Kanniya hot springs, a set of wells about 10 kilometres from Trincomalee town along the A-12 highway, is a sacred spot for Hindus in Sri Lanka. But the Sri Lankan Army’s ubiquitous presence in Tamil areas extends to this site as well.
A Buddha statue, built after the Sri Lankan Army won the civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, can be seen a short distance away from the well. Aided by the Sri Lankan archaeological department, efforts are on to convert the area into a Buddhist heritage site, said a long-time resident of Trincomalee, who did not wish to be named.
Sinhala websites proclaim that the place was once a Buddhist monastery. One English website, amazinglanka.com, claims that “these wells belonged to a great Buddhist monastery” that spanned a vast area. It added that “Eelamisation of the North and East” had destroyed most of the Buddhist remains and that “Eelamists” had been “erasing all signs” of an ancient Buddhist civilisation in these areas for the last 30-40 years.
A short distance away, the Thiru Koneswaram temple, located on Swami Rock, and accessed through the Sri Lankan Army-controlled Fort Fredrick, has a different but easily relatable problem. “Thiru Koneswaram is a place of worship for Hindus. We want that place to be holy and [it] should not be converted into a tourist destination. When it becomes a tourist destination, then it loses sanctity. It should remain a pilgrimage destination,” said a prominent member of the local Hindu community.
The temple, which was repeatedly destroyed during the war and in earlier times, is considered one of the most holy sites for Hindus. Ever since the civil war ended, believers have contributed to the construction of a makeshift structure that now houses the temple. The local residents want the Indian government’s help to build a path around the temple so that some of the rituals can be performed. As of now, even local efforts are thwarted by the archaeological department, which claims that tampering with the hilltop, where the temple is located, is not desirable.
In fact, when the High Commissioner of India visited the temple on October 2, the temple trust president Thusyanthan briefed him on the temple’s history and submitted a proposal for its restoration as a pilgrimage destination for devotees from near and far.
The war years
It is impossible to estimate the number of Hindu temples destroyed during the war years because the state had no control over the Tamil regions for decades until the war ended in 2009.
A July 6, 2010, report in Hindustan Times quoted Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader S. Yogeswaran as saying in Parliament that 500 Hindu temples in the North and the East were damaged during the military operations. However, in 2014, an organisation sympathetic to the LTTE, in response to a query, said in an email to this correspondent that 1,342 temples had been destroyed. (The LTTE ran the government in large parts of the North and the East until 2009). In all, the mail claimed, 2,076 temples were destroyed. This is also the number tweeted by an account named Subcontinent (@subcontinent_) in November 2020, quoting Tamil scholar M. Neiminathan and the Federation of Saiva (Hindu) Temples.
According to 1993 statistics available with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Hindu Religious and Cultural Affairs, there were 1,607 registered temples, of which 1,479 were damaged.
In 2011, India signed an agreement to provide 32.6 crore Lankan rupees to restore the Thiruketheeswaram Siva temple, one of the five sacred Ishwarams dedicated to Siva, located in the north-eastern district of Mannar. Restoration work commenced in 2012.
The problem goes much beyond the destruction of temples sacred to Tamils, who are a minority in the country but in a majority in several villages in the North and the East. In hundreds of villages where Tamils are in a majority, the Army, along with the Sinhala-Buddhist establishment, has been changing the landscape by establishing more Buddhist temples and Buddhist statues, taking over land in the name of setting up camps and accommodation for the armed forces, and resettling Sinhalas in these areas. There is a deliberate policy of Sinhalisation aimed at erasing the cultural and linguistic identity of Tamil-dominant areas.
TNA leader R. Sampanthan, who is also the MP from Trincomalee, said: “It is not merely a Tamil question. It is a Hindu question…. The Sinhala population [in the North and the East] is being increased through resettlement…. The Tamil people have become victims again. They are leaving the country. If this goes on, the people will be unable to maintain their identity in this country. The international community should not permit that. The idea is to make the demand for a federal set-up in the north and the east unnecessary or unable to achieve by settlements.” Sri Lankan Tamils in the North and the East hope that India will intervene and stop the destruction of Hindu religious sites and help in the rebuilding of several temples, which were destroyed or damaged during the war years or earlier.
On the question of land grab, Jaffna Member of Parliament and TNA’s prominent face, M.A. Sumanthiran, said that the issue deserved “immediate attention”. In a report in The Sunday Morning, published on November 27, 2022, he was quoted as saying: “That is primary because it’s happening at the moment. It is actively happening in various places and we have highlighted it. We have brought it to the attention of this President, the former President, but it still goes on unabated. This is crucial, it must be halted and then reversed.”
Even as the Tamils are fighting to regain their land and their public spaces, the government in Colombo has issued fresh orders sanctioning further takeover of land.
A September 23, 2022, circular of the Ministry of Tourism and Lands has decided to go ahead with taking over 1,614.11 acres in Jaffna for establishing a “high security zone”.
Sumanthiran said that these lands had been occupied since the 1990s, adding that even when original owners stake their claim they were not even accorded a hearing. Along with the takeover of lands, Buddha viharas and statues have been built all along the stretch.
On one occasion, Sumanthiran even raised in Parliament the issue of the contents of a confidential document, signed by a Sri Lankan Minister, to bifurcate the linguistic contiguity of the North and the East by altering the ethnic composition of Mullaitivu south and Trincomalee north.
In a letter to the then President in June 2020, he raised this very issue: “The breaking up of the Tamil linguistic continuity between the eastern and the northern provinces has been an objective of the majoritarian political leadership for a long time…. Land was alienated to persons from the majority community from outside the north-east on the boundary of the north-east, in an area called ‘Malal Aru’ or ‘Welioya’ and institutional arrangements set up to facilitate this program. These efforts are a continuing process. The bifurcation of Tamil linguistic continuity in the north-east could not succeed due to the existence of traditional Tamil villages which had been historically inhabited by the Tamil people.”
Representatives of Tamil political parties, other than those aligned with the government, have alleged that the steps to bring in cultural symbols from the south, as well as the land grab, had not abated even during the tumultuous months early this year when it appeared that Sri Lanka was headed towards chaos. They hope that India will intervene to help re-establish the places of worship because most of these temples are holy to all Hindus, not just for those in Sri Lanka.
>• The Sri Lankan establishment is planting Buddhist symbols in Hindu sacred sites.
• The Kanniya hot springs and the Thiru Koneswaram temple are among their main targets.
• The Army is not returning occupied lands to its rightful owners.
• In 2011, India agreed to provide 32.6 crore Lankan rupees to restore the Thiruketheeswaram Siva temple.
• Representatives of Tamil political parties hope India will intervene to help re-establish places of worship.