The chief priest

1 montage + 4 audio

Sri Nagulesawara Kurrukkal, the chief priest at the Nagulesawaran temple at Keeramalai, talks about the impact of the war on the temple and the changes brought about since the end of hostilities. Photography by Kannan Arunasalam.

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  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    Our first challenge was to get past the high security checkpoint at Tellipalai without drawing too much attention to ourselves. We had telephoned ahead and arranged to interview the Kurrukkal at some point in the day. It was a festival day, but the priest was still willing to meet.

    We approached the checkpoint unsure whether they’d let us through. It was a risk because I was taking along recording equipment.  My father and I were both dressed in the traditional Tamil verti and so we looked like pilgrims. Our savvy cab driver Esan navigated us through the questions of the young soldier and we were on our way.

    We passed bombed out houses, reclaimed by the jungle, long out of bounds to civilians. Soldiers watched from sentry points along the way. In the distance you could see the KKS cement factory, abandoned in the 1990s. All this area was now a high security zone. I wanted to stop and take photos but Esan told us we had to keep moving. It was really sad to see the devastation.

    Finally we arrived at the Naguleswaram temple, one of the most important temples for Hindus in Sri Lanka. Word about this temple had spread it seemed across Sri Lanka! Thousands of pilgrims had come to get the Kurrukkal’s blessing. Many of them were southerners visiting this temple as another stop on their own pilgrimage to Nagadeepa, as they called the island off the mainland. How were we going to get a chance to speak to the Kurrukkal?

    Hours passed. The crowds of devotees were relentless and the Kurrukkal wanted to bless every single of them! I was ready to give up, but my father reminded me that we may not get another chance. We had done well to dodge military scrutiny at the checkpoint. What we were doing was innocent enough, but try explaining that to a soldier at a high security point! We had no choice, but to wait it out.

    It was already lunchtime. The devotees were making their way to the dining hall for annathaanam. We hadn’t eaten, but what was more worrying was that nor had the chief priest. Another obstacle, and possibly the most challenging, presented itself. The Kurrukal’s wife. My father explained the issue: if she got to the priest before us, then he’d be certain to be given his lunch. After that follows the customary afternoon nap. That would signal disaster for us – he wouldn’t rise again until four or five and by that time we would have to return home unsuccessful.

    The old woman tailed the Kurrukkal, unimpressed with our wish to interview her husband, my father followed behind her and I lagged behind him trying to get a clean shot. It was farcical!

    Eventually we got lucky. After the very last blessing, the Kurrukkal said it was time for us to talk. And what a story he had to tell. Hungry and tired, we sat and listened to the priest talk about his beloved temple and the changes that had taken place over the years of war and more recently, during relative tranquility.

    We did it! Neither the security point, the thousands of devotees or the Kurrukkal’s wife could stop us. As the Kurrukkal’s wife led the priest to lunch after our interview, I said a quick prayer to Lord Shiva and walked over to the tank for a well earned dip in its cool waters.

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  • aufidius says:

    Amazing stuff K! Very balanced and thought provoking set of images, complemented by the priest’s narrative.

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  • Rajesh says:

    Excellent images and stylish article also.

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  • Shan Nalliah, Gandhian, Norway says:

    Thanks to Kannan and his dad. We met the priest in 2002. He blessed us. Long live his service to all!

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  • Dharman says:

    This is a beautiful montage and audio interview. The Kurukkal comes across as a simple but cultured man of faith and peace. We need more such individuals in Sri Lanka who can serve as community leaders and a bridge between different ethnic groups. Thank you for this lovely interview. And may he have the gift of long life.

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