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Lord Vishnu

Temple History

was a historic Hindu temple complex. Its primary deity was a Hindu god Tenavarai Nayanar (Upulvan) and at its zenith was one of the most celebrated Hindu temple complexes of the island, containing eight major kovil shrines to a thousand deity statues of stone and bronze and two major shrines to Vishnu and Shiva. Administration and maintenance was conducted by residing Hindu Tamil merchants during Tenavaram's time as a popular pilgrimage destination and famed emporium employing over five hundred devadasis.

The central temple dedicated to Vishnu (Tenavarai Nayanar) known as Upulvan to the Sinhalese was the most prestigious and biggest, popular amongst its large Tamil population, pilgrims and benefactors of other faiths such as Buddhism, kings and artisans.

The other shrines that made up the Kovil Vatta were dedicated to Ganesh, Murukan, Kannagi and Shiva, widely exalted examples of stonework construction of the Dravidian style. The Shiva shrine is venerated as the southernmost of the ancient Pancha Ishwarams of Lord Shiva (called Tondeswaram), built at coastal points around the circumference of the island in the classical period.

The temple compound was destroyed by Portuguese colonial Thome de Sousa d'Arronches, who devastated the entire southern coast. The property was then handed over to Catholics.

Tenavaram temple was built on vaulted arches on the promontory overlooking the Indian Ocean. The central gopuram tower of the vimana and the other gopura towers that dominated the town were covered with plates of gilded brass, gold and copper on their roofs. Its outer body featured intricately carved domes, with elaborate arches and gates opening to various verandas and shrines of the complex, giving Tenavaram the appearance of a golden city to sailors who visited the port to trade and relied on its light reflecting gopura roofs for navigational purposes.

One tradition states that a temple shrine in Tenavaram was constructed by King Aggabodhi IV in the middle of the 7th century CE, fusing Dravidian stone-made temple construction with a local interpretation.

Another popular tradition, involving the arrival of a red sandalwood Vishnu image at Tenavarai by the sea in 790 CE. King Dappula Sen was involved in restoring the Vishnu shrine of the complex during this time to house the image after envisioning its arrival in a dream. The manuscript indicates several Tamil pilgrims' arrived at Tenavaram at this time, and how the King granted its lands to the Hindus who accompanied an image of Vishnu. The Chief Brahmin Priest/merchant prince who brought the image was called Rama Chandra, (a name which alludes to Lord Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu). The sandalwood image was moved soon after to other shrines inland. Some scholars regard the story of a sandalwood image washing ashore to be mythical.

A 17th-century literature source details that right after the washing ashore of the wood image, Tamil Brahmins versed in Vaishnava lore from Rameswaram in Pallava-era Tamilakkam were invited to the town to fashion and import an image of Lord Vishnu to Tenavaram. Other sources indicate the Tamils brought the statue to Tenavaram for safe-keeping as Rameswaram was under attack. Rama Chandra founded the Ganesh Kovil of Tenavaram in 790, located at Vallemadama on the sea coast, where the waves struck its walls at the Kovil Vatta. The Naga Risa Nila Kovil of Shiva was in the vicinity of this area of Tenavaram. Rama Chandra's name was recited daily at the conclusion of worship during the early hours of the morning. Hymns in praise of God were recited by Tamil priests attached to the temple.

The royal grant by Dambadeniyan King Parakramabahu II, who ruled from 1236 to 1270, contains references to donations to the Tenavaram Kovil, renovating the shrine and reaffirming its land ownership and regulations to prevent evasion of customs duties at the port by traders at the estate.

The temple was attacked to distract the Sitawakan king Rajasimha I who was laying siege to the city Columbo on the island's west coast at the time. De Sousa entered the complex to find it empty, giving up the temple to the plunder of 120 accompanying soldiers before looting its riches of ivory, gems and sandalwood, overthrowing thousands of statues and idols of the temple before leveling the complex and defiling the inner court by slaughtering cows there. The area was then burnt. Also destroyed was the deity's magnificent wooden temple car.

James Cordiner, writing in 1807, described the colonnade of 200 granite pillars having curved bases and capitals and others rough edged, forming an avenue to the sea, leading to an intricately carved doorway with several Hindu sculptures attached. He describes intersections of rows of pillars with this avenue proceeding to the right and left. Cordiner recounts the discovery of the ancient stone image of Ganesh worshipped in a mud hut at the site. The shrine's well had been covered by a stone slab. Another shrine dedicated to Murugan of Kathirkamam was also present and revered during his visit. Many of the stones of the ruins of the Tenavaram complex were used to build the Matara Fort by the colonists.

Sinhalese Buddhist temples of smaller size and a much later period had come to be erected over the Tamil Hindu ruins in some locations according to their observations. The discoveries of the late 20th century indicate that a Buddhist Vihara has come to be erected where the Lord Shiva or Ganesh shrine of the complex has been located by archaeologists.

A small stone building currently called the Galge or Galgane at Tenavaram that once is held to have supported a brick dome or upper storeys (Vimana tower) atop its roof displays a Dravidian provincial style of construction and architecture assigned to the late Pallava period with strong affiliations to the Kailasanathar Temple in Kanchipuram. Likely to have been the Vimanam-Garbhagriha or Sreekovil of one of the shrines, this building was reconstructed/repaired in 1947. It is a simple cuboid stone room structure with a flat roof currently atop its sanctum.

A Shiva lingam sculpture was found in the foreground of the Othpilima Vihara at the site in 1998 by a gardener along with a stone image of Nandi. It is 4 ft high and 2½ feet wide. A stone image of Ganesh and Nandi had been excavated decades earlier at the site Kovil Vatta - gardens of a newly constructed Buddhist Vihara in the Vallemadama area of Tevan Thurai.

In the late British period, the "Vishnu Devale" was built in the town according to Sinhala Buddhist traditions. It is venerated solely by Sinhala Buddhists today. The deity here is sometimes called Upulvanna, which German orientalist Wilhem Geiger notes is an alternate local form/description of Lord Vishnu, the original main deity of Tenavarai. Upulvan means blue-lotus coloured, an attribute of both Vishnu and Shiva). The Vishnu Devale building here is also blue in colour. The formerly multi religious and multi ethnic port city ceased to function as such by the late medieval period.

 

Additional Information

The shrines' primary deity Vishnu shared the name of the town, Tenavarai Nayanar, at the southernmost point of the island. The northernmost Vishnu shrine of the island, Vallipuram Vishnu Kovil, houses the ancient deity Vallipuram Alwar following a similar naming tradition.

From Mattala International Airport, Tenavaram Temple is 100 KM, from Koggala Airport it is 38 KM. Matara Railway Station is 6.7 KM from Tenavaram Temple and Devinuwara Dewalaya bus stop is only 200 m from the temple
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