Swami Rock and Koneswaram temple (කෝනේස්වරම් කෝවිල)

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There are some five or six magnificent harbours in the world and Trincomalee is one of them”. So declared historian H.W. Cave who goes on to describe its perfect location in the north-east of the island, facing the Bay of Bengal and the whole eastern coast of India. The entrance, which faces southeast, is guarded by two projecting headlands, approaching to within about seven hundred yards of each other and when it is borne in mind that the monsoons blow from the north-east and south-west, the importance of this feature is obvious. Its unmatchable charms

have not been forgotten in his description and he says; that its rocky headlands have a beautiful effect on the landscape, which is made up of placid expanses of water dotted with wooded islets that seem to float on its surface, rich tropical forest covering the acclivities that border its coasts, and a distant background of lofty mountains..

He further describes the form of the harbour as irregular, with the numerous indents of its coastline supplying many a charming feature. Some of the islands are romantic in appearance as well as in associations and notable amongst them is Sober Island, once the favorite resort of the officers of the East Indies squadron.

In size, it is also the world’s fifth largest natural harbor. The natural port, its strategic importance, and its magnificent features have been described by many writers, travelers, and historians. Another writer says, in the Handbook for the Ceylon Traveler, that the waters contained at Trincomalee are many miles across and the harbor is sequestered into bays nudging deeply into the land. There is Cod Bay, Yard Cove Bay, China Bay, Sober Islands, and, far on the other side of the larger Sober Island, is the French pass, a strait through which the French Fleet sailed to escape as the English naval force entered.

Today, due to security reasons, Trincomalee hides most of its many attractions. We only hear of the bewitching Tambalagamam Bay, where once you could have dived for window pane oysters — described as being as wide and shallow as a dessert plate. Others include captivating, cloistered coves named Dead Man’s Cove, Sweet Bay, Coral Cove, and Back Bay all of which have been declared to be delightful experiences.

It is also here that Lanka’s longest and largest river, the Mahaveli, which springs from the central hills enters the sea at Mutur south of Circular Bay.

Trincomalee’s ancient history is more mystery and legend and sometimes highly debated. On the eastern promontory is the famous Swami rock on which stands the celebrated Koneswaram temple. It is believed that on this same holy spot stood a very ancient great Pagoda or the kovil kovil of 1,000 pillars, which was destroyed in the 17th century by the Portuguese.

It is documented that Constantine de Sa demolished the glorious Koneswaram temple with its “thousand columns” in 1624. De Queyroz, the Portuguese historian not only describes the exact location of the temple but goes further by describing it as the ” Rome of the Orient more frequented by pilgrims than Rameshwaram or Jeganath in Orissa”. The Pallavas, the Pandyans, and Cholas were closely associated with the building, repairs, extensions, and endowments of the Koneswaram kovil.

An ancient phallus retrieved by an underwater explorer is believed to have belonged to that ancient shrine.

Some believe that King Panduvasdeva (5th Century BC) founded the imposing Buddhist temple on the rock of Trincomalee (now known as Swami rock). In ancient times Trincomalee was known as Gokanna. Among its many references in history, King Dutugemunu is said to have built many viharas and monasteries at Gokuranna. King Mahasena ( 3rd Century AD), noted for his feats of tank building is said to have constructed many tanks in this region.

The first stupa built on the Gokarangiri rock which has been identified as the present Fort Fredrick or Swami rock was named as Gokaranna Vihara. And a village nearby was called Gokannagama.

One interesting legend regarding this area celebrates King Ravana who, when his mother was ailing, wanted to remove the temple of Koneswaram. As he was heaving the rock God Siva made him drop his sword. As a result of this, a cleft was created on the rock, which is today called Ravana Vettu-meaning Ravana’s Cleft.

How it came to be called Trincomalee has also been debated. Some believe that due to its being surrounded by hills (malai) having the shape of a triangle (thri-kona) it was called Trikonamalai meaning three-cornered hill and thus Trincomalee. However, most have lovingly referred to it as Trinco.

Trincomalee, due to its strategic port, also boasts of a most enthusiastic foreign interest dominion and control. The first recorded with Europeans was the landfall made in 1617 by a Dutch sponsored Danish vessel.

In 1775 a teenage midshipman named Horatio Nelson arrived in Trincomalee harbour aboard the HMS Sea Horse. Later as admiral of the British Navy, he remembered it as “the finest harbour in the world”.

The port switched hands back and forth among the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French until 1795. The Portuguese built the original fort in 1624. When the British finally secured a grip on Trincomalee under Colonel Steuart it was England’s first territorial grip on Ceylon.

During the Second World War, Trincomalee harbor was the home base for the combined East Asian fleets of all the Allied powers. It remained a British royal base for many years after. The Japanese staged an all-out air assault on the harbor on April 8, 1942

Today the historic Fort Fredrick, built in 1803 and named after Fredrick Duke of York, stands as a monument to the glory and tragedy of Trincomalee.

Near the main gate of the Fort, a stone slab has been engraved and fixed on the wall. A pair of fish, a symbol of the South Indian Pandyan Kingdom, appears on it. An inscription is said to predict the conquering of Trincomalee by the Franks.

If only pillars could talk

Controversy exists as to the origins of the granite pillar which stands on the summit of Swami rock in Trincomalee.

The debate rages as to whether it is a monument to a tragic love affair of the seventeenth century, or something simple, unromantic, and for a practical purpose. Whatever is said or thought you will no doubt see it standing a silent sentinel on the side of the Sri Koneswarnam kovil. You will, no doubt, be touched by its aloofness as it broods almost absently into the distant ocean. What day and age does it represent and what memories does it recall? If only pillars could talk.

Legend has it that the ornate pillar was erected by a broken-hearted Dutch father in memory of his daughter who committed suicide after being abandoned by her lover. It is believed that she leaped off the rock into the swirling sea below, in the path of the ship that was taking her lover, a young Dutch officer, away. Hence the spot was popularly referred to as ‘Lovers Leap.’

There is a historical record that the stone pillar so erected on this spot is supposed to have borne the Dutch inscription – Erected in memory of Francina Van Rhede in 1687, but the pillar that is there now does not bear any such inscription.

More than two centuries later an Englishman who investigated the story recorded, in a book titled ‘History of Trincomalee’, that after further inquiry about the mysterious lady, it appeared that there was definite proof that she had married twice after the date allegedly inscribed on the monument viz husband died in 1693 and she married again in 1694 and she had had several children whose names are on record.

However, there is another opinion — that the pillar in question was not erected in memory of any romantic dead woman, but erected to be used as a lamppost, for deep sea fishermen who returned home after dark and who guided themselves to shore with the aid of this lamp.

Still, others believe that the pillar was one of the pillars belonging to the ancient kovil that was destroyed in 1624 by the Portuguese.

In 1950 workers of the Urban Council when digging a public well discovered three statues all of which were found upside down. It is believed that these were statues that were held in veneration at the old temple.

Also See

Map of  Swami Rock and Koneswaram Kovil

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Travel Directions to Koneswaram Kovil

Route from Colombo to Koneswaram Kovil – Trincomalee Route from Anuradhapura to Koneswaram Kovil – Trincomalee
Though : Kurunegala – Dambulla – Habarana – Kanthale – Trincomalee
distance :275 km
Travel time : 6-7 hours.
Driving directions : see on google map
Though : Halmillewa – Horowpatana – Trincomalee
distance :110 km
Travel time : 2 hour
Driving directions : see on google map

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