The Nallur Temple in Jaffna; An Explosion of Sights, Sounds and Spiritual Energy

By Olympia Vlachopoulou, Robin Zeldenrust and Nalvily Sasitharan.

In the heart of Jaffna city is the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, an extraordinary Hindu temple adorned with signature red-white striped walls, majestic figurative murals, golden shrines and a spectacular copper-crusted roof. But inside is where the real magic happens; the intimate, sacred atmosphere makes for a multi-sensory experience that has left usthree archaeology students from the Netherlands, Greece and Sri Lankamesmerised, emotional even. This temple embodies a kind of peace and calm that can only be felt in the most divine of places.

Triggered by this serene spiritual space, we wanted to find out more about it. We immersed ourselves in the mystical essence of this Hindu temple through stories from locals and visitors, who flock here daily to worship, dressed to the nines in beautiful sarees accessorised with white flowers and golden bangles. We listened and learned a lot about sacred spaces, unsung deities, culture and compassion. We got deeply personal insights into how Tamil Hindus experience religion and spirituality, a belief system that is about so much more than temple rituals or dogmatic rules. Here in Jaffna, religion is deeply ingrained into daily life. The conversations about Hindu temple culture even awakened our own spiritual senses. Join us on our journey to learn more about Jaffna's most beautiful Hindu temple.

Listen to the stories of worshippers at the Nallur Temple, from Jaffna and beyond

During the festival times, a lot of tourists visit. Tamils who have gone abroad schedule their visits for these festivals to connect with relatives.
— temple visitor

Personal perspectives

Robin from the Netherlands

Visiting the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple felt like stepping into a completely different world. Right away, I was amazed by the bright colours and the detailed designs of the temple that stands so proudly under the Sri Lankan sun. Before coming to Sri Lanka, I knew very little about Hinduism, so everything, from the people deeply involved in their prayers to the detailed statues and carvings everywhere, was new and fascinating to me.

Inside the temple, the smell of incense and the sound of ringing bells and chanting prayers permeate the air. I felt a deep sense of peace there. The local people were so kind. I was very curious about their practices and rituals, so Nalvily, who lives in Jaffna, helped me understand how to participate in the prayers and what the different rituals meant.

I also learned about the temple's long history. It has been moved and rebuilt many times over the centuries. Knowing this made my visit even more special; the temple's architecture and the spiritual activities inside tell stories from the past.

My field school trip to Sri Lanka turned out to be more than just a sightseeing tour. It was a deep and moving experience that taught me about spirituality in a new way. Leaving for the Netherlands, I carried with me the vivid images and sounds of the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, a beautiful reminder of how big the world is and the surprising lessons it has to offer.

There is a story about this temple, about a man named Nova, who arrived by ship at Sivanoli Padamalai on Maha Shivratri*, the 27th day of the second month. A descendant named Murugan** emerged. He was one of the eight people who escaped from that ship.
— temple visitor

* “The Great Night of Shiva”, an important Hindu festival celebrated annually in honour of the deity Shiva.

** The Tamil god of war and victory.

Olympia from Greece

Coming from Greece, where Orthodox Christianism is the predominant religion, visiting a Hindu temple was an interesting experience. In my country, the way religion is perceived and experienced is completely different from what I saw at Jaffna's Nallur temple. The colourful wall paintings depicting Shiva's and Muruga's myths, the smell of incense, and the sound of musical instruments and chanting overwhelmed me instantly. Nalvily made sense of it all through her careful narration of the myths and explanation of the different rituals. Her presence made me feel safe. Having her, a new friend, sharing her religion with me made me feel like I was more than a visitor.

I was fascinated by the people's active involvement in the rituals and ceremonies, something that my country's religion majorly lacks. We visited the temple multiple times, in the morning, afternoon and evening. Every time, I was struck by how emotionally and spiritually invested and involved people are here. Their everyday visits to their local temple appeared to be a moment of serenity and connection within themselves but also with their deities.

The first time we visited the people at the temple, people stopped and stared at us for a split second, but they continued chanting and praying to their gods. I felt extremely privileged to experience such a space without being distracted by phones or cameras, as taking videos or photos inside the temple is strictly prohibited, and your phone must be switched off. In this digital age, experiences like this are rare.

Navilny from Sri Lanka

To me, Nallur is a divine place. Being here calms me. Its architecture looks so beautiful. When you look at the paintings within the kovil, you will know about Hinduism, much better than any book will teach you. The Gods’ statues look so serene, and you feel like you’re watched over by them. Their faces look so calm and soothing. The main God of Nallur is Lord Muruga. You can see his statue, even in the darkness with a gentle lamp illuminating his soothing glance. Entering this place feels like entering an ancient time. The painting of Nadaraja portrays the Bharadham or Bharatanatayam, which is a dance form with spiritual ideas and themes from from Hinduism. I’d recommend a visit here if you are interested in Hinduism and architecture.

About the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple

  • Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil (Nallur Temple) is the largest temple complex in Sri Lanka's Tamil community, Jaffna's spiritual centre of Hinduism.
  • The temple is ascribed to the first Jaffna king, who ruled in the mid-13th century when Nallur was the capital of the Jaffna Peninsula and the entire northern mainland of Sri Lanka.
  • The temple sanctuary was renovated, enlarged several times, and even moved. It is a sacred site that has witnessed centuries of devotion, destruction, and rebirth.
  • The original Nallur temple was destroyed by Portuguese invaders and replaced by a church in 1620. Up until today, an Anglican church stands on the very spot of the original temple. A new Kandaswamy temple was built in the Dutch period when other religions were no longer suppressed and the complex has been expanded ever since.
  • The festival fortnight of Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is celebrated in July/August.

Tips for visiting the Nallur Temple

  • Before you enter, remember to take off your shoes and wash your feet at the outer well.
  • You msy bring items such as flowers, fruits, camphor, and other offerings to the shrines. These can be bought from shops opposite the temple, but everything except camphor and incense must be washed outside before offering.
  • As has been the Hindu custom since ancient times, men are not allowed to wear any other garments above waist level within the temple. Women are encouraged to wear clothing that is non-revealing and below knee length.
  • Photography is not allowed within the temple, and mobile phones must be switched off to prevent disturbing other devotees.
  • Tickets for the poojas (worship rituals) have been sold at a mere Rs 1.00 for decades. You give your ticket to the priest at the shrines to observe the colourful rituals and listen to the ancient mantras.
  • While worshipping, put your palms together at chest height.

About the authors

Words, video and pictures by Olympia Vlachopoulou, Robin Zeldenrust and Nelvely Sasitharan. Olympia is an archaeology major from Greece with ambitions of working in ethnology. She is a creative writer who loves to capture special moments through any available medium. Robin is an archaeology student from Utrecht, the Netherlands, who is passionate about drawing and writing. She loves to capture special moments and live them to the fullest. Nalvily Sasitharan is an archaeology student from Jaffna, Sri Lanka. She loves life and likes to explore new things.

Find Olympia @Ολυμπία Βλαχοπούλου and Robin @robin.zeldenrust

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