Hindu temples in British Ceylon


April 5, 2016, 6:16 pm
The British rulers gave special recognition to the three religions that believed in God, namely Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Churches, mosques and kovils came up all over the island. Hindu temples were constructed on an unprecedented scale in the 19th century. The American missionaries in Jaffna had commented on this. Many of the Hindu temples we see today were built during British rule.

A substantial proportion of the Tamil population settling in Colombo during British rule were Hindus. Several were successful businessmen able to support the building of Hindu temples. The British administration decided that from 1874, The Adi (July) Vel festival where the chariot carrying the deity Muruga parades the streets was to be held in Colombo. Devotees from all over the island came for this festival, making Colombo a centre for Hindu worship.


Coomaraswamy Mudaliyar, father-in-law of Ponnambalam Arunachalam, belonged to the first generation of Tamils to settle in Colombo. He was the first Tamil representative in the Legislative Council. A staunch and devoted Hindu hailing from Manipay, Jaffna, and Coomaraswamy Mudaliyar built two Hindu temples in Colombo, Kathiresan temple at Gintupitiya and Muttuvinayakara temple. Muttuvinayakara was built in Sea Street in 1856. Nattukottai chettiars gave the money. The Nattukottai chettiars were wealthy money lenders who spent large sums on religion. They built several Saivite temples in Ceylon mainly dedicated to Kathiresan and Kataragama gods.

The Arulmihu Sivasubramaniya kovil was initially in Dam Street, built in 1822. The property was acquired by the British around 1867. They gave 500 pounds, a very big sum at the time, to Ponnambalam Mudaliyar, father of Ponnambalam Arunachalam to construct a new temple at another site in Colombo. Ponnambalam Mudaliyar built the new temple at Kew Road, Slave Island in 1870 and named it Kathiresan kovil. Ponnambalam Ramanathan enlarged it in 1902 and re-named it Shri Sivasubramaniya swamy kovil. A Board of Trustees was appointed in 1942. It was renovated in 1975. A gopuram of 82 feet was constructed in 1995 and a golden chariot in 1998. This kovil is a tourist attraction today.

The Ponnambalavanesvara temple in Kochchikade, near St Anthony’s Church was built in 1856 and consecrated in 1857. Ponnambalam Mudaliyar bought the land, originally a coconut plantation, using his own money. He constructed a small temple on the site in 1857, built modestly with lime and mortar. The indenture of 1857 gave the responsibility of the temple to the Arunasalam Ponnambalam family. When Ponnambalam Mudaliyar died in 1887, the trusteeship devolved on his son Ponnambalam Ramanathan. He got down experts from India, started the renovation in 1907 and completed the temple in 1912. It was constructed entirely out of black granite from the Veyangoda quarry. The temple is similar to those in South India with gopuram and gateways facing east and west.

Mention must also be made of the four Hindu temples in Bambalapitya practically adjacent to each other, ending at Vajira Road. Two are Pillayar temples, the other two Kathiresan. The total extent of land is around five acres or so, extending from Galle Road to Duplication Road. I am unable to obtain any information on their origins, but looking at the huge extent of land which was probably given to these temples during the British administration.

Mayurapathy Badrakali temple in Wellawatte was built around 1880. Labourers were brought in from Tamilnadu and Kerala to build the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills. They were kept in single storey apartments and one apartment was converted to a temple. In 1977 the government gave permission for the expansion of the temple and the large new building we see today was completed in 1987.

Hindu temples were built in towns where Tamil settlements had been established during British rule. Anuradha Seneviratne says Pullaiyar kovil in Kandy, near Police station was built during British rule. Nuwara Eliya Hindu kovil was built in 1850. Bandarawela Sri Sivasubramaniya devasthanam was built in 1837 by A.S. Muthiah Pillai and others. The Arulmigu Sri Muthumari Amman kovil in Matale was built in 1874 by the Hindu community in Matale, mostly traders who came from Tamilnadu and Kerala to do business in and around the tea estates.

Hindu temples in Jaffna, Trincomalee and Batticaloa were restored in British times. British administrators have readily and unquestioningly accepted Tamil statements as to the antiquity of these temples. C. Pridham in his book, ‘Historical, political and statistical account of Ceylon’ (1849) wrote about Koneswaram temple in Trincomalee, saying it was regarded with great reverence by its devotees. It is one of the peaks of the legendary Mahameru.

The idea of finding and restoring the Thirukeetheswaram temple came from Arumuga Navalar. He initiated the search for the site. He wrote a tract where he said that Illankai is fortunate to have two temples for Siva worship, Thirukeetheswaram and Tirukoneswaram, mentioned in hymns ‘sung by our saints.’ He said: So many temples are coming up in different parts of Sri Lanka now, why are the Hindus not interested in Thirukeetheswaram?

The British administration was contacted. The British officials seem to have believed what they were told without asking for evidence. P de Hoeft, referred to as ‘Colonial Secretary’, visited the ruins several times in 1894-95 and wrote up his findings. ‘There was a low wall which was pointed out as a relic of the temple. And some broken pierces of sculpture of Hindu saints. I had then no notion of its great sanctity for the Hindus or its antiquity’ he said.

  1. J. S. Boake, AGA Mannar reported in 1886 that Thirukeetheswaram is one of the 64 sacred places of the Hindus. Its temple rivalled that of Rameswaram and was probably built at the same period. Nothing remains above ground except a few fragments of sculpture. W. Twynam, Government Agent, Northern Province reported in 1887 that ‘there is a tradition that this temple was large and Hindus made pilgrimages to it from all parts of India as they now do to the temple as Rameswaram. The Portuguese had destroyed it. Some images were found at the site.

S.Vaithilingam, Thambaiyah Mudaliyar of Colombo made an application for the purchase of the site of the temple, so that it could be rebuilt. The Government Agent put the land up for sale in 1893 and 44 acres were bought by R.R. Palaniappa Chettiyar. Excavations started under the supervision of Pasupathy Chettiyar in 1894. The original location of the temple was found and the southwest corner wall located. A small temple was erected and consecrated in 1903.

Thereafter, the project was managed by the Nagarathar, a Chetty community residing in Madampe but the temple came under the control of the Kathiresan temple in Colombo. The central shrine was improved in 1921 by Hindu public servants working in Mannar. A ‘Society for the restoration of the temple at Tirukketisvaram’ was set up in 1948 and work commenced under the guidance of Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan. A new design was developed in 1952 and the building completed in 1969.

The Kantacuvami temple at Nallur was built in 1849 by Krishna Subba Iyer and Ragunatha Maapana Mudaliyar. Maapana was the shroff at the Jaffna Kachcheri. He obtained permission from the government to rebuild the temple. The temple had a cadjan roof and originally had only two main halls. There was no clock tower or courtyard, wall or gopuram. The first clock tower was erected in 1899 and the main hall was refurbished using rocks in 1902. The first enclosing wall came in 1909. It was renovated in 1964 ‘to have the present attractive and grand look’.

The first Kumbabhisekam of Durga Devi temple, at Tellipalai, Jaffna was performed in 1829. The poojas were performed by priests from Kanchipuram. In 1894, local Hindus led by Arumuga Navalar built the present temple. Arumuga Navalar also initiated the rebuilding in 1878 of Naguleswaram in Kankesanturai. It was accidentally burned in 1918 and rebuilt in 1953. The Naga Pooshani Ambal temple at Nainativu was erected by Arumuga Navalar in 1882. Its management was placed under a Board of Trustees in 1949.

Source: http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2016/04/05/hindu-temples-in-british-ceylon/comment-page-1/