By Thulasi Muttulingam
Pix by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai
Nary a bus or private vehicle will pass through on the way to Jaffna without one important stopover: Murugandy. On the long journey north, stopovers are needed but why at that particular point?
View of Murugandy temple in Vanni at dusk ~ via: twitter.com/DushiYanthini
Because a certain unassuming deity has been sitting there under a tree from time immemorial. And travellers up that path, dating from the time of bullock carts, have held to the belief that he is their guardian deity and they need to stop by and pay homage to him in order to have a safe journey.
“I remember even as a small child, we used to stop at Murugandy on our way up to Colombo,” says Indira (61), a resident of Jaffna. “People strongly believed that you had to stop and pray to the Pillayar, if you were travelling past him, in order to have an accident- free journey.”
Stopping for Pillayar
The Pillayar (as he is known to the Jaffna Tamils), otherwise known as the elephant-headed God Ganesh, was then just an unassuming deity sitting under a tree in the midst of shrubland. Nevertheless, even then his fame had spread far and wide. According to Indira, when her sister was suffering from epileptic fits as a child, their father had walked to Murugandy to offer prayers and puja for his daughter’s cure, though his own hometown was dotted with several big temples. He firmly believed that his young daughter was subsequently cured of her fits, due to the power of the deity.
Notice to the devotees at popular Murugandy temple. “Remove your footwear here&enter the temple”. – pic via: twitter.com/DushiYanthini
This is a facet that can be seen throughout the North; though the same deity might have several temples dotting the peninsula, only certain locations are known as the ‘powerful deities’. Generally they are the ones with a heavy track record of granting wishes or alleviating problems. The Murugandy Pillayar is one such deity.
He might have cut a simple figure sitting under a tree for centuries but he has long been famous in the North. Today, however, he is well-known among people from the rest of the country too. Or at least, among all those who make the trip to Jaffna by road. The Tamil habit of stopping the vehicle at Murugandy before passing has caught on. Says Dushiyanthini, a journalist who has been frequently taking the trip North over several years, “When buses started plying regularly on the route, soon after the A9 opened up, some Sinhalese drivers didn’t stop at Murugandy, even though the passengers wanted to as they didn’t understand the significance. Now they all do. All private bus drivers, whatever their ethnicity stop at Murugandy.”
Thus the deity who used to sit under a tree in the midst of shrubland now finds himself in a burgeoning little town with an economy that seems to have sprung up solely due to him. There are hotels, boutiques, pavements sellers and hawkers of every other type, catering to the needs of travelers, surrounding his little temple now.
Decorated idol of Lord Ganesh in the sanctum of popular Murugandy temple, Vanni ~ pic via: twitter.com/DushiYanthini
“It has become a proper transit point for travellers to get down and freshen up. Earlier it used to be only a transit point of worship,” says a Sinhalese journalist who also frequently makes the trip up north. “It has become a very people friendly place. You can buy almost anything you want there including rubber slippers. They also offer both southern and northern foods at the boutiques, which is a nice development. They are catering to all the people of Sri Lanka now and in that sense, you could call him an unifying deity as well.”
Keeping it simple
Over time, he had a cadjan hut put up around him but today he has concrete walls and a roof over his head. A simple little temple which according to the priest tending to him is all He will allow.
“Wealthy diaspora members who pass through come to us requesting permission to build a big temple for him,” says Ravidraraja Kurukal, who has been tending to the deity for 22 years. “They have big plans in mind, including gopuras (towers) and beg us to allow them to build it but the deity refuses, every time we ask. He wants to remain simple.”
View at Murugandy temple, Vanni – pic ~ via: twitter.com/DushiYanthini/status
According to the priest, they use a traditional method of using flowers in tied up leaves to decipher the deity’s answer of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The answer is always a categorical ‘no’, when it comes to having a big temple.
So there He sits, still under his tree albeit with a minor structure now around him. He has sat there for centuries in a like manner, blessing countless passers-by. After a thirty year lull, those passersby have increased in epic proportions. And so has his own fame and fortune, much as he seems to dislike the idea. He is now a very busy deity having to heed prayers 24 hours a day. According to the manager of the temple, appointed by the Department of Hindu Cultural and Religious Affairs, though pujas are conducted only at certain times, he is kept open for travelers at all times of the night and day. Because that‘s how he has always been. The only difference is the number of people he has to cater to now. And the bustling activity that has invaded his tranquility.
Murugandy, despite the seeming humility of its principal deity, is now an important locale. courtesy: Ceylon Today