugurated. This was the only one of its kind in the country and previously those who wished to train as priests had to go to India for the required training. Brahmin youths of Senior School Certificate standard were recruited to follow the residential course. Initially the course took five years but it was subsequently shortened. The centre continued its work for more than two decades.

The Raja Gopuram or Temple Tower is at the main entrance to the temple and is the tallest tower in the temple. In the case of Thiruketheeswaram this is on the eastern side and it has five tiers. Construction of this tower started in the early 1960s and it was completed and consecrated in 1968, It rises to a height of over 15 metres above the gateway structure. This can be seen in Fig. 5.

Fig  5 Main Gopuram

 Progress in the 1970s

 In 1971 work started on the construction of new main shrines for Siva and his consort Gowri. The shrines included Vimanams (Towers) constructed above the shrines. Initially these towers and the decorative mouldings were made of cement and stucco, but the foundations of the shrines were made strong enough for later conversion of the towers to granite construction.

In 1974 R Namasivayam was appointed Secretary of the Temple Restoration Society. During the following years he worked very hard on the restoration and expansion of the temple. Sixteen subsidiary shrines were also constructed and the consecration of all the new construction, including the two new main shrines, was done on 04 July 1976.

Fig 6 Siva Nataraja

During this period several bronze icons were cast at the site by artisans from India. A typical example can be seen in Fig. 6 and is Siva and his consort in the well-known form of Nataraja in the dance of creation.

Progress in the 1980s

Work on the third phase of the reconstruction of the temple started on 28 April 1983. A team of 14 sculptors (granite) and 7 sculptors (stucco) was engaged for this work, they were all from Tamil Nadu. Their work program was planned by the Government College of Architecture and Sculpture, Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu. This phase of the restoration involved building of a large granite hall (Maha Mandapam) at the entrance to the main shrines, embodying niches, motifs, pilasters and other ornamental embellishments. The niches were to house stone images.

Progress was slow, however, due to the conflict situation in the country. All work came to a standstill in 1990 when the entire area was declared a high security zone and all temple activities including temple services came to a standstill.

 Stage 1 of the New Restoration Works

In June 2003 the temple premises were handed back to the temple authorities, but with limited access to the public. From 2009 onwards, open access of the temple to the public was possible and temple reconstruction activities resumed.

In 2011 the Government of India gave an outright grant of 3.2 million US dollars towards improvement of the temple. The funds were used for materials and skilled labour for completing the hall, work on which was started in the 1980s. One hundred stone pillars and carvings were done at the School of Architecture and Sculpture in Mahabalipuram, South India. The carvings included several life-size stone sculptures. The entire consignment of stonework required 140 containers for shipment from India to the temple site. Work started in 2012 and in 2015 there were 27 sculptors and stonemasons from India at work on this project. By 2017 all work was substantially complete. Fig. 7 shows the completed hall with stone pillars and carvings.

Fig 7. Stone Pillars

 Stage 2 of the New Restoration Works

The second stage of the new restoration works included building granite stone Vimanams (Towers) above the shrines of Siva (see Fig. 8) and his consort Gowri (see Fig. 9). Also included were 30 new minor shrines, all built in granite stone. At one stage, 40 sculptors from India were working on this project. This work was funded by public donations and the total cost was estimated at Rs 417 million. The work was substantially completed in 2020, but the consecration ceremonies have not yet been held at the time of writing due to travel restrictions imposed because of the Covid pandemic.

This is the present situation of the temple at Thiruketheeswaram, the site of a temple from the pre-historic times of Ravanna. As substantial sections of the temple have now been built with granite stone, which has a design life of a thousand years, the long term future of the temple is assured.

Fig 8 Siva Vimanam Fig. 9 Amman Vimanam

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A NOTE: Acknowledgement is made for the use of material from the third edition of the book titled “Thiruketheeswaram: One of the Pancha-Iswarams of Ancient Sri Lanka” by Sanmugam Arumugam, et alii, 2020. The book is available from all branches of Amazon including Amazon Australia. It was briefly Amazon’s No. 1 best-seller in the category of Books about Sri Lanka History.


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2 responses to “Thiruketheeswaram: the Site of a Temple from Pre-Historic Times

  1. chandre DW

    Thanks. The entry that I have had on my place-names website ( ) for sometime now reads as follows: Thiruketheeswaram, Thiruketheeshvaram, Tiruketheeswaram, Ketheesvaram (temple) (Mannarama [Mannar])

    Ancient Buddhist site, listed by Archaeo. Dep. Somasiri, Annual Report: 1982.
    A stone pillar inscription in Sinhala by King Sena III (9 CE) is found here
    Although the existence of an ancient Hindu Temple with a Shiva Lingam has been persistently claimed by Nationalist Tamil writers no archeological confirmation or literary evidence has so far become available (as far as I know)..

    Etymologically Thiruketheesvarm, or Siri-Keth-Eesvaram refers to the lord (Eesvara) of plentiful paddy fields (Siri-Keth), and indeed, the Manthota to Anuradhapura region was probably the first historical region to see large scale construction of irrigation tanks (“Vaapi, Vewa, kulama”), e.g., Yodha vewa, initially known as (Manawatu vewa) where by this became the initial “rice bowl” of ancient Ceylon. King Washabha [vaasa+ abhaya] of the 1st century or late 2nd century BC had built 11 tanks in this region. Hence it is very likely that there was a local shrine to the gods to ensure rain and a good harvest. The temple of the “lord (i.e., Isvara)” of the paddy fields was Siri -Keth-Ishvara, which is a natural meaning in sinhalese. Even today there are such regional shrines and deities who ensure bountiful harvests or “Siri-Keth”.

    While Rameshvaram as well as the Skandha temple (at Kathirkamam) in the south of Sri Lanka are alluded to, no mention of the existence of a Hindu Temple here is found in the early Tamil literature of that period, e.g., of the Sangam period. Furthermore, there was much contact between the Sinhala monks of the Anuradhapura period, and the Tamil Buddhist and Jain scholars of South India, and no mention of a Saiva temple is mentioned until the time of Manikkavasagar (8th century CE) who according to the Saiva Puranas had participated in debates with Buddhist scholars in Cinkalam. British scholars too examined the question, and H. C. P. Bell in 1907 recorded that “some wealthy Tamils in search of the reputed ‘Lingam’ used 300 workmen for six months with the help of a soothsayer but found none except for some Buddhist objects”. This is also reported by Hocart in 1927. However, Nanacampanandtar (aka Thiru-Gnanasampanthar), the Saiva stalwart/Saint offers hymns to the Ketheesvaram temple and also to the Koneswarm temple at Gokanna. This is the earliest literary reference (7th century CE) to Ketheevaram temple found in the Tamil literature. Hence it is likely that the Ketheevaram Hindu temple came into being, or became significant only mainly after the rise of the Pandya Royal family. They were converted to Hinduism by Gnanasampanthar (7th century CE). The Edict of King Sena (9th century CE) is near by, and it should be noted that both the Sinhalese texts Nikaayasangrahaya and the Raajaratnakaraya record that King Sena was greatly influence by Hinduism, and indeed, very possibly by Mankikavaasagar on one of his visits to Cinkalam, the name used for Lanka in the Cankam literature. However, it should be noted that at that time, the sort of politicized antagonism between Hinduism and Buddhism that exists today due to Eelamist land claims did not exist then. Besides Theravadha Buddhism, there were other fusion forms of Buddhism and Hinduism like the Pasupathi Budhist cult that was powerful at the Keeramaili temple (see our write up on it).

    The old Hindu temple which may have originated during the time of Pandyan hegemony in South India (7th century CE) was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1589. The new Temple was built only in 1976

    The Buddhist ruins that have been found at this site are all pre-10th century.

    Thiruketheeswaram train station, rehabilitated in 2014 after its destruction by the LTTE during the Eelam wars


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  2. Pingback: Exploring the Etymological Strands of the Word “Thiruketheeswaram | Thuppahi's Blog

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