A couple making a vow at the Temple
A devotee lies prostrate on the ground, while a few metres away the Poosari (Hindu priest), reciting a prayer, rubs his red-coloured thumb on the forehead of a woman. Trishaws, buses and cars stop; the drivers jump out, drop a few coins into a till, whisper a prayer for a safe journey, rub their foreheads with the red paste and go on their way.
Words Feizal Samath Photography M. A. Pushpakumara
Nestling at the foot of jungle-shrouded hills, by a softly gurgling stream with a gentle wind rustling the leaves, the quaint Sita Amman Kovil lures man, woman and child to tread down the misty corridors of time. It is believed to be the only temple in the world dedicated to Goddess Sita (or Seetha).
It is here that Lanka's Demon-King Ravana, according to Asia's very own spell-binding epic, the Ramayana, kept the lovely Sita against her wishes, after abducting her from India. The temple with intricately-carved sculptures and colourful paintings has attracted mostly Indians, a number that has been growing over the years.
Part of the increase in the Indian presence is due to an emotional visit to this ‘historic' temple by devotees of both Vaishnavism and Shaivism, two of the four most widely followed sects of Hinduism, which revere God Vishnu and God Shiva, respectively. They come from all parts of the world sometimes on the trail of Ramayana.
Nippy winds blow across the Temple, where statues of Rama along with Sita, his brother Lakshmana and Hanuman (the monkey king) are placed in inner chambers. On the Temple's façade, prominent among the many sculptures is that of Hanuman greeting devotees with folded palms, while paintings of the Ramayana adorn the awnings.
When we visited the Temple, the priest was performing rituals for dozens of devotees, including a young, unmarried couple who were making a vow, by tying a cloth to a tree in the premises. Sharma performs poojas (rituals and offerings to the deities) separately for the devotees. One such group was praying at the shrine of Hanuman, covered in a garland of betel leaves, and a bunch of bananas and a garland of flowers at the deity's feet.
According to the legend, Dasharatha was the king of Ayodhya and the father of Rama. He had three queens, Kausalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra, and together they had three other sons: Bharata, Lakshmana and Shatrughna. Rama was the declared heir but Kaikeyi demanded that such an honour should be given to her son Bharata. Rama is forced into exile along with wife Sita and was joined by his brother Lakshmana.
During this period, Ravana, King of Lanka, smitten by Sita and disguised as an ascetic approached her. She was inaccessible as she stayed within a protective circle. When, however, the ascetic offered her water, lulled into a false sense of security, she stepped out of the circle. Seeing his chance, Ravana, grabbed the earth underneath her and forcibly brought her to Lanka. Distraught Sita dropped her jewellery, piece by piece, laying clear the kidnap-trail for Rama to follow.
Imprisoned in the jungle bordering this temple, Sita is said to have bathed at the stream. Large depressions on nearby rocks resembling paw-prints, washed away by the sands of time, are said to be those of Monkey King Hanuman, sent by Rama to rescue Sita, believed to be a reincarnation of Goddess Lakshmi.
In a subsequent battle, Rama conquered Ravana and rescued Sita. About 15km from the Kovil, lies the Divirumpola Buddhist Temple where Sita is said to have undergone ‘Agni Pariksha' (test of purity), to prove her chastity through a trial by fire, coming out unscathed.
The Sita Amman kovil Is the only temple in the world dedicated to Goddess Sita
Prof. Sivasubramaniam Pathmanadan, a veteran Sri Lankan historian, says the Sita Amman Kovil is all about belief and faith but, in his view, has little historic significance.
"The etymology of Sita Eliya arises out of seetha (cold) and eliya (space) and not because an event took place at this location. People believe (and have faith) that there was such an event (arrival of Sita)," he said.
Nevertheless the faithful flock in their numbers to what is now considered one of the most venerated sites for Hindus. Local Hindus who are also followers of both sects also visit this temple.
Sita Eliya, where the temple is located, is a small town of around 1,000 comprising of Sinhalese and Tamil families.
In this laidback town of Sita Eliya, belief and legend is a way of life and its renown extends beyond the reaches of the Island.