Buddhist Hindu bi-cultural life Sri Lanka
Sri Ponnambalavaneswarar Hindu temple (Kovil), has always been referred to as the “Gal Kovila” (literal translation: “Stone Kovil”) in my family’s short hand. The term is most likely due to the granite which is the primary material used in its construction. The granite exterior is matched by the restrained exquisite stonework inside which gives the feeling of an ancient yet timeless structure.
The Kovil is located in Kochchikade just outside Colombo fort — across Srimath Ramanathan Road from the harbour.
Typical for Colombo, it is a short walk from the Dutch era St. Anthony’s Church and a Mosque. Visiting this Kovil (also referred to as the Ramanathan Kovil) meant a Puja of special significance. Getting there was not a casual pilgrimage and involves navigating the Pettah/Fort area traffic which everyone other than me thinks constitutes an arduous journey.
This Kovil has featured significantly in major events in my family history. Without going into specifics, the immediate connection is through our Jaffna Brahmin relative though I suspect there’s more history in that link than I know. The most recent visit was for a Navagraha Puja (literal translation: 9 planet puja) deemed essential due to negative astrological influences that I was supposed to be facing. Interestingly the Navagraha Puja recommendation came from a non Hindu astrologer. The astrologer’s forecast got both parents into a panic. My father swiftly phoned the Kurukkal (chief priest) for the necessary arrangements. I went along for the sake of my parents’ peace of mind — knowing full well that if I didn’t they would drive me crazy with their own anxiety.
The Navagrapha Puja is a feature that has marked significant events in the family. My mother had gone through this ritual when she was pregnant with me. I remember going through it as a child in the Kovil premises — exactly when I can’t remember — possibly prior to the O’ Levels. When my parents built their house, we had priests from this Kovil carry out a blessing — part of which involved a Navagrapha Puja.
We arrive early in the late afternoon and our contact shows us a well shaded spot to hide the chariot. There are few last minute purchases at street side shops on the frenzy of Srimath Ramanathan Road. It’s a sharp contrast to the peace and quiet of the Kovil premises.
Priest performing the Puja meets us exactly on time and we walk in to the temple. It seems to be the day for personal Pujas. Along the interior wall of the temple are smaller alters/shrines where family groups seems to be having personal audiences with the divine led by solitary priests. We are led to central area of the kovil where the accoutrements for the Navagraha Puja are laid out. Around me are several other Navagraha Pujas are already in progress.
I’m familiar with the etiquette which boils down to sit down, shut up and don’t fidget. There is a lot of chanting and incense that induces its share of spluttering coughs from me. Then there are a few visits the smaller shrines along the interior walls of the temple. Everything culminates with several pots of spice laced water being poured over me. Afterwards I towel off in the car and change into a dry shirt. The shower will come when we get home. My father is chatting to the priest in the gloom of the post sunset twilight.
Eventually we crawl on to the human swirl of Ramanathan Road. Its gloomy and spot lit by the lights of street side shops. St. Anthony’s glows in a pool of light foaming with humans. Just the sort of thing a national geographic/travel documentary maker would get excited over. It’s the exotic east street scene for an enthusiastic TV personality/foreign correspondent to walk through through talking into the camera about the vibrant atmosphere, ignored by the third worlders who are trying to survive. I quickly turn off such thoughts and push my Colombo night driving skills to the limit to avoid killing anyone.
Sites with information/images about Sri Ponnambalavaneswarar Hindu temple Colombo
- Dominic Sansoni and Sebastian Posingis have some excellent photographs of the Sri Ponnambalavaneswarar and its rituals
- There’s a blog dedicated to Navarathri festival at Sri Ponnambalavaneswarar Temple, which has images and text on the significance of the rituals
- The chariot festival blog dedicated to the annual chariot festival at the kovil and contains plenty of interesting images and explanations.