March 2010

Lasting Impressions
March 2010

Kurikadduvan jetty

An islet off the Jaffna peninsula is known by the name of Nagadeepa or Nainativu. It is an islet that is shrouded in myth and legend and has a history that spans more than millennia. A place of worship for all communities, even today Nainativu is flocked by devotees who come together to worship at the Nagapooshani Amman Kovil and Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya.

Words: Udeshi Amarasinghe | Photography: Menaka Aravinda & Mahesh Bandara

Nainativu is located at the furthermost corner of the Jaffna peninsula and is reachable only by boat. Having crossed over from the mainland to Punkudutivu islet, we reached the Kurikadduvan jetty around late morning. The causeway linking the islet with the jetty was already streaming with devotees and the jetty itself was crowded with those queuing to catch a boat to Nainativu. It was evident that many had been queuing since morning but since each boat could carry about 50 people, we had no choice but to patiently await our turn.

The crowd was a curious mix of people from all walks of life and since it was a long weekend there were many who had come from around the country to explore this land, of which much had been heard of but remained out of reach for many years. Yet today it is once again accessible for everyone to enjoy. As I looked around at those around me, the colours, the styles of the clothes that they wore which ranged from bright reds and yellows to more sober shades of pastel hues and styles ranging from the more traditional saree to the western skirts and trousers; I could feel a sense of togetherness, an acceptance and the knowledge that we were all heading in the same direction.

My thoughts were disturbed as our boat pulled in front of us. We climbed in hurriedly, excited at the prospect of reaching our destination soon. The boat ride was about 15 minutes. As we neared Nainativu we could see on our right side the Nagapooshani Amman Kovil rising from the distance and on the left hand side the cooling shades of the Bo Tree at the Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya swaying to the strokes of the breeze. From the docking point another pathway led us to the islet and within five minutes we had reached Nainativu. Though the sun was bright, we could not feel the heat because there was a constant breeze keeping us cool as we continued on our exploration.

We quenched our thirst at the shop at the T- junction and headed towards Nagapooshani Amman Kovil. The dust rose as a continuous flow of people walked towards the Kovil. Soon we came across makeshift stalls selling palmyrah jaggery, popcorn, fruits and conch shells that are commonly found in the area...tempted by the sweets but staunch in my resolve to reach the Kovil I walked on. As we neared the Kovil, the sound of Hindu devotional songs relaxed our senses. As we entered the Kovil premises the sidewalk was lined with vendors selling their wares to the weary pilgrim seeking a bite to eat or quench their thirst with a cooling drink. My attention was soon drawn to a stall selling a colourful mix of candies and it was not a surprise to see a group of children trying to decide what they wanted to buy.

The Kovil premises was a hive of activity and a beautiful blur of colour. It was the day after the first Poya (full moon day) of the year and we had arrived on the day that a festival was being held in honour of Goddess Nagapooshani, the patron Goddess of the Kovil. There were men and little children with their heads shaven and women in colourful sarees chanting in reverent devotion to the Goddess.

The Kovil itself stood serenely as a testimony of time overlooking the festival activities where the statue of the Goddess had been placed on the intricately decorated Vel cart. The chanting reached a climax and a group of young men took hold of the large coir ropes and started pulling the cart, their synchronised movements took the form of a reverent resolve as they pulled the cart around the Kovil premises. There were those playing traditional instruments as the cart moved. As I watched, a young man lay down on the ground and rolled on the path following the revered Vel cart in an act of gratitude to the Goddess. Others smashed coconuts on a stone slab to bring good luck and ward off evil.

The beauty of the intricately carved statues and motifs was breathtaking. The use of colour though contrasting, had a blend that gave a defining character to the landscape. As I stepped into the Kovil, a cool breeze swept past, the interior of the premises was as crowded as the outside and there were many with little babies, some were having their ears pierced and others their first haircut while new parents were showing their gratitude to Mother Nagapooshani for blessing them with a child. It is said that the Nagapooshani Amman Kovil is a place of great power and it was evident by the number of people showing their gratitude after their vows had been realised that may be there is something that one could not explain.

I left the Kovil premises and walked along the path that led towards the Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya. The atmosphere was serene and cooling with the sea breeze blowing through. The colours were in stark contrast to the Kovil. Here pastel shades and white were more visible than vibrant shades. The temple was in two sections with the Bo tree facing the sea and the Budhu Gey (shrine room) and Stupa across the road.

Not only Buddhists clad in white but those from other faiths were also paying homage to this temple, which is said to be the site of Lord Buddha's second visit to Sri Lanka. The story goes to say that King Mahodara and Prince Chulodara from the Naga tribe who were father and son-in-law in relationship were preparing to go to war over a gem studded chair after the death of King Mahodara's daughter (who was the wife of Chulodara. The gem studded chair had been given as a wedding gift by her father). Hearing of this impending war, Lord Buddha visited Nagadeepa and resolved the conflict peacefully. It is at this site that the Nagadeepa Temple of today lies.

Near the Bo tree a mural has been done to signify the visit of Lord Buddha. The blowing from the sea and the shade from the revered tree, indeed gives one a sense of peace. While some bring their hands together in prayer, another ties a coin or a flag on a branch as a vow. As I stood near the wall looking out at the sea, I could see the stream of people eagerly walking towards the islet after disembarking from their boats.

The Stupa has been painted in silver, which is uncommon in Sri Lanka. The reason for this being that since the Stupa is made of limestone and is situated close to the sea it is constantly subjected to the salty breeze and thus the silver paint protects the structure from disintegration. The Budhu Gey (shrine room) is a simple yet serene white building characterised by Jaffna architecture. The temple was truly part of the landscape. Thoughtful...I walked a bit further and came across a smaller shrine room. As I stepped in I was engulfed in the serenity heightened by the presence of the bronze Buddha statue within.

Throughout history the Temple and the Kovil have stood together...weathering the storm as one.

Just like the Nagapooshani Amman Kovil, the Nagadeepa Buddhist Temple has stood through time and witnessed the events of the past. Throughout history the Temple and the Kovil have stood together...weathering the storm as one. It is indeed true that unity is strength.

One thing that left a lasting impression on me was that though initially people were curious about our western attire and different mannerisms, once we smiled, their faces would brighten immediately with a smile of acknowledgement.