Exploring the Etymological Strands of the Word “Thiruketheeswaram”

Chandre Dharmawardana

The word stub “ket,”, கேத, in the place name:  Tiru-k-keteeswaram,  திருக்கேதீசுவரம்

In finding a meaning for the component –ket– in Tiru-ket-heesvaram, well known Engineer Thiru Arumugam has quoted an interpretation given in 1849 by Pridham which leans on a mythological tale of Vishnu’s exlir of mortality that fell into the hands of a demon. The demon was said to be cut into two and became Rahu and Ketu (.இராகு கேது) recognized in astrology.  Predham stretches his imagination very far to convert the Tamil -கேத- sound to கேது in finding  an “explanation” or rationalization for the stub  -கேத- found in the place name.

Why would a component of a sinful devil that was cut into two be declared “tiru” or “holy” and also be attached to “Eesvara” himself?  Pridham’s construction is quite contrary to the use of the word “ketu” or “ket” in Tamil which is, as far as I can ascertain, used more with a negative, feeble, descending or wretched sense than with a positive or sacred sense. In fact, this construction by Pridham is probably the only instsance one can find in Tamil usage where a honorific is attached to “Ketu”?.

I think such a construction is not consistent with the use of the word at least as seen in the Madras Tamil Lexicon or the Cologne Tamil (and old Tamil) dictionaries, as far as I can ascertain. That is, tiru is never used with Ketu in Tamil literature as far as I can ascertain. In astrology, in Indian music and even in common parlance “ketu” is usually ascribed to descending or inauspicious associations.

On the other hand “kshetra” is the Sanskrit word for “field”, while it becomes “khetta” in Pali, and transforms to “Ketha”  කෙත with the plural form කෙත් in early Sinhala as well as modern Sinhala. The Tamil language has been in contact with Sanskrit and early Prakrit for millennia, and Tamil too has acquired the same word for the world “field” from those Sanskritic sources. Thus on page 1094 of the Madras Tamil Lexicon we have the entry: …… கேது kētu,  கேது³ kētu n khēt kṣētra Field tract of land especially fit for cultivation விளைநிலம் Loc

Hence it is surprising that Pridham had to churn the depths of the Hindu Purana’s to find a rationalization of the place name. The farmers in the ancient Manthota region, whether they spoke Sinhala or Tamil, or some form of Prakrit understood by everyone including Asoka’s emissary Mahinda, would have had no difficulty with  “Tiru-keth-eesvar” being the God whose  blessing or wrath controls their paddy fields.

Even today, the ancient tanks” of the region (some abandoned) provide a striking testimony to the irrigation hydraulics of Lanka during the pre-Christian era (see the figure).  During that period the Mannar peninsula was the “rice bowl” of Lanka. Of course, as the soil got depleted of mineral nutrients, paddy cultivation moved further inland and southwards.

We may also inquire into the “age” of the legend which has been used by Pridham and quoted by Thiru Arumugam:“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”.

This mythological event is found in the Hindu Puranic texts which are usually dated to the early Sangam period, while the myths are certainly older. However, there is evidence to believe that the North, and indeed the Manthota area could have been populated by Tamil Buddhists or Sinhalese Buddhists, Hindus, Jains or those who worshipped Naaga (God Natha).

The Hinduism of the era was surely not the high Saivite Hinduism of Sanskrit, but closer to the animistic Murugan of South India and Naaka worship centered around Naagapura (Naak-ur → Nallur). However, the ordinary rural farmer, irrespective of whether he/she is nominally Buddhist, Hindu or other, believed more in local harvest gods. This is true even today, in the dry zone of Sri Lanka where Daedimunda, Mahaasone, Kali Ammi, Kattavarayan, and others of their ilk remain powerful. Even the Buddha has been made into a local manifestation as “Ayian” and Aiyanar”.



See  An Historical, Political, and Statistical Account of Ceylon and Its Dependencies, Volume 1

Front Cover
T. and W. Boone, 1849 – Sri Lanka – – https://books.google.com.au/books/about/An_Historical_Political_and_Statistical.html?id=O4aqHOMSJdYC&redir_esc=y


Leave a comment

Filed under ancient civilisations, architects & architecture, art & allure bewitching, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, demography, economic processes, ethnicity, heritage, Hinduism, historical interpretation, Indian religions, Indian traditions, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, pilgrimages, religiosity, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil migration, the imaginary and the real, transport and communications, travelogue, world events & processes

Leave a Reply