26 June 2014

An Army occupied with faith and the faithful

A temple is a temple is a temple.  There are grand ones and humble ones, rich and poor, revered ones and just-visited ones, temples where succor is sought due to reputation of delivery and temples which are comparatively nondescript, less frequented by devotee and then only in an in-passing manner.  A temple is a temple is a temple, yes.  Brick and mortar with image and color.  The omnipresent, by definition, is not contained in one but is ever-present in all; all things, temples included. Simultaneously.  

A temple is a temple is a temple.  And yet, there are temples which imperfect mortals believe are located in rare nodes of connectivity where human voice has better chance, perhaps, of reaching divine ear.  These draw devotees in their hundreds or even thousands, throughout the year and from year to year, decade to decade, century upon century, but especially so on those special days when people believe the divine ear is especially receptive to plea.  Such a place of worship is the Kannaki Amman Kovil and such a ‘holy moment’ is the festival week of the kovil, located in Vattrapalai, Mullaitivu.

‘Mullaitivu’, not too long ago, was not a place that anyone would have identified with worship and divinity.  Mullaitivu, after all, was the last bastion of the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and as such was associated with the clash of arms, blood-letting, destruction and displacement, tragedies that can hardly be laid at the door or feet of divinity but for which humans alone must take responsibility even if act was accompanied by murmuring the name of god or whispered prayer.  But then again, as has happened throughout history, temples survive the battles of men even if edifices crumble in the anger, revenge-intent and inhumanity that is our creature-signature.  Gods do not flee.  Temples survive human onslaught and even those which do not are rebuilt.  The faithful re-flock to sing the praises of the divine.  
The Kannaki Amman Kovil, the annual festival of which was held from June 2-9, has a history that is more significant than the fact that Prabhakaran has worshipped there during the heyday of the LTTE.  The exact ‘beginning’ is not known, but remembered history recalls a time during the Dutch period.

Krishna Bhawan, the chief priest recalls thus.  According to legend, a Dutchman had once mocked the Goddess Kali during a conversation with the Kovil’s Chief Priest of the time. The clearly uncivilized Dutchman was punished then and there.  He had been hit by a fruit from a nearby tree. It hadn’t fallen on the man but had flown at a gravity-defying angle to deal him a painful blow. He had fled into the fort in Mullaitivu but he continued to suffer blow after blow.  Finally he had gone back to the kovil, apologized to the Chief Priest and promised to donate money to expand the Kovil.  What stands in Vattrapalai today is said to be the Kovil that was built with the money given by that repentant Dutchman.

Most devotees come to the Kovil to pray to Kannaki Amman, the deity who in Sinhala belief systems take the name Pattini.  Kannaki Amman, devotees believe, heals the sick.  The goddess also has the power to gift fertility and many childless couples pray to Kannaki Amman seeking to be blessed with children. 

There is another legend that is of particular significance to this Kovil.  Once Kannaki Amman is said to have taken the shape of an old woman and told some young men that they could find relief for their problems if they lit a lamp at the Kovil and offered sweet milk rice (Pongal). However, the men had not been able to find oil needed to light the lamp at which point the woman had told the men to use seawater as the sea was nearby. This was done and they were able to light the lamp. To this day, the lamp seen at the Kovil is lit using seawater, according to the Chief Priest. 

During the most intense days of fighting, residents of the area had sought shelter in the Kovil.  Not a single person had been injured or killed, the Chief Priest said.  Back then, this was ‘Tiger territory’ or ‘uncleared areas’ or ‘LTTE-held areas’.  Apparently the LTTE Leader Prabhakaran had not allowed any foreign devotee, Hindus included, to pray at the Kovil.  Back then, however, there weren’t many foreigners visiting the area.  Neither were there Sri Lankans from other parts of the country, Hindu or otherwise.  Today, on the other hand, people from all over the world flock to this place every year, according to the Priest in charge of administrative activities at the Kovil, Thangaraja.  Prabhakaran himself had never prayed inside the Kovil although his wife and children had participated in poojas. 

Velupillai Prabhakaran is no more. There’s no more fighting.  There still is a military presence but with a difference.  The security forces were at hand throughout the week-long festival assisting the devotees in numerous ways.  It is estimated that there were 300,000 devotees who prayed at the temple during this period.  The security forces had spent Rs 400,000 to shower flowers on the Kovil on seven occasions during the festival. They had also organized a ‘dansala’ for the hundreds of thousands who came to petition the goddess and seek relief.  The Chief Priest was grateful.  He also expressed appreciation of parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa who had helped restore the ‘Ther’ chariot that parades around the Kovil during the festival. 

These are different times.  The human signature of frailty and violence is less pronounced now.  The Kovil stands.  Men come and go, there is war and there’s peace, but temple is a temple is a temple and faith-nodes are timeless.  They draw the frail human being along with his or her beliefs to seek divinity.    The origins are lost and end is unknown but from remembered time to the now of faith, worship and entreating, there’s a Kovil that stands witness to change but remains unchanged: the Kannaki Amman Kovil in Vattrapalai, Mullaitivu. 

Pix by Chandana Wijesinghe (information for the article was also provided by him)