The Ketheeshwaram temple, also transcribed Thiruketheeshvaram or Tiruketeeswaram or simply Ketiswaram, is a Sri Lankan Hindu temple near the island of Mannar. It is one of the Pancha Ihwarams, the 5 holiest Shiva temples outside mainland India. Ketheeshwaram has a two and a half millennia long tradition as a place of Shiva worship. It is said to be more ancient than Sinhalese migration and introduction of Buddhism on the island. Indeed, Ketheeshvaram is located close to Mattotam, one of the most important ancient seaports of Sri Lanka.
According to legends, the Ketheeshwaram temple is even millennia older. Manthodarie, the wife of Lanka’s demon king Ravana, is believed to have been from this town, her father is said to have built the Ketheeshwaram temple. The name-giving legend has it, that the planetary god Ketu performed ascetic “tapas” and worshipped Shiva in this shrine, “Eeshwaram” (Ishwaram) being a name of Shiva. It is also believed, that Rishi Agasthya, one of the most venerated Indian sages on his pilgrimage to the southernmost Shiva shrines prayed at Ketheeshvaram before proceeding to his final destination, Koneshwaram in Trincomalee.
A magnificent temple building was constructed during the era of Pallava hegemony in southern India (7th to 9th century). It was then that famous Tamil saints and poets such Tirugnana Sambandhar and Sundarar composed verses praising the Lord of Tiruketeeswaram and the sacred waters of the Teertha, the temple’s pond. The Portuguese invaders, who were Christian fanatics, destroyed the Ketheeshwaram Kovil. The temple stones were reused for building the Mannar Fort and churches.
A rebuilding project, propagated by the famous Tamil reformist Aramuga Navalar, started in 1903 with a consecration ceremony, after the exact location of the destroyed temple had been traced in 1894. A small shrine was completed in 1910. The central shrine was modified in 1921. The holy pond was restored 2 years after independence of Ceylon from British rule. In October 1948 the Thiruketheeswaram Temple Restoration Society was founded, which renovated the temple and performed a washing ceremony called Kumbhabishekam in 1952. Today’s temple building is the result of enlargements started by the Temple Restoration Society in 1953, a Kumbhabishekam ceremony was held in the renovated temple in 1960 after the first phase of reconstruction. The temple was finalized in 1976, when an another Kumbhabhishekam was held on the 4th of July.
Annually, thousands of Hindu pilgrims gather at Ketheeswaram on Shivaratri night for veneration of Lord Shiva. On the following morning, they perform ablutionary baths in the sacred temple pond.
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