Lord Skanda-Murugan

Antiquity of Murukan Cult in Ancient Sri Lanka:
A Historical Perspective

S. Kailash Sitrampalam

Although there have been many writings on the cult of Murukan, hardly an attempt has been made to trace the antiquity of this cult in Sri Lanka. The present study is an attempt in this direction on the basis of literary and archaeological sources both from Tamilakam and Sri Lanka during the period preceding the Christian era. This becomes imperative in view of the geographical proximity and other close ties of these two regions.

Nevertheless, unlike in the case of Tamilakam, there are no Tamil literary sources in co-eval with the Cankam period. Available Tamil literature dates back to the medieval period only. As a result, one has to fall back on Cankam literature to elucidate the cultural elements associated with the cult of Murukan. Although the form Murukan does not figure in the Sri Lankan sources, yet there is other evidence to indicate that this cult in Sri Lanka is as old as its counterpart in Tamilakam.

Of the other Sri Lankan literary sources, the Mahāvamsa, datable to sixth century AD, forms the main source of information. However, the concern of the author of Mahāvamsa was to narrate the history of Buddhism and from his point of view all faiths other than Buddhism are false faiths. The author never failed to label Hindu faith as false faith whenever the occasion arose (Mahāvamsa 1950: XXI. 34). Nevertheless, the stray references scattered here and there, that too with the events connected with Buddhism are useful when correlated with other evidence pertaining to this cult. Likewise, even in the case of Brahmi inscriptions datable to the first three centuries preceding the Christian era and which record the donation of cases to Buddhist religious order, the names of donors found in them are useful in projecting the pre-Buddhist Hindu religious beliefs prevailing in Sri Lanka before the introduction of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC (Sitrampalam, 1990-a: 285-309).

Archaeological research in Tamilakam and Sri Lanka during the last quarter of the century has necessitated a fresh approach regarding the origin of civilization in both Tamilakam and Sri Lanka. Although scholars have been unanimous in their view that the culture of the Cankam Age is the product of South Indian megalithic culture, many echoed the view that the authors of the megalithic culture and the preceding neolithic culture are different.

However, the analyses of material from excavations both archaeological (Allchin, B. and Allchin F.R.1968: 232) and anthropological (Kennedy, K.A.R 1975: 75-80) have shown that the present day inhabitants of South India, inclusive of Tamilakam, are the lineal descendants of the neolithic folk (Sitrampalam S.K. 1983: 55-63). This confirms the presence of proto-Dravidian speakers in south India during the third millennium BC, coexisting with the hunting Austroloids, Veddoids who preceded them (Sitrampalam, S.K.1991: 135-148). It may not be far-fetched to presume that the agricultural and hunting cultures have interacted and got assimilated in the growth of Murukan-Valli myths of early Cankam literature.

In Sri Lanka too, archaeological research since 1970 has provided new data regarding the origin of civilization of the island. As in the case of the far south of Tamilakam, Sri Lanka too has gone through the stages of late stone age hunting from mesolithic to megalithic culture instead of an intervening neolithic cultural phase (Sitrampalam, S.K.1990 1-17). Moreover, the available data shows that the spread of South Indian megalithic culture paved the way for the emergence of civilization in Sri Lanka as in Tamilakam. This cultural phase could be equated with the proto-historic phase of the Śrī Lankan history datable to 1000 BC to 250 BC. As in the case of Tamilakam, Sri Lankan culture too is the product of the Dravidians with the Austroloid-Veddoid stand in it. This culture was superimposed by the North Indian cultural penetration associated with Buddhism in the third century BC. In short, Sinhalization was a culturalization process associated with the spread of Buddhism and its consolidation (Susantha, G. 1980: 18-19; 22-29).

The above data necessitates a fresh approach, with regard to names and myths found in the Mahāvamsa datable to proto-historic period. Tambapanni, name of the island mentioned in Mahāvamsa, could well mean Tanporunai, a river in the Tirunelvely district of Tamilakam where the famous Ādiccanallur burial site lies. It is very likely that Tanpōrunai became sanskritised as Tāmravarni and later prakrtised as Tambapanni (Sitrampalam, S.K.1993: 58 ). This is an evidence for the early colonisation of the island by the people of Tanporunai delta and as a memory of this the island was so named. It is also interesting to note that the Ādiccanallūr burials have yielded archaeological evidence for the cult of Murukan dating back to at least 1000 BC (Nilakanta Sastri, K.A. 1976: 59; 1992: 22). Tantalisingly enough, the urns burial site of Pomparippu in Sri Lanka where the spear of Murukan (Vēl) has been unearthed is an archaeological counterpart of Ādiccanallūr (Sitrampalam. S. K. 1990b: 263-297).

The myths of marriage of Vijaya to a Pandyan princess dating back to fifth century B.C could be interpreted as a pointer towards the early Pandyan and Sril Lankan ties (Sitramapalam. S.K. 1993: 55). This again is confirmed by the form Pandu by which the Pandyas of Tamilakam are referred to in the Pali chronicles, appearing along with the names of kings such as Pandu Vasudeva, and Pandukabhaya during the a pre-Buddhist period (Sitrampalam. S.K. 1993: 57). Finally the Kājaragāma (Kataragama), and Candanagāma ksatriyas who ruled over southeastern Sri Lanka at the time of the introduction of Buddhism seem to be of Pandyan origin. For the presence of figure of a single fish reminiscent of the early Pandyan symbol (Paranavitana.S 1970) and the Prakrit rendering of the Pandyan epithet Miīnavan as Maji-mā-rāja in their inscriptions are noteworthy evidence (Paranavitana. S 1970; 406).

It is also significant to note the location of some of the most archaic Murukan temples of Sri Lanka, inclusive of Kataragama, in the domain of the Ksatriyas of Kājaragāma and Candanagāma. Equally fascinating is the presence of archaic Murukan temples in the ancient Pandyan region, which is geographically on the opposite coast of Sri Lanka.

It is probably the inaccessibility of the above data which was a hurdle even for the scholars who probed into the antiquity of this cult in Sri Lanka. They satisfy themselves by saying that the explanation of these old cultural ties of Ceylon and South India are somewhat hypothetical in the present state of our knowledge and I would not like to make any definite suggestions. There may be a common older stratum of population which was represented by the Nagas in Ceylon. Other explanations are possible as well.

In any case, the study of Ceylonese tradition helps to evaluate important development of South Indian culture and to trace the earlier phases of the spread of Tamil culture (Bechert, 1973: 205). However our study of this earlier phase of the cult of Murukan is confirmed further not only because of its popularity among the Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus even today, but also by the comparison of this phase with the living folk religion of the Sri Lankan Buddhists and the religion of aboriginal Austroloids-Veddas.

As indicated above the genesis of the cult of Murukan may be traceable to Neolithic hill dwellers of South India. The description of this god as having his abode in the hilly region (kuruñci) clearly conforms this. This cult of Murukan later spread to the plains. His kinship with the flora and fauna of the hills is also attested by the Cankam literature. It is very likely that the original hunting culture in course of time would have been associated with fertility as well when the early Dravidian culture passed through the pastoral and agricultural stages and matured itself as the cult of Murukan in the Cankam literature.

Murukan worship did not undergo anthropomorphism during this phase. Instead, his worship was centred around the spear (Vēl), dancing in frenzy (veriyātal) by the priest (Vēlan) who had a spear in his hands while dancing, sacrificing animals and offering food. Kōttam was the place where he was worshipped. Kuravai dance was also performed at the time of worship. Kōttam was normally divided into sixty-four units known as palpirampu. It could be either square or rectangular in shape (Samy, P.L. 1971: 294-302). Usually it was set up in a house or river delta, or before a katampu tree. A kantu (a small crude pillar) came to be used as a representation of this god and was usually set up under a katampu tree. Valli as a creeper is often associated with Murukan's Vēnkai tree. She is nowhere mentioned as his consort in Narrinai (1962 V.92.4). Teyvayānai is however not mentioned as his consort in the Cankam literature (Zvelebil. K.V. 1991: 81). In anthropological terminology Murukan-Valli marriage may also be interpreted as a fusion of Dravidian culture with that of the Austroloid-Veddoid culture.

As mentioned above, Vēl or spear was the earliest symbol of Murukan. This is also confirmed by the presence of this symbol in the archaic temples of both Tamilakam and Sri Lanka even today. As this was carried by the priest at the performance of the dance both the priest and the god came to be known as Vēlan. The antiquity of this cult is vouchsafed from Ādiccanallur ( Nilakanta Sastri, K.N. 1976: 57; 1992: 22). Besides the spear, his cock emblem and the mouth pieces used by kavati bearers have also been unearthed here. These finds are dated at least to 1,000 BC.

At this juncture it is relevant to remember that the urn burials are the earliest forms of burial customs of the Dravidians dating back to Neolithic times. Urn burials also have been reported in Kataragama, one of the famous archaic Murukan temples of Śrī Lanka (Sitrampalam. S.K, 1990: 1-17). Spearheads (vēl) have also been found at Kantarodai in Northern Sri Lanka (Sitrampalam. S.K. 1996: 82). It has also been depicted as a graffiti mark on megalithic pottery from another pre-historic site, namely Anuradhapura (Deraniyagala. S.U.1972: 48-162). Finally it figures as a symbol on pre-Christian coins of Sri Lanka, namely the Lakshmi plaques (Pushparatnam, 1998).

The worship of Vēl reminds us of the concept of patai vītu or military camps mentioned in Tirumurukārruppatai. It has even been surmised that Kunrutōrātal is actually a reference to Kataragama of Sri Lanka (Shanmugadas, A and Manonmani, S. 1990). Besides Tiruccentūr which is on the coast, all the other patai vītu sites are on hills.

Even the concept of patai vītu is now surviving in the name of the archaic Murukan temples of Eastern Sri Lanka. Here all the ancient temples are known as tiruppatai temples, as auspicious or sacred prefix tiru is added to patai (weapon / Vēl) in order to attribute sanctity to the temples.

In all these temples Vēl (spear) is the main centre of worship. Tirukkōvil, Periyaporaitiīvu Cittirai Vēlāyuta Cuvāmi Temple, Mantūr Kanta Cuvāmi Temple, Cittānti Kanta Cuvāmi Temple, Ukantamalai Murukan Temple, and Verukal Cittirai Vēlāyuta Cuvāmi Temple are some of these. It is also worthy to note the appearance of the form vēlāyuta (Vēl-weapon) is associated with many of these temples. Here the Vēl alone is worshipped in the sanctum sanctorum. Even in some other temples which have gone through the process of Sanskritization, Vēl continues its place in the sanctum sanctorum. Noted examples are Kanta Cuvāmi temples at Nallūr and Maviddapuram.

Besides Vēl, Kalam also figured in the worship of Murukan as mentioned earlier. Although the custom of Veriyāttu is losing its popularity in Tamilakam, in Kerala (old Cera country) it is even performed to this day where it is known as Tiruaiyāttam or Pēyāttam. Kalam is also called yantram in Kerala (Samy. P. L. 1971: 297). One can see the continuity of this custom at Kataragama even today. For Murukan here is represented in the form of a yantra or magical diagram alone.

The vēlan priests are also mentioned in pre-Christian Brahmi inscriptions of Śrī Lanka where the form vēlan occurs as vēla. These are found in Anuradhapura, Amparai and Matale districts of Sri Lanka. Handagala inscription (Paranavitana. S. 1970: 1125) from Anruradhapura speaks of a cave of parumaka vēla (Vēlan). Parumaka Vēla (Vēlan) also figures in the inscriptions of Omunagala and Upapidakalkande of Amparai district (Paranavitana. S. 1970: 403 and 477). Nilagam inscription from Matale district also refers to the cave of Gamika Vēla (Paranavitana, S. 1970: 880). It may however be noted here that the titles parumaka and gamika denoted the high ranking officials of pre-Christian Sri Lanka. It is very likely that either the Vēlan priests who were present at the time of the introduction of Buddhism donated these caves to Buddhists or they continued to have their older name indicative of their original faith even after their conversion to Buddhism.

Cankam literature speaks of Vēlan priests who belonged to the non-agamic tradition of worship. Even today in the ancient temples of Murukan in Sri Lanka, the worship is performed by priests who follow non-agamic traditions. This brings to our memory the role of the vēlan priests of the Cankam age. In these temples rituals were also not governed by agamic traditions. At Kataragama these priests are known as kappurālas. Brahmin priests perform worship only at the shrine of Tevayānai, which is, of course, a later addition to the cult of Skanda-Murukan at Kataragama. Kappukanār is the term used for the priests who perform the worship at Murukan temples in Eastern Sri Lanka. Normally in all these temples vēl or yantra in the sanctum sanctorum is shrouded behind a curtain when worship is performed. Covering of mouth by a piece of cloth during the performance of worship by the priest is also another significant custom in these temples.

The katampu tree was also associated with the cult of Murukan in ancient times. This is quite evident from the description of the worship performed under this tree in the Cankam literature. Sometimes spear or kantu was planted under this tree and people used to prostrate before them. In the Mahāvamsa (Ch. XIX: 72-76; Ch. XXXIII: 84-86; Ch. XXXV: 104-118), katampu groves are mentioned as sacred groves during the pre-Buddhist period. According to Mahāvamsa, symbols of worship associated with Buddhism were planted in these groves and other pre-Buddhist cult centres (Paranavitana, S. 1929; 302-327). Hence it is very likely that the katampu tree, which was part of Murukan cult during the pre-Buddhist times, later became associated with Buddhist modes of worship. This is not a new phenomenon in Buddhism because wherever Buddhism spread, it never failed to accomodate the pre-Buddhist cults within its fold.

In the above context one has to take congnizance of the view of Bechert (1970: 199-206) who argues for the presence of a common early stratum of religious belief centred around Murukan between Tamilakam and Sri Lanka. According to him the early Cankam work Tolkāppiyam (Porulatikāram 5), mentions a group of four tutelary deities presiding over the four regions of Tamilakam. They are Māyōn for mullai (forest region) Cēylōn (Murukan) for kuriñci (mountain region), Vēntan for marutam (plains) and Varunan for neytal (coastal region). Bechert through his study of the folk religion of the Sinhalese, argues for the survival of this tradition of four group of divinities in the Sinhalese folk religion even today as in the old Tamil religion. According to Bechert, Sri Lanka retains to a great extent the aboriginal modes of worship. This was due to the different structure of the Sinhalese religion where the cult of the gods was placed at the lower level than Buddhism. Therefore, the impetus for a further development of the ideas of the gods was less than with the Tamils where the cult of the gods formed the higher level of religion.

He further opines that it is not surprising therefore, that the cult of the gods could retain certain archaic features in the Sinhalese culture that were lost in South India. According to him in the group of four divinities in the Sinhalese folk religion Māyōn (Uppalavanna), Murukan (Lord of Kataragama) even to-day retain their older features, although the names of the last two were replaced by different gods in the course of time.

To add more weight to his argument he further says that tradition concerning the wife of Murukan, namely Valli, belongs to the stock of indigenous tradition and the identification of Murukan with Skanda is the result of Sanskritization of South India and Śrī Lanka during the medieval period. Even the worship of Tevayānai at Kataragama was brought to Sri Lanka as late as the seventeenth century by a North Indian sannyasin named Kalyanagiri. Moreover, it is also important to note that the Tevayānai Temple is the only temple in the Kataragama-Skanda temple complex to employ Brahmins as priests.

The survival of the early Dravidian form of Murukan worship among the aboriginal Veddas of Sri Lanka had been highlighted by Parker and the Seligmanns, as pointed out by Fred W.Clothey (1975: 38-40). Accordingly, the worship of Gāleyakā (demon of the rock), Malaipey (hill demon), Kallupey (rock demon) Malaiya Swāmi (God of Hills) are none other than the god of the hills of South India, i.e. Murukan. The ritual dances of the Veddas are reminiscent of the Veriyātal of the Vēlan priest.

According to South Indian tradition, the Murukan-Valli marriage took place in Tirupparankunram, whereas the Sri Lankan tradition claims that it took place at Vedahitikanda, old Kataragama and later the holy couple were persuaded to descend to the present site beside the Menik Ganga.

Thus archaeological research in Tamilakam and Sri Lanka has given a new perception to the antiquity of the cult of Murukan in this region. This evidence, along with data from the Cankam literature, indicates a common cultural base of the Murukan cult in these regions preceding Sanskritization of South India and conversion of the Sinhala kingdom to Buddhism.

While among the Tamil Hindus the worship of Murukan continues to play a prominent role as in ancient days, among the Sinhalese Buddhists it survives as a folk religion. The religion of the Veddas exhibits many features of this cult. This evidence, when pieced together, vouchsafes the antiquity of the cult of Murukan in Sri Lankan as in Tamilakam.


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Dr. S.K. Sitrampalam, M.A., Ph.D. (Poona) is a specialist in South Asian history and archaeology and professor of history at the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka. His five published books include History of Hinduism in Sri Lanka (1996).