Alluring Araly | Daily News

Alluring Araly

Terry Jenorge
Terry Jenorge

Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of our relished journeys to rural areas have been subject to change. In retrospect perhaps we can reminisce about the beautiful memories of past journeys, with the confident assurance that we can visit once again.

Sri Lanka is bountifully blessed with thousands of rural villages where daily life sweetly blends with nature. This narrative derives from a visit to a serene village in the Northern Province 18 months ago. On this journey, I was accompanied by Terry who would be my host and guide. We boarded the late morning train from Fort Railway Station to Jaffna. The train gracefully proceeded to its Northern destination. Clusters of palmyrah trees dotted the evening skyline, as the sun began to recede. From the Jaffna Railway Station we got into a three-wheeler and headed towards the area of Araly. We reached the residence at around 7 pm, and some dogs barked on our arrival. The caretaker Thevan, a middle-aged man served us some refreshing tea. Dinner consisted of string hoppers and a spicy fish curry, further enhanced by a sambol laced with chilli flakes.

The next morning I discovered the surrounding beauty. The magnificent old house was nestled in a garden. The garden had mango and jak trees. A massive Khomba tree stood like a sentinel on one side of the well. This well cooled me off many times during the three days we spent there. I also noticed that Thevan had two cows, a rambunctious calf and some hens. One of these docile cows was a friendly creature and enjoyed being patted on her head. After breakfast, I ventured to explore a famous Hindu kovil in this village. The kovil still plays an important role in each Northern community. The kovil festivals bring the people together, sustaining traditions that have lasted for generations. The Inlangaithalvu Murugamoorthy Kovil is the iconic landmark of Araly North. It majestically stood against a backdrop of resilient palmyrah trees, and a bright blue Northern sky. The outer facade of the kovil projected an aura of devotion, with a tall gopuram (tower) reaching towards the sky. The tower was adorned with many Hindu statues.

As I walked towards the main entrance, the morning pooja was almost over, and young men and women walked out. They were followed by few senior citizens. I stood outside the main door until the Hindu priest; attired in yellow veshti, noticed me and asked me to come inside. The interior of the kovil resonated in shades of dark and light yellow. The main statue of Murugan with his consorts Valli and Deivanai dominated the inner sanctum. Colourful paintings enriched the aura inside the sanctuary. The young priest Sivasri Ganesh Sujithan kurukal explained “Decades ago a small shrine had been built here, and all the Hindus of Araly used to come and worship here. The new kovil was built facing the North-East which is a good omen according to our religion.”

We walked around the massive kovil. There were eight figurines of Rajavali - a mythical creature who is half lion and half elephant, and serves as the defender of Murugan. These stone-carved figurines were fixed on large stone columns. I gazed up and noticed a hand-painted motif of the zodiac chart. Another striking feature of the Murugamoorthy Kovil was a black stone statue of the peacock - which is believed to be the transport of Murugan in the divine realms. A senior devotee, realising that I am a Christian, joined us and added “The building phase of this kovil lasted almost five years. The skilled craftsmen came from India, there were 15 of them. They stayed and worked here. Once completed, we had a special kumbabishekam ceremony. This is a practice we follow to sanctify the kovil. We use water purified by Vedic rituals and this water is poured gently on all the statues and then from the topmost point of the gopuram. The grand pooja lasted for five days; we also had many visitors from overseas.”

We walked outside and the priest pointed to the three gopurams. He said “The main gopuram is 60 feet tall and it has seven levels. This is the tower that is visible for miles. The other two towers in the north and south of the kovil are 30 feet high. The statues on the towers were sculpted in Mahabalipuram, a famous town in India. We conduct pooja every day, in the morning and evening. The kovil keeps the community together. We have had many visitors and we welcome them.” I was told that the massive wooden doors were a replica of the Thiruchendur Murugan Kovil in India. Two local carpenters had taken one year to design and sculpt this amazing masterpiece, laden with intricate designs.

As we walked outside the kovil I spotted the iconic chariot (therr) kept inside a large shed. It had a bronze plate verifying that it was made in 1974. The massive wooden chariot stands about 20 feet high. Its outer section is adorned with intricate carvings. The second tier of woodwork was painted in gold. The wooden chariot was embellished with so much art and it stands as a solitary reminder of the talented men who patiently built it decades ago. Four massive wooden wheels supported this chariot. Each wheel was once carved out of the trunk of a vagai tree. The priest said that during the chariot festival almost 200 men pulled the chariot as it moved in procession, to the pious and zealous chants of Aro Hara.

From here we ventured to the local market. It was a busy place with villagers mostly selling their homegrown products. Terry pointed out two items. One was rasavalli kilangu (purple yam) which is popular here. Once cleaned and boiled, thick coconut milk is added to this yam, with sugar and stirred on a low flame. It is left to cool and resembles a soft pudding. The other yam is called karunai kilangu. This is a huge tuber covered in sand. When it is cut, it produces a thick milky discharge, which must be avoided as it may cause a mild temporary irritation to the skin. Once washed, this yam is made into a thick spicy curry and is a succulent culinary delight. We purchased purple yam. I struck up a good bargain for some fish. That night obliging Thevan, helped us organise a pit of charcoal.

The burning orange embers embraced the chunks of fish wrapped in banana leaves. We sat under the cool breeze of the Khomba tree. The fish was enjoyed with rotti. These simple meals reminded us that life can be enjoyed sans the luxury imposed by city life. I observed that the residence had a petromax lamp on a stand, another reminder of vintage Ceylon. Of course the charming house had all modern amenities, but sustained its traditional elements from yesteryear.

On the next two days we cycled around the verdant fields. There were many cultivated lands blessed with vegetables and fruits. We passed a large pond full of lotus flowers, where kingfishers flew above. We stopped and rested. On the way back we purchased itharai valaipalam - a local banana variety. That afternoon this fruit was a comforting dessert. The gentle cow was fed a few and she was immensely pleased. That evening we cycled past the village toddy tavern. Some of the old houses in this area capture the grandeur of the families that once lived here. The next day Terry and I cycled to the village of Moolai to see a blacksmith forge. In the city we talk about being eco-friendly and sustainable. In serene villages like Araly living amidst nature comes effortlessly. Life is beautiful with the basics, and there is no need for overly infused technological complications. I earnestly look forward to my next visit to be captivated by Araly.