Munneswaram temple is an important regional Hindu temple complex in Sri Lanka. It has been in existence at least since 1000 CE although myths surrounding the temple associate it with the popular Indian epic Ramayana, and its legendary hero-king Rama. The temple is one of the ancient Pancha Ishwarams dedicated to Shiva in the region.
The temple complex is a collection of five temples, including a Buddhist temple. The central temple dedicated to Shiva (Siva) is the most prestigious and biggest, and is popular amongst Hindus. The other temples are dedicated to Ganesha, Ayyanayake and Kali. The Kali temple is also popular with Buddhists, who frequent the complex. Post-19th century, most of the devotees of all temples in the complex belong to the majority Sinhala Buddhist ethnic group; the temples, excluding the Ayyanayake and the Buddhist temple, are administered by families belonging to the minority Hindu Tamils.
The main festivals celebrated at the temple include Navarathri and Sivarathri. The former is a nine-day long festival in honour of the presiding Goddess, while the latter is an overnight observation in honour of Lord Shiva. In addition to these two Hindu festivals, the temple has a festival of its own, the Munneswaram festival, a four-week-long event attended by Hindus and Buddhists.
Munneswaram temple is situated in Munneswaram village, the center of the spiritual and religious life of the people dwelling in a medieval administrative division called Munneswaram Pattuva ("Munneswaram division"). For most of the temple's existence, Munneswaram Pattuva has had over 60 villages for which Maradankulama provided political leadership. The Pattuva belonged to an even bigger medieval division called Demala Pattuva ruled by semi-independent Tamil chiefs subject to Sinhalese kingdoms. The presiding deity is called Sri Munnainathar ("Lord of antiquity" alluding to its ancient roots) and the goddess is called Sri Vativampika Devi ("goddess of beautiful form" another name for Mother goddess Ambal).
The Siva temple is historically attested in grants and in local literature. The Kali temple is a popular sorcery and cursing shrine associated with animal sacrifices and spirit possession. Spirit possession of devotees was noted by the Jesuit priests who left behind records of it in the 16th century. The temple dedicated to the Sinhala deity Ayyanayake (Aiyyanar to the Tamils) is administered by a local Sinhalese family. The Buddhist temple Pushparamaya Vihara is a post-19th century CE addition. The Ganesha temple, located to the south west of the main temple is the newest amongst the Hindu temples and was built during the early 19th century by artisans from South India.
Munneswaram, along with Koneswaram (Trincomalee), Naguleswaram (Keerimalai), Thiruketheeshwaram (Mannar), forms the five ancient temples (Ishwarams) dedicated to Shiva in the region including Sri Lanka.
The Munneswaram temple is well known for its celebration of Navaratri and Sivarathri functions. Navaratri lasts for nine days and is dedicated to various aspects of the presiding goddess, whereas Sivarathri is dedicated to Siva. Both these functions primarily attract Hindus to the temple. The annual Munneswaram festival is an important part of the temple calendar and it attracts Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics and even Muslims. Until the 1830s the festival lasted up to 18 days but since the 1960s it lasts for 28 days in the months of August and September. The festival begins with the hoisting of the temple flag. This is followed by 13 days of internal temple processions conducted in the outer pathways of the Siva temple. On each day of the festival, the images of Ganesha, Skanda, and the presiding consort goddess are paraded around the temple. Local Pattuva village deity temples also have festivals that coincide with the annual festival. Villagers belonging to Maradankulama and Uddappu sponsor a day each of the 28-day festival.