Tirukethiswaram and the Silk Road of the Sea

Tirukethiswaram and the Silk Road of the Sea

The history of the Sri Lankan temple of Tirukethiswaram should be viewed in the context of ancient navigational routes. Tirukethiswaram was located in Mantai, a center of sea-borne commercial links between China and the Mediterranean in the first millennium of the Common-Era (CE).

As I am not a historian by academic training, I rely here on the works of Professor Martha Prickett, Dr. Moira Tampoe, Professor S. Pathmanathan, Dr. K Indrapala, Professor RALH Gunawardene, Professor John Carswell, Professor Alan Graham, Dr. W.I. Siriweera and C.W. Nicholas. This article is a sequel to an earlier write-up of mine titled “Jaffna: A Medieval Tamil Hindu State” published by India Facts on August 25, 2014.


The story of Tirukethiswaram illustrates how Hindu temples were often positioned on lucrative trade routes. The political and mercantile interests that benefited from commercial transactions sponsored such places of worship which provided the ideological sanction for productive activity. Tirukethiswaram stood at a center of an elaborate maritime network that underpinned the Arab-Chola-China trade. It united diverse social interests be it the maritime trader, the political establishment on either side of the Palk Straits, agrarian interests in the irrigated rural hinterland and pearl fisheries in a shared ideological framework.

Hindu temples in classical South India were the organizing points of a complex structure of material exchange and ritual. Temples were striking visual metaphors of the affluence of the land with ostentatious religious festivals that dramatized economic prosperity. They played a vital redistributive role. Kings channeled men, resources and livestock through such religious endowments to expand the agricultural base of society. New land, purportedly dedicated to the upkeep of the religious establishment, was brought under cultivation. Merchants invested in temples much as temples financed overseas commercial enterprises. Further, the temples sponsored artisan groups, practitioners of the classical arts and scholarship. Temples were central to the pre-modern Tamil polity.

The story of Mantai(pronounced Maanthai) is linked to early Tamil settlements that emerged in Sri Lanka’s North West in the first century of the common-era. It was a busy port on the Palk Straits,also known as the SethuSamudram or the Sea of Sethu. The 53 to 80 kilometer-wide straits connected India and Sri Lanka.

Sea of Sethu

The Sethu Samudram witnessed in early times a two-way movement of people, ideas, religion and technology between South India and Sri Lanka.This included the technical knowledge that underpinned the construction of irrigation works, the incipient use of iron-technology, the introduction of the Brahmi script and the erection of megalithic monuments.The sea helped shape the identity of both India’s Coromandel coast (Kuru-mandalam) and Sri Lanka. Two places of major Hindu pilgrimage emerged on either side of the waters i.e. Rameswaram and Tirukethiswaram. They stood as sentinels on either shore.

The Coromandel coast of India had a string of flourishing classical-era ports that included Mamallapuram, Karaikal, Arikamedu, Kaveripattinam, Nagapattinam and Korkai. Mantaiwas situated on the Sri Lankan side.


Mantai was a prehistoric Neolithic site in the first millennium BCE. There were flourishing iron-age megalithic urn burials just south along the KalAaru, the ModarakamAaru,Pomparippu and Karamban-kulam in Sri Lanka, similar to those excavated in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Mantai emerged in history in the 2nd century BCE.It began as a vibrant port in the Indo-Mediterranean trade in the first century BCE (before the common-era). It continued to flourish until the 1300s CE, having a continuous existence as a city for at least 1,400 years.

Mantai was known as Mahatittha in the Pali chronicles, a derivation of the Sanskrit Maha-tirtha. The word tirtha in Sanskrit could mean a bathing ghat of religious significance, a maritime crossing point or a fjord. The port was called Mantai or Matottam in Tamil and Matota or Great Port in Sinhalese.

The Tamil classical works such as the Muttol-aayiram (verses 52 and 82), the Narrinai (verses 35 and 395), the Kurun-togai (verse 166) and the Aka-naanooru (Akam 5 verse 127), tentatively dated to between the first and second centuries CE, refer to a Mantai. It now needs to be verified whether the Mantai of the early Tamil Sangam works was indeed this port in northern Sri Lanka or a port elsewhere.

Sethu Samudram

The shortest and safest navigational route that linked the western and eastern coasts of India prior to the 14th century passed Mantai. The Sethu Samudram itself was not navigable given its rock, shoals and underwater reefs. The Pamban passage between Mandapam and Pamban Island in Tamil Nadu did not exist until 1480 CE. Pre-modern ships had to avail of the Mannar passage between the island of Mannar and the Ceylonese mainland. They had to berth at Mantai. This Sri Lankan port mediated the Indian maritime trade in early times.

[pullquote]10th century Sinhalese inscriptions in Anuradhapura and Kataragama consider the slaughter of cows at Mantai as the worst sin possible, reinforcing the point that the port had become a center of Hindu significance. [/pullquote]

The commercial exchange of goods between the Levant and China, and between India and Sri Lanka continued here over the centuries. Cosmas Indicopleustes, the Alexandrian navigator who had traveled to India in the 6th century saw Mantaias located midway in the navigational routes across the Indian Ocean.

Archeological excavations suggest an impressive symmetrically planned city protected by a horse shoe shaped double moat. Remains of stone masonry, brick architecture and a defensive circuit have been excavated. A street plan and a massive brick building linked to a bathing tank have been identified. This was an ancient walled city with a circumference of 3 kilometers and an area of 8 hectares. A temple by the northern city entrance, Lakshmi plaques and Saivite Hindu statuary were excavated.

Mantai and Anuradhapura represent the earliest instances of a planned urbanization in Sri Lanka. Whereas Anuradhapura was home to a vast and well-endowed Buddhist complex that marked the epicenter and peak of early Sinhalese tradition, Mantai had a strong South Indian imprint and more cosmopolitan milieu. While Buddhism defined Anuradhapura, it did not define Mantai.

The citadel of Mantai became a nodal point in the Mediterranean-India-China maritime trade of the first millennium CE. It had a symbiotic relationship with the Coromandel Coast in South India and with the city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. The Pandyan port city of Korkaiand Chettinaad, the home of the South Indian Nagarattaar, a late classical mercantile guild subsequently known as the Natukottai Chettiar, were across the waters.The trade in spices, cotton, medicinal herbs, rare woods, ivory, gold and precious stones took place in Mantai. The Tamil Hindu saints of the 7th and 9th centuries describe the numerous ships arriving with cargo in the precincts of the city. Roman coins, Chinese ceramic, Gujarati red-polished ware and Arab tombstones have been excavated. This was indeed a hub in an elaborate system of commercial navigation.

Mantai was situated on the 164 kilometer long AruviAaru, known in Sinhalese as the MalvattuOya, which linked it to Anuradhapura 110 kilometers inland. 25 kilometers east of Mantai was a fertile agricultural zone watered by the Giant’s Tank feeding a network of 162 smaller reservoirs. The Tank was 13 kilometers wide and covered 3,800 hectares of land. The Sinhalese historical works are silent on who constructed Giant’s Tank which is structurally unique in the Sri Lankan context.

Mantai in short bordered a rice granary on its east and sea-lanes on its west. There were flourishing pearl banks just south in Arippu and across the waters in Tamil Nadu. The area was the center of the conch shell industry and ivory craftsmanship.

The Cholas annexed most of Sri Lanka in the last 10th century. The administrative district of Mantai was renamed ArunmoliTevaValaNaadu while the port itself was called Raja Raja Puram. The main highway was named Raja Raja Perun-teru. Numerous Chola-era coins, inscriptions and iconography have been excavated.Chola inscriptions name two successive Governors i.e. TaaliKumaran of SiruKooraNallur and SiruKulattoorUdaiyaanTevan and a rich local merchant i.e. KunranTaaman. There were several records of donations to two temples i.e. Raja Rajesvaram or Tirukethiswaram and TiruViraRameswaram.

[pullquote]Mantai and Anuradhapura represent the earliest instances of a planned urbanization in Sri Lanka. Whereas Anuradhapura was home to a vast and well-endowed Buddhist complex that marked the epicenter and peak of early Sinhalese tradition, Mantai had a strong South Indian imprint and more cosmopolitan milieu.[/pullquote]

Mantai subsequently declined as an entrepot due to (i) a gradual silting of the Mannar Passage; (ii) improvements in navigation that led to the emergence of larger vessels less equipped to travel in the shallow waters of the Palk Straits; and (iii) the Cholas trading directly with China using the ports of Nagapattinam and Arikamedu, bypassing Mantai.

13th and 14th century coins from the Kingdom of Jaffna however have been excavated from Mantai which suggest that the port had come under Jaffna’s jurisdiction. The Kings of Jaffna had assumed the title Sethu Kavalar or protectors of Rameshwaram just across the waters. Later Tamil works such as the Mantaipal and ViswaPuranamcontinue to celebrate the port. The latter two texts reflect Tamil folklore of the 1500s CE where legend had it that Mantai was built by Vishwakarma, the Architect to the Gods, and was home to an iron fort that housed a community of jewelers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters and masons. Karikaalan, the famed Chola monarch of the 1st century CE, reportedly assailed the iron fort.

To quote John Carswell, Mantai “was a city built on a collaboration of commercial and political interests, coming from east and west, north and south.” It was a “window on a large, complex, and above all dynamic system.”

Tirukethiswaram – the sacred pivot

At Mantai’s center, was the sacred shrine to Siva.Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE refers to Matottam as ‘Sacred to the Moon’. The 13th century DathaVamsa, a Pali text, mentions that the Hindu temple existed here in the reign of MeghavannaAbhaya between 303 and 331 CE.

The Skanda Purana highlights the sanctity of this place of worship. Legend has it that Maya, a celestial engineer and father-in-law of Ravana, King of Lanka, built Tirukethiswaram to honor Siva. Bhrigu, one of the seven great sages, and Ketu, a shadow planetary deity, reportedly worshipped here.

TiruGnana Sambandar, TiruNaavukarasarand SundaramurthiNayanaar in the Saivite Hindu Tevaram canon in the 7thand 9th centuries CE celebrate Tirukethiswaram.

Manika-vachakar in the 9th century frequently alludes to his spiritual awakening in a port that he called Perun-turai where he witnessed Siva’s redemptory and transformational grace. Perun-turai incidentally is the Tamil equivalent of the Sinhalese Maatota meaning ‘great port’. Manika-vachakaris said to have defeated Sri Lankan Buddhist monks in religious debates and had converted the Sinhalese King to Saivite Hinduism, a claim corroborated by two Sinhalese chronicles that refer to King Sena 1 as having abandoned Buddhism in the 9th century CE due to the influence of a Hindu monk. These instances document the Tamil Hindu associations that Mantai had assumed over the years, one confirmed in the PeriyaPuranam, a Tamil text of the 11th century.

10th century Sinhalese inscriptions in Anuradhapura and Kataragama consider the slaughter of cows at Mantai as the worst sin possible, reinforcing the point that the port had become a center of Hindu significance. Several Chola land grants to the Temple were recorded in the 11th century. Tirukethiswaram itself was renamed Raja Rajeswaram. SundaraPandyan 1 renovated Tirukethiswaram in the 1200s CE.

Arumuka Navalar

The Portuguese in their missionary zeal razed the Hindu Temple in 1590 CE. Arumuka Navalar, the Tamil Hindu savant, initiated moves to rebuild the sacred site in 1872. The place continues to be a place of pilgrimage in Sri Lanka despite the harsh vicissitudes of Sri Lanka’s 25 year civil war. Some of the fiercest battles in the war were fought nearby where hundreds perished. The Temple itself was damaged and vandalized but then lovingly restored by the local Tamil community in 2009-2010.

Let us recognize the key heritage of Tirukethiswaram in our history as Sri Lankan Tamils. The ancient temple unified the artisan guilds of Mantai, merchant groups, the peasantry, the pearl divers, the fishermen and the political establishment on either side of the Sethu Samudram. The pre-modern maritime networks between China and the Mediterranean centered in part on this old Hindu temple in North Sri Lanka. It is indeed our legacy and inheritance to protect.

The Indian Government hopes to revive the navigational routes between its west and east coasts by dredging the Pamban passage while leaving Rama’s Bridge/Adam’s Bridge intact. This is named the Sethu Samudram project. It may be worthwhile to also consider the dredging of the Mannar passage to give a similar fillip to local industry, ship servicing/repairs and trade in Sri Lanka’s North West coast.


John Carswell, Siran Deraniyagala and Alan Graham; “Mantai: City by the Sea”; Linden Soft Werlag, Aichwald, Germany; 2013

Dr. SenakeBandaranayake, Dr. Lorna Dewaraja, Roland Silva and K.D.G Wimalaratne; “Sri Lanka and the Silk Road of the Sea”;Sri Lanka National Commission for UNESCO and the Central Cultural Fund;Colombo, Sri Lanka; 1990.

S.Pathmanathan: “Hindu Temples of Sri Lanka”: Kumaran Book House: Colombo: 2006

Dr. Naresha Duraiswamy

'Dr. Naresha Duraiswamy is a Sri Lankan national. He received his doctorate in International Relations at Columbia University. His writes on Hindu civilization and public life with a focus on law, economics, statecraft and sociology.