Koneswaram Temple of a Thousand Columns

One of Sri Lanka's most important Hindu temple sites, the temple of Koneswaram, is situated on the highest point of spectacular Swami Rock, on a thin peninsula situated next to the town of Trincomalee. It's a temple we see in the distance every day on our Blue Whale Snorkel & Photography Ocean Giant Expeditions each March; and sometimes bring our boats up close for dramatic views of the monument from the sea.

On Sri Lanka's arid east coast, Trincomalee has always been one of Sri Lanka's finest deep water ports and a major site of colonial dispute for hundreds of years. It's a city that has been fought over by the Dutch, Portuguese, British and Sri Lankans themselves for hundreds of years. When approached from the land, Koneswaram Temple and Swami Rock can be great vantage points to see Blue Whales swimming out at sea.

According to Hindu myth, Indra the King of the Gods, used Koneswaram as a place of worship; while Rawana, the demon king brought the swayambhu lingam (a natural sacred power stone) from Tibet's Mount Kailash to Koneswaram. Rawana was forced by Shiva, the creator of the universe, to leave the sacred lingam at Swami when he tried to steal the whole Koneswaram temple from the site. 

After the gods had finished trying to steal sections of the temple and in more historical times, the temple became a centre for the Hindu religion and Tamil culture, supported by many of great southern Indian dynasties including the Pandyan, Pallava and Chola empires. The temple, enhanced by its magnificent position, grew with its fame and by the late middle ages its legendary status had spread far enough to be well known to European traders and explorers. It was known as the 'Rome of the Orient' and one of the three great temples as the 'temple of a thousand columns'. 

Neither the temple's awe-inspiring beauty, nor its location or historic importance inspired any healthy respect from the Europeans, who where just beginning to see opportunities for imperial expansion in Koneswaram and Sri Lankan East coast. In 1624 the Portuguese attacked and destroyed the temple, taking everything of immediate value for sale, using carved stone to create their own fortress - now known as Fort Frederick - and simply shoving any remaining 'unused' sections of the temple over the cliff into the Indian Ocean. 

Many of these sections of the temple were lost for hundreds of years, despite having incredible historic and cultural value. In the 1960s, the novelist, explorer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke and the photographer Mike Wilson rediscovered many submerged sections of the ancient temple, including the legendary swayambhu lingam. Many of the pieces were retrieved and enshrined in a partially restored temple complex that sits on Swami Rock today. Although the fort was built by the Portuguese, their influence in this part of Sri Lanka was short lived. The Dutch captured Fort Frederick from the Portuguese in 1639 and stayed for over 140 years before Trincomalee was taken over by the British in 1796. The British stayed in Sri Lanka until after the Second World War in 1948. 

Wellesley Lodge, also on Swami Rock, was built by the British. The Duke of Wellington stayed here in 1800, in this lovely area of wooded parkland with beautiful views out to Trincomalee town and the Indian Ocean. Some of the finest views are to be had from 'Lovers Leap' at the far end of Swami Rock. It's here a young Dutch girl, Francina van Rhede apparently threw herself off the cliff after losing her lover, only to survive and get married 8 years later.

Koneswaram and Trincomalee town are in many ways representative of Sri Lanka's incredible historical and physical diversity. Don't go expecting to see the untouched greatness of the ancient Hindu temple, although the site's remains and rebuilt temple is certainly fascinating. The monument is now just as fascinating for its colonial history, with the remains of the Portuguese, Dutch and English empires. Trincomalee was badly affected by the civil war between the Tamil Tigers and Sinhalese Government forces for almost 30 years as well; however since the defeat of the Tigers in the East the city has become an increasingly forward looking and attractive location. 

As with much of the rest of Sri Lanka nature is also a great attraction, with whale watching trips in search of blue whales, sperm whales and spinner dolphins being a major bonus in the deep blue waters directly of the coast of Trinicomalee. Pigeon Island, just up the coast is a lovely spot to don a mask and snorkel and explore Sri Lanka's colourful and abundant marine life. Several days' worth of exploration in a small a unique area!

  • Koneswaram Hindu Temple on Swami Rock Trincomalee - photo by Jane Coleman
  • Hindu Temple of Koneswaram in Trincomalee Swami Rock Sri Lanka - photo by Jane Coleman

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