Lankeshwari: The Odia Goddess From Sri Lanka

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    Narendrapur is a remote village in the coastal district of Bhadrakh in Odisha, whose presiding deity tells a fascinating story. Goddess Lankeshwari, as her name suggests, is a deity believed to have come from Sri Lanka. How did she travel all the way to Odisha, or Kalinga, as the region was known in ancient times?

    There’s something else that makes Narendrapur really special. Wherever you go, you will spot a Shiva Linga. There are hundreds of them scattered all over the village. You see them in rice fields, near ponds, in playgrounds, by the roadside and in people’s homes. For the visitor, it’s a surreal experience, yet for the people of Narendrapur, it’s business as usual.

    These Shiva Lingas are part of an intriguing mix of archaeological treasures unearthed in the village, including temple fragments, the anchor of a ship, a brick kiln, and trade items such as a sack full of betel nuts. The Shiva Lingas too were probably exported from here almost as far back as 2,000 years ago, for Narendrapur was likely once a maritime trade centre in what was then a region called Kalinga.

    While no archaeological excavations have been carried out in Narendrapur, the Odisha Institute of Maritime and South East Asian Studies, a government body, says that the pottery specimens found here belong to the early Common Era and that the village is sitting on an archaeological mound.

    The presence in the village of the Maa Patana Mangala temple, a living temple, is also significant as Goddess Mangala, or Lankeshwari, is regarded as the chief deity of sea-going vessels and, according to legend, is said to have originated in Sri Lanka.

    ‘Patana’, in Odia, usually refers to trade centres associated with ports and harbours like Manikapatana, Balipatana, Khalakatapatana, Gourangapatana and Kalingapatanam. Thus, it may be assumed that the village of Narendrapur had an earlier name prefixed to ‘Patana’ or even named only as ‘Patana’.

    According to legend, Goddess Lankeshwari was brought here from Sri Lanka during a sea voyage, thereby bolstering the premise that Narendrapur was once a centre of maritime trade. The story of how Lankeshwari arrived in Narendrapur is truly fascinating.

    The Odisha-Lanka Connection

    As were so many other ancient ports and towns in Odisha, Narendrapur too once probably had trade links with South East Asia, the west coast of India and even the Roman Empire. But its connection with Sri Lanka is almost certain.

    The connection between Odisha and Sri Lanka (Kalinga and Simhala/Ceylon) goes back well before it found a mention in prominent Odia literature of the 16th century CE, in chronicles such as the Lavanyavati and Ta’poi, which have references to trade relations between the two countries. Frequent mention of Simhala in 16-17th century CE Odia literary works such as Parimala, Govinda Chandra and Siri Subinath have led some scholars to suggest that with all its beauty and wealth, Simhala could have been a muse for poets.

    Ceylonese chronicles such as the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, written between the 3rd and 5th CE, state that Prince Vijaya from Kalinga arrived in Ceylon with a large number of followers around 543 BCE, occupied the territory and founded the Simhalese dynasty. This event is depicted in the Ajanta cave murals in Aurangabad, in Maharashtra.

    While Vijaya’s great grandmother, Susima, was from Kalinga, he is also believed to be the son of King Sinhabahu of Sinhapura, a place believed to be in Kalinga.

    The ties between Kalinga and Sri Lanka remained so strong that 1,500 years later, in the 11th century CE, matrimonial alliances were still being forged as Sri Lankan kings preferred Princesses from Kalinga.

    The Buddhism Connection

    Kalinga played a significant role in the history of Buddhism in Ceylon, with Emperor Ashoka sending a sapling of the sacred Bodhi tree in Gaya through his daughter Sanghamitra, through the port of Tamralipta, then in Kalinga. Also, Buddhist literature and Jataka stories mention Dantapura (where Buddha’s tooth relic was worshipped) as a religious and political centre of Kalinga. The Dathavamsa, compiled in the early 4th century CE, mentions the transfer of the tooth relic from Kalinga to Simhala, and since then it has become one of the most sacred national treasures in Sri Lanka.

    The sharing of relics as sacred as this points to the close ties between the two countries. According to one tradition in Odisha, Buddha’s tooth is preserved in the body of Lord Jagannath. Two of the most important festivals of Lord Jagannath, i.e the Snana Yatra and the Rath Yatra, have a Ceylonese counterpart in the Bodhi Snana Puja and the annual procession of the tooth relic in the car.

    The Legend of Lankeshwari

    Narendrapur and its legendary connection with Sri Lanka goes back to the story of a rich and childless merchant couple, Dhaneswar and Nayana, who were devotees of Goddess Mangala, as mentioned in a legendary narrative titled Maa Patana Mangala Mahima. Upon his arrival in Sri Lanka, Dhaneswar saw a beautiful woman sitting on a lotus. He was transfixed and when he spread the word of this magnificent spectacle, the king of Sri Lanka rushed to the site.

    But the king saw no such spectacle and punished Dhaneswar for playing a prank on him. He confiscated all the riches he had brought with him to trade and also put him in prison. Dhaneswar’s only recourse was to pray to Goddess Mangala. With her blessings, he was freed and also received double the riches that he had lost. The goddess also accompanied Dhaneswar on his return journey home and saved him from all sorts of dangers during the perilous sea voyage.

    According to the Maa Patana Mangala Mahima:

    Boita sangare asichi mora nama mangala

    Patua mo bhakta hoibe mu patana mangala

    (I am Mangala and I have come on a boat, patuas will be my devotees and I will be known as Patana Mangala)

    During the sea voyage, Dhaneswar came across a seven-year-old girl called Kanaka, who was the Princess of Kujang, who had been abandoned. He rescued the child and she considered him her father. Dhaneswar was so grateful that he prayed to Goddess Mangala as he believed she had saved the child and given him and his wife the child they always wanted. Finally, they were back home in their village in Kalinga.

    Lankeswari agyan hoichi e heba tirthasthana

    Nishi sesha hele paiba lankeswari darsana

    (Dhaneswar alerts the villagers about the appearance of Goddess Lankeshwari at dawn and thereafter this very place will be considered a pilgrimage.)

    According to the legend, a Patana Mangala temple was built in the couple’s village and Goddess Lankeshwari became its presiding deity. Since the Goddess had been ‘brought’ from Sri Lanka, she was named ‘Lankeshwari’.

    The village still attracts thousands of devotees and patua jatra is major festival observed in this temple. Goddess Lankeshwari is also worshipped in Sonepur or Subarnapur in Western Odisha, which was known as ‘Paschima Lanka’ during the Somavamshi period as is seen in the copper plate charter issued in the 10th century CE.

    The goddess in the Lankeshwari temple in Junagarh, Kalahandi district, is bestowed with the power to destroy the enemy. Further supporting the belief that these deities originated outside Odisha is the tradition of victorious kings carrying a deity back from the conquered kingdom.

    Narendrapur is named after Narendra, the son that Dhaneswar and Nayana later had. Narendra married Princess Chandra Kala from Kalahandi, and there is still an area called Chandrakala in the village.

    It is interesting that Maa Patana Mangala Mahima also mentions the installation of the Shiva Lingas.

    Siba sakti jukta nathai tirtha heba biyartha

    E punya dhamare sahasra linga kara sthapita

    Mangala ka agyan paile dhaneswara nayana

    Bohu shiva shakti anile tara nahi kalana

    (Goddess instructed Dhaneswar to install one thousand Shiva Lingas as no pilgrimage is complete without the power of Lord Shiva. Dhaneswar and Nayana, according to the instructions of the goddess, installed innumerable Shiva Lingas).

    The Discovery of Shiva Lingas

    In the last few decades, a large number of Shiva Lingas of different shapes and sizes have been discovered, not by archaeologists but by residents of the village while digging their land for construction purposes. The discovery has led scholars to believe that they were used as items of trade. Unique Shiva Lingas like Ekasahasra (1001) and another which measures around 6 feet have been housed in the Buteswara temple in Narendrapur.

    Although an important maritime centre hundreds of years ago, Narendrapur is no longer connected to a river or a canal. However, the Mantei River flows nearby and through it, the ancient village was linked to the sea via a series of canals and tributaries.

    As the waterline receded over the centuries, a landmass began to separate the village from its connection with the sea. There is definitely much more to Narendrapur than meets the eye, its secrets lying buried underneath.

    Deeti Ray is currently working on the Oral Traditions of Odisha as a Senior Fellow under the Ministry of Culture.

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