Discover this unique Sri Lankan shrine with 108 Sivalingams paying homage to the 658 holy hymns of Saint Manikkavasagar’s renowned Thiruvasagam
ATWO-WHEELER SALESMAN VISITS the Sivapoomi Palace of Thiruvasagam before heading to his office. He offers abhishekam, water oblations, to all 108 nearly identical Sivalingams in the premises before starting his workday. This is his daily routine, driven by his love for God and his knowing that Siva will take care of his sales for the day.
More and more people come here on Thursdays, the day of the guru, to do their abhishekam. A small pond surrounds a chariot of ash-grey stone; here devotees pick up pails of water to offer to Siva. One would assume that this might be a place of ancient relevance, but in fact, this sanctuary was still under construction just a few years ago.
Palace of devotion: Three women ring the bells above the Sivalingams that encircle the shrine
This newly built palace—the latest go-to place for Tamils of Jaffna and other parts of Sri Lanka—is dedicated to the devotional songs of Tamil poet saint Manikkavasagar, the ninth-century author of Thiruvasagam, 51 compositions expressing his aspirations, trials and realizations, praise the Namasivaya mantra, and nurturing love of Siva.
Here in Jaffna, what began simply as a place dedicated to the ancient bhakti canon—sung at all kinds of occasions, from school prayers to funerals—has fast become a divine destination for residents and visitors.
Following a tiled path towards the temple, I pass a chariot-shaped shrine that houses a Sivalingam along with the statue of Manikkavasagar. The temple itself is built in typical Sri Lankan style. A curvilinear mandapam housing a balipitham and a Nandi faces Siva as Dakshinamurti, the silent teacher, who is enshrined in the sanctum. The vimanam, the superstructure typically decorated with many colorful carvings, is covered here with Sivalingams. Wherever you stand and wherever you look, you see Sivalingams around you.
I walked the corridor that goes around the temple and was struck by the main series of Sivalingams, which run the length of the sides and back of the compound. These were carved by local Jaffna sculptors, some of whom come from the sipli tradition. Each Sivalingam costs about 40,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($207 USD), and were sponsored by 25 different donors. Each Sivalingam is about three feet in height, adorned with a 108-bead rudraksha mala and wrapped with a piece of silk veshti cloth.
A bell hanging over each Sivalingam is duly rung by devotees when they offer water or when circumambulating the compound. A constant ringing of bells is heard as devotees continually make their rounds. On the walls are inscribed all the 658 verses of Thiruvasagam written in the Tamil language. The same local carvers who made the Sivalingams created the polished black granite wall panels in just 18 months. At the end of one corridor, the first poem, Siva Puranam, is engraved in twelve language scripts, including Arabic. The rest of the poems are written in native Tamil.
Inspiration for the Temple
Dr. Aru Thirumurugan, the man behind the manifestation of this unique temple, comes from a family of teachers in Jaffna and has served as a principal of the Skandavarodaya College, where he taught Hindu Civilization and political science. After the civil unrest in Sri Lanka, he dedicated himself to social work. His first initiative was assisting with the orphanage and temple under the Thurkkai Amman Kovil trust, guided by his guru, Thangamma Appakutti. The orphanage now supports and educates 121 girls. In 2002 Dr. Thirumurugan founded the Sivapoomi Trust, which runs special-needs schools, elderly homes for the poor, mathams, pilgrimage guest houses, art galleries, ashrams and vocational training programs, They also publish a monthly paper and are scanning rare manuscripts.
When we asked Dr. Thirumurugan about the history of the Palace, he told us of giving a talk on Thiruvasagam at a 2017 conference at Thiruvannamalai, India (where Manikkavasagar composed his Tiruvempavai). In his talk, he had pointed out that in Sri Lanka the poems of this composition are regularly sung at temples and everyday as school prayers, but they are seldom sung in India where they originated. He explained it is believed the poems of the Thiruvasagam were scribed by Siva Himself. After the talk, a holy man, a siddha, beckoned to him and had him sit on the floor beside him. Praising his talk, the siddha said that Sri Lankans live and breathe Thiruvasagam and that he must do something to safeguard this heritage. To inspire him, he cited the example of Rajaraja Chola, the king who built the magnificent stone temple of Thanjavur despite having little stone available within his own territories. The siddha was trying to tell him that if you have the will, the means will follow. Dr. Thirumurugan has no idea who the siddha was, and he never saw him again. He remembers him only as an extremely knowledgeable person.
The Vision Manifests
Dr. Thirumurugan was pondering initial concepts for the Palace of Thiruvasagam during a trip to Australia later that year. Over dinner at Saravana Bhavan Vegetarian Restaurant with Australia-based cardiologist Dr. V. Manomohan and his wife Dr. Siva Gowri Manomohan, Dr. Thirumurugan shared his mystical meeting with the siddha and the budding plan for a temple. Immediately upon hearing the idea, Dr. Manomohan offered to donate a prime piece of land on Kandy Road in the Navatkuli area of Jaffna for the project. This magical beginning set the tone for the manifestation of the project.
The initial plan was to build a simple temple dedicated to Siva as Dakshinamurti and inscribe the 658 songs of Thiruvasagam in granite. The Dakshinamurti form was chosen because that is how Siva appeared to Manikkavasagar, as an ascetic guru, inspiring him to write heart-melting poetry. There were no architectural plans, so no engineers or architects were engaged in the beginning.
However, Dr. Thirumurugan kept getting more ideas in his dreams. During the construction of the vimana, which was proceeding in the usual manner, he saw it full of Sivalingams in his dream. In the morning, he shared this vision with his team and told them that instead of all the usual statuettes there would be Sivalingams in black stone.
Thirumurugan, also inspired by the ancient stone chariots of Mamallapuram in India, wanted to build something similar here. Enlisting the help of architect K. Purushothaman Stapathi from Chidambaram, a 21-foot-high stone chariot was built which holds a Sivalingam and the stone murti of Manikkavasagar. Next to the chariot when I visited was an image of Agastya Muni, waiting to be installed in its own shrine nearby. In addition, a bell tower is being built for a huge bell made in London. The bell is so designed that it will reverberate 100 times when struck once, with a sound that can be heard up to two miles away.
The Palace not only houses the Thiruvasagam, but is a library of hundreds of books, translations and articles on Thiruvasagam. Most of the books are in Tamil. The collection can be accessed by university students, scholars and the general public, and a dedicated research lab has been set up for its exploration. Future plans include arrangements for people to stay for a time to meditate. All these endeavors are supported in part by the Sivapoomi Trust.
The temple opens daily at 6am, when the priest does the abhishekam, and remains open till 7pm, with no breaks during the day. It is most crowded on Thursdays, when many people come to perform their own abhishekam, and it is also then that food donations are given out. Every full moon day, people come from all over, including India, to sing Thiruvasagam at the Palace during the morning hours. The biggest festival celebrated here, Mahasivaratri, attracts as many as 100,000 people in a 24-hour period. The temple is fast becoming famous, as people have already started believing that doing abhishekam here fulfills their wishes. So include the Palace of Thiruvasagam in Jaffna on your pilgrimage map of Sri Lanka!.
Palace of devotion: A view of the main courtyard and cupola tower
Palace of devotion: Priests perform arati to the central form of Dakshinamurti; (inset) Dr. Thirumurugan, founder of the Palace of Thiruvasagam
Living during the 9th century in South India was one of our best-known and most revered Saiva saints, Manikkavasagar. He was born in the town of Tiruvathavur on the River Vaigai just south of Madurai. His brilliance was recognized at an early age, and he became the prime minister of the Pandyan king while still quite young. While in this position, exposed to all the pleasures of the world, he eventually became conscious of the impermanence of worldly life and sought spiritual direction. As the story goes, the shift in Manikkavasagar’s life occurred when he was sent by the king to purchase some special horses from a foreign trader in the distant city of Perunturai.
While on the way, Manikkavasagar came upon a group of devotees seated around a sage beneath a Kuruntha tree. Overwhelmed by the spiritual serenity and darshan emanating from this guru and his sishyas, Manikkavasagar immediately knew that he must leave behind his worldly life. He joined the other devotees of the sage. After spending a short time with the guru, all of the disciples and the sage himself disappeared, leaving Manikkavasagar all alone. At this point the realities of his duties as prime minister returned to him, and he realized that in his religious fervor he had given away to the guru all the funds that were to be used to buy the horses. In despair, he prayed to Siva, whom he knew was the ultimate guru, to help him. His prayer was answered by a miracle: a pack of jackals nearby turned into beautiful horses.
A literary heritage: 108 Sivalingams encircle the central shrine at the Palace of Thiruvasagam;
A literary heritage: The stone statue of Manikkavasagar at the Palace of Thiruvasagam
With these handsome steeds, Manikkavasagar returned to a very pleased king. But in the middle of the night the horses turned back into jackals, waking everyone up with their howling. In a rage the king had Manikkavasagar thrown into a dry river bed and tied to stones, to die of heat exposure on the hot sands. But due to Manikkavasagar’s prayers, Siva prevented this from occurring by filling the river with water to the point where Madurai itself became endangered, at which point the king withdrew his punishment. Soon thereafter, Siva Himself appeared in human flesh. From this divine intervention the king realized Manikkavasagar was certainly not an ordinary man and released him from his duties of state to lead an ascetic life as desired.
Manikkavasagar returned to the place where he had met his guru, but no one was there. He now had to face alone his new life, having given up one of the most powerful and respected positions of his country. He had nowhere to turn but to Siva. Manikkavasagar began wandering from Siva temple to Siva temple throughout South India, doing sadhana and tapas in Siva’s name. In his hymns written during this time, which can be found in his famous collection of hymns called the Thiruvasagam, there is the very real and human lamenting to Siva to not forsake him, but to fulfill his only desire of being merged in Siva’s love. The very humanness of this time of tapas is also shown in his hymns where he prays to Siva to keep his mind from being distracted by the beautiful maidens who frequented a river where he was performing his austerities. Manikkavasagar’s tapas found its bloom at the Chidambaram Siva Temple, where he melted himself into loving oneness with his Lord of Tillai (Chidambaram). Some of his hymns speak of the experience of Self-Realization. He describes mukti as surrendering oneself completely to Siva and losing one’s identity in Siva.
Manikkavasagar’s life is said to have ended miraculously. One morning there appeared before the Nataraja Deity at Chidambaram pages of mystic hymns written by the poet saint, which by their nature seemed to have come from the Deity Himself. The devotees searched out Manikkavasagar to explain the meaning of this. Manikkavasagar answered them by saying, “What it means is this... “ and he then walked to the Nataraja Deity and dissolved his essence into the murti, disappearing before the awe-struck devotees. They understood his message. Manikkavasagar had become his Lord.
Manikkavasagar’s message was one of love—love of God, love of guru, love of God’s devotees, love of all. The beauty of his soul is enshrined in the Thiruvasagam and a second smaller work, the Thirukovaiyar. These two profound works constitute volume eight of the Tirumurai, the sacred anthology of Tamil Saiva Siddhanta.