Arohara – hail the almighty – was the rhythm of Jaffna for the past one month as the people of Jaffna embraced the annual festival of the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil and the spiritual atmosphere the festival brings with it.
Needless to say, the majority of the residents also opted to forego meat of any kind and remained vegetarian during this period. An unfortunate outcome of this was the skyrocketing of vegetable prices, which reached exorbitant heights and remained so until the water cutting ceremony, which signalled the culmination of the festival.
During the Dutch period, the Nallur Kovil was demolished and the stones were removed to build the `star shaped’ Fort in Jaffna. Consequently, the Fort and other colonial buildings such as the Anglican Church, the Queens House with a large grass lawn and the prison buildings which remained became the structures of historic importance until 1980, when the separatist war engulfed the entire peninsula for three decades.
With the end of the war in 2009, renovation on the well designed Dutch Fort, and the moat, got underway almost immediately. Now the renovation is nearing completion.
The Jaffna Fort
The worst of the pitched battles in Jaffna took place in the vicinity of the Fort when the Security Forces attempted to rescue the soldiers trapped inside, in the late ‘80’s.
A bomber plane was even shot down by the LTTE when it descended above the Pannai lagoon, which encircled the Jaffna Fort. As the LTTE had restricted the movements of the armed forces in the peninsula, the Security Forces struggled hard to not only rescue the soldieries trapped inside the Fort, but also to make available food, medical and ammunition supplies to them.
The Bell- 212 helicopter gunships, which were widely used by the Sri Lanka Air Force to transport the men and materials and to engage the LTTE cadres who had surrounded the Fort area with heavy long range weapons could not even descend sufficiently to air drop the supplies or even to target the spots where the LTTE cadres remained.
Under such circumstance, it required careful planning and reinforcements deployed from the islets in the North West of the Jaffna lagoon to rescue the troops trapped inside the Fort.
The Nallur Kovil and the Fort, the two prominent landmarks of Jaffna have not only been historically important from colonial times, they have even remained significantly intertwined with the Tamil militancy in the more recent Tamil politics.
Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil
While the Dutch Fort remained the scene of pitched battles, the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil had provided shelter for thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS) when the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) launched their very first military offensive against the LTTE, code named `Operation Pavan.’
Men, women and children in their thousands found shelter in the vast and spacious interior of the temple when the Indian troops were on the move to take control of Jaffna.
During this year’s festival, one of the IDPs even reminisced how he together with his family sought refuge inside the temple when the IPKF’s aerial bombings and the artillery firings traumatized Jaffna civilians.
Every house in Jaffna had had makeshift bunkers to seek protection from the bombings and shelling.
When the people saw the bomber planes and the helicopter gunships in the air, they would immediately run into the bunkers to take cover. There were even instances when the people were forced to spend the night inside the bunkers when the bombing become too intense and continued through the night.
The helicopter gunships fitted with long range heavy machine guns fired from the air targeting LTTE installations.
However, in the three years since the war ended and the death of the LTTE Leader, V. Prabhakaran , Jaffna is gradually transforming itself in the socio economic sphere .
Even during the days of the war when A-9 high way was closed and access was indeed all but impossible, and essential items were sold at exorbitant prices, the annual 25-day Nallur festival remained the sole spiritual solace in the Hindu majority Jaffna.
One constant for the people of Jaffna, especially during the days of the war, was the Nallur festival, which remained intact, though the daily rituals and the processions around the kovil premises had to end early to fall in line with the curfew hours.
Therefore, the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil remains an ideal yard stick to measure the socio, economic and the political changes in the North.
Unlike the two previous years post-war, this year the festival witnessed the presence of a very large influx of expatriate Tamils, with some saying they have made it a point to visit Jaffna annually during the festival season since the war ended.
Another interesting feature of the festival was that the festivities and the rituals were transmitted to Europe, live by Jaffna‘s own regional television channel, DAN TV from the kovil premises.
On the 24th day – when the glittering chariot carrying the deities rolled out of its enclosure to the chorus of Arohara, a Sri Lanka Air Force Bell -212 helicopter gunship, which engaged the LTTE in the past, circled the skies above the tall towers of the Nallur Kovil. However, unlike in the past, the arrival of the helicopter was the signal for the devotees to gather outside the kovil, pulling the ropes of the sturdy wooden chariot, the bells of which chimed melodiously, as it moved along.
The gunners, usually seated on both sides of the chopper manning heavy machine guns were not seen with the lethal weapons, but with rose and lotus petals and jasmine flowers, which they showered over the chariot of Lord Skanda to the chanting of Arohara from devotes on the ground, seeking blessing from the air.
The Bell helicopter gunship now very much in use for VIP transportation in the North circled thrice above the chariot before the flower shower. There was even a stampede to catch the petals dropped by the helicopter.
The follower shower added a positive touch to the festival of the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, forecasting, hopefully good times for the Peninsula, haunted by violence and fear these past 30 years. courtesy: Ceylon Today