Mavittapurm , Keeramali and some questions raised by place-names folk lore - Sri Lanka Guardian


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Monday, September 9, 2013

Mavittapurm , Keeramali and some questions raised by place-names folk lore

| by Chandre Dharmawardana

( September 9, 2013, Ottawa, Sri Lanka Guardian) In an interesting recent internet article by, Ms. Dushyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai has repeated one version of an old anecdotal explanation of the place-name "Mavittapuram". This story is somewhat in the same tradition as the story given to "explain" the place-name "Yalpanam" in terms of a blind lute player; the latter story does not find favour with historians as well as older authorities like Fr. Rasanayagam.

The story regarding 'Mavittapuram' claims that 'Ma' could refer to horse in Tamil, while 'Vitta' could be construed to mean 'removed', while 'puram' (Sanskrit, 'Pura' and '(p)Ur' in old Tamil) means city. So the intriguing 'horse-removed-city' name is substantiated with the following story:

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"A teenage Chola Princess in South India was cursed by a 'Muni' (a sage ) who was angered when he was laughed at by the princess - clearly a very spiteful sage! In some versions of the story, the sage had a "horse-like" face and it was this that caused the princess to laugh at the sage. The curse turned the face of the princess into that of a horse. In order to undo the curse, the princess had to come to Lanka and bathe at the Keerimalai sacred springs, and offer penance to Lord Murugan".

However, we should consider the old Tamil word 'maavital', and also the word 'mavita' in Sanskrit, signifying 'bound', 'marked-of' or 'tied together' (Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary) before re-invoking this traditional but far fetched horse-removed-city name? Perhaps the legendary story fits better with Dushianthini K's interest in presenting her story associated with the Murugan temple. Nevertheless, it is important to look at a more prosaic, if less exciting point of view that may be closer to reality. Of course, there is no water-tight proof of any of these explanations about place-names unless we can find clenching literary or archeological evidence. Such support is available only rarely. But it is not difficult to recognize pure folk-lore for what they are.

The story reported by Dushyanthni K is inconsistent, or has incorrectly confused several threads of Hindu iconography and representations of the avatars of Lord Vishnu, Ganesh, Murugan etc., as well as the historical facts associated with the 'Keeramali (Vakulakanda)' shrine. Keerimalai (Vakulakanda) is associated with Lord Nakulesvaran (rather than Lord Murugan), i.e., the mongoose-faced God of Hinduism and also of early Mahayana Buddhism where 'Vakula' is the name of a Mahayana-Arhant (i.e., a Buddhist saint who has achieved one of the higher mental states leading to emancipation). This Arhant had a mongoose as his pet and personal companion. Thus 'Keeramalai ' itself has layers of history in it, with an early fusion of Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism that was typical of the 'Pasupathi' cult that probably existed here, contemporaneously with the rise of the Pasupathi movement in India.

In contrast, the horse-faced Hindu deity is 'Hayagriva', and is a part of Vaishnavite worship rather than that of Murugan. Furthermore, many of the Hayagriva Kovils are old temples designated to God Naka, the God of the Naga tribes, and are found in towns with links to the Nagas, e.g., in cities with name like Nakpur (Nallur), and not really associated with Lord Murugan.

Professor Kathigesu Indrapala had expressed the view (2005) that none of the Jaffna temples except the Nakulesvaran temple in Keeramalai has an ancient history. On the other hand this view may have to be modified when we recognize that Nallur ('Nak-ur or Nagapura') most probably had a temple dedicated to God 'Naka', the totemic God of the Naga people from early times. Furthermore, according to the Historian Bandu de Silva, the Nakula story could have risen from an ancient belief of a Yaksha cult, 'Nakua', whose totemic symbol was the mongoose. Such a Yaksha temple may have existed at the present Keeeramali site in those ancient times when Nallur had a temple dedicated to God Natha.

So what does the place-name Mavittapuram mean?

The word 'Maavita' most probably means a demarcated area (c.f., old Tamil, maavital, and mavita in Sanskrit), signifying 'bound', 'marked-of' or 'tied together'. Thus the area is tied with the more important Keerimalai (Vakulakada) shrine. In fact, an alternative Hindu name that has been used from time to time, mentioned by Ms. Kanagasapabathipillai was "Kovil Kadavi", which can be interpreted to means "the neighborhood under the control of the Kovil". So the latter is consistent with the meaning of Maavittipuram, the long-standing name. The "designated area", i.e., Mavittapuram, was also designated mainly for the higher castes who had sufficient purity to work in a sacred area. Hence, this area has always been a hot-bed of casteism.Could it be that the Murugan temple was at first meant for the use of the lower castes, and later re-consecrated to a higher status on rebuilding after its destruction by the Portuguese?

Archeological excavations near Mavittapuram and Keerimalai are badly needed, and such explorations would surely produce an amazing treasure trove of artifacts.

Shanmugathasan's Peking-wing (Communist Party) agitated in 1976-1977 here for low-caste temple-entry-rights, schools, water-wells etc., and accused the TULF-Federal party and S. J. V. Chelvanayakam for supporting the caste system. He challenged Mr. Chelvanayagam to re-contest his seat on the caste issue. Neither the aging Mr. Chelvanayagam, nor the TULF on the high road to militant Nationalism was interested in that gauntlet hurled by the communists.

This has of course been historically a very caste conscious area. Thus recorded caste clashes here are found from 1871 up to modern times. The earliest documented clashes occurred between 'Vellalar', 'Vanavar' (dhobies) and 'Ambattar '(barbers) groups in Mavittapuram. The conflicts started when the the dhobies refused to wash the barbers' clothes. The Vellalar have been blamed for those early conflagration where they attempted to impose the usual orthodox hierarchy.

We have discussed many aspects of the place-name "Mavittapuram" in the write up in our place-names website: ( Click here to visit)

One should also also examine the place of legends of the sort retold by Ms. Dushyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai in the context of today's human values. Just as university Presidents all over the world are forced to look at the 'tradition-sanctioned' ragging, and misogynist 'frosh' lyrics enacted annually at this time of the year, intelligent temple devotees need to ask what type of values are being unwittingly fueled by the message implicit in traditional devotional practice as well as the folk lore.

In the folk story of the Muni who lashes out a curse against the insensitivity of a teenage princess, we do not expect to see our modern values regarding how to treat juvenile miscreants, nor ancient values of compassion and justice. However, there may be young impressionable minds that may be mis-directed by all this. In contrast to the human values found in the Silappadikaram, Thirukkural or many Jain and Buddhist (e.g. Jathaka) accounts, the folklore accounts associated with the adulation of these deities seem to push forward concepts of human mortification and self-punishment at odds with modern values. Piety and abject devotion are demonstrated by hanging from hooks and other acts of sacrifice. These sacrifices can be, and are pushed to extremes in temple-sacrifices of living creatures. The history of this type of devotion is replete with acts of suicide tied to "higher causes" espoused by gods, or individuals apotheosized into Gods. Or, even trivially, devotees cast themselves to death under the wheels of the 'Sapparaum' or chariot.

Evidently, the writings of Vivekananda and others have not penetrated the camphor-laden smoke of the inspiring drama enacted in the temple grounds. The mindsets of these devotees co-exist without seeing any contradiction in a technological world where flowers are rained over the temple grounds using helicopters.

The recent thirty-year Eelam wars, and the subsequent churning of people in and out of the region, as well as the vast infra-structural development in communications and roads are likely to give a better chance to the people of all stations in life, as well as the Kururals and Gods, to co-exist peacefully. Hopefully, the wonderful surreal drama of the temple festival can occur without the implicit negative moral implications, as the Kururals themselves become more sensitive to modern human values. The re-commencement of the temple festivals from the 1990s, when the government asserted its control on the Jaffna peninsula, and their invigorated continuation under the more eased conditions prevailing today should be welcomed by everyone. Ideally, all should have free access to the temples, without restrictions of caste and race.