According to legend, Munnesvaram temple was established by none other than Rama himself, after he defeated and killed Rawana, as related in the Ramayana. Following the final battle with Rawana, Rama was returning to India in his air chariot (the Dandu Monara, or “Wooden Peacock” – often claimed to be the earliest flying machine in world literature – whose stylized image formerly adorned the tailfins of all Air Lanka planes) when he was overcome by a sudden sense of guilt at the bloodshed occasioned by his war with Ravana. Seeing a temple below he descended and began to pray, whereupon Shiva and Parvati appeared and ordered him to enshrine lingams (symbolic of Shiva’s creative powers) in three new temples: at Konesvaram in Trincomalee, Thirukethesvaram in Mannar, and at Munnesvaram.
The belief that these three temples were thus established by Rama – an incarnation of the great Hindu god Vishnu – lends each an additional aura of sanctity, though the fact that they were created to enshrine a trio of lingams serves as a subtle piece of propaganda asserting the superiority of Shiva over his greatest rival in the Hindu pantheon. The paradox is that, despite Sri Lanka’s close association with Vishnu in his incarnation as Rama, almost all the island’s Hindu temples are dedicated to Shiva, or to deities closely related to him, and hardly any to Vishnu himself.