King Ravana of Lanka
Ravana, one of those demons called Rakshasas, was the King of Lanka, his main residence was Lankapura. Iconographically, Ravana is easily recognizable, because he is depicted with his ten heads. One of his names is Dasis or Dasa Shirsha, meaning ten heads, or Dasa Mukha, meaning ten faces. Presumably, his ten heads represent his knowledge of the four Vedas and six Shastras, indicaticang he was not only a powerful ruler but also a magnificent scholar, believed to be the author of the Ravana Samhita, a book on Hindu astrology, and well-versed in Ayurveda, too, writing several books about medicine. Even Lord Rama himself once addressed Ravana as a "Maha Brahman", a great Brahmim, in the context of his excellent education and knowledge, which is symbolized by his ten heads. However, sometimes Ravana is depicted with nine heads only, since he sacrificed one head to convince Shiva.
Famous episodes from Ravana's life
Ravana, the son of Rishi Vishravaya, who was a Brahmin, and of Sumali's daughter, who belonged to the Kshatriya caste, fought with his half-brother Kubera and took over the rule of Lanka finally, renewing it as a Rakshasa Kingdom. He resided in his giant palace of one yojana (8 miles or 13 kilometres) height in Lankapura on the Mountain known as Trikuta.
Probably the most crucial in the life of Ravana prior to the abduction of Sita Devi is this:
When Ravana performed a penance to Lord Brahma, decaptivating himsel ten times, he was granted a boon. Brahma refused to give Ravana immortality, but he got the nectar of immortality to store it under his navel. Brahma also granted invinvibility from gods, celestial beings, Rakshas, and beasts. However, contemptuous of ordinary human beings, Ravana did not ask for protection from men. That’s the reason why the supreme Lord had to take human form, as Rama, to finally overcome Ravana. After winning these boons, Ravana used his poers to capturing the island capial Lankapura.
But even more famous is the Ravananugraha, the “favour to Ravana” after lifting Mount Kailash. The often illustrated story is told in the Uttara Kanda of the Ramayana:
When Ravana of Lanka tried to shake Mount Kailash, disturbing Shiva’s and Parvati’s intercourse, Shiva pushed back the mountain into place with his toe, trapping Ravana beneath it. For the following thousand years, Ravana sang hymns in praise of Shiva. For this act of devotion, Shiva finally blessed him and granted him a powerful Linga to worship. Part of the begin of this story is that the annoyed Nandi cursed Ravana that Lanka would be destroyed by a monkey.
Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata state, that Lanka was originally ruled by Rakshasas. The first ruler was Sumali according to the Ramayana. Later on, Lord Kubera, the god of wealth, seized control of Lanka and established a Yaksha Kingdom, the capital of which was guarded by the Rakshasas.
According to the Ramayana, Ravana was finally killed in the Battle of Lanka with the help of his own brother Vibhishana, who was crowned new king of Lankapura by Lord Rama after the war.
Ravana worship in India
Some Indians guess, that Ravana, the mighty king, is worshipped by Sri Lankans today. This is not the case. Most Sri Lankan Buddhists are not at all devotees of Ravana. Ravana is held in some esteem by some Tamils. But be aware: Actually, Ravana is worshipped not only at some Tamil places in Sri Lanka, but in many different parts of India, too:
For example, the Dashanan Mandir located outside the Chinmastika Temple in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, is dedicated to Ravana. Hindo devotees worship him on the Dussehra day in this temple, where Ravana is venerated as a protecting Goddess Chinmastika. Once, Ravana was guarding Chinmastika here, as a means to gain Lord Shiva’s blessing once more. Ravana is therefore venerated as an ardent follower of Lord Shiva. While in most parts of India Hindus end their Dussehra celebrations by burning the effigy of Ravana to symbolise the victory of good over evil, devotees at this temple celebrate Ravana as a scholar and devotee of Shiva.
Quite often, Ramayana worshippers claim to belong to the same Brahmin sub-caste as Ravana himself. These Kanyakubja Brahmins stress that Ravana’s positive intellectual powers and devotional qualities must be highlighted. There are at least two more such temples in northern India celebrating Ravana on the Dussehra festival day, one near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh and one in Ravangram near Vidisha in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. In Indore, members of the Valmiki Samaj, Brahmins claiming to be descendants of Valimiki, worship Ravana, too, and developed the practice to avoid looking at the burning if Ravana effigy, which is common on Dussehra.
Daily pujas are performed at a Ravana temple in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Of this kind, there are several more Hindu temples where Ravana is worshipped. And a huge Shivalinga in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, is said to have been installed by Ravana. The Shivalinga and a nearby Ravana statue are worshiped by the local fishermen community.
Ravana worship in Sri Lanka
For Sri Lankan Buddhists, Ravana is not a deity, though many of them believe, he was a capable ruler of the island indeed. However, many Sinhalese people would not agree to call him a king at all, since the first king of the island was the leader of the first Sinhalese settlers, Vijaya, who lived in the period of the Buddha.
Admittedy, there is some ambiguity among Sri Lankans concerning the Ramayana and its main characters.
In contrast to many Theravada Buddhist laymen in Southeast Asia, Sinhalese Buddhists do not hold the Ramayana story and the epic’s impressive personalities in high esteem. They do not disrespect the Ramayana, but it is not of much meaning for their faith. You can compare this to the Lankavatara-Sutra, an important scrupture for Buddhist monks and laymen in China, Tibet and Japan. It’s one of the few texts studied in Zen-Buddhism, too. The Lankavatara-Sutra, as its name indicates, is about a descent of a celestial being to Lanka, in this case the descent of the Buddha. By the way: Ravana is mentioned as the king of the island of Lanka in the Buddhist Lankavatara-Sutra, too. Actually, it is Ravana who is taught by the Buddha about the full meaning of consciousness. Ravana invites and welcomes the Buddha: “I will go and request of the Buddha to enter into Lanka; for the long night he would probably profit, do good, and gladden the gods as well as human beings.” So, you should expect, this scripture revealing the teachings of the Buddha on the island of Lanka must be of utmost importance for Sri Lankan Buddhists. Nothing less than that. Sinhalese are Theravada Buddhists, the Mahayana teeachings of the Lankavatara-Sutra are of no relevance for them. This does not mean, they disrespect them, it only means, they have no spiritual authority for them. That’s similar in the case of the Ramayana. It may be the story of an impressive king of Lanka and of a visit of the highest god to the island. But this Hindu Scripture has simply no religious meaning for Sri Lankan Buddhists.
But the case is even more ambiguous. To tell you the truth, there have been some animosities against Hindu Scriptures (as well as against Mahayana Buddhist Scriptures) in Sri Lanka’s Theravada Buddhist tradition in the ancient times, already before the arrival of western colonial influences of religious exclusivism. In ancient times, there were Buddhist scholars explicitely advising not to care about the Ramayana. A 15th century poet ridiculed Ramayana in his poems, asking why he could not fly through the air to Lanka like Hanuman but needed a vehicle. However, most Buddhists living in Sri Lanka today, are not even aware of this animosity. And in the Kandyan period chronicle Rajavaliya (17th century) Ravana is recognised as a great king like in all Indian Ramayana versions.
On the other hand, because Ravana was a powerful ruler of many parts of the world, some Sri Lankan nationalists are prowd to claim to have him as one king of their glorious history. (Nationalistic history is always glorious, you should know, not only in Sri Lanka.) So there are indeed some admirers of Ravana among Sri Lankans today. There is even an argument between some Tamils and some Sinhalese who claim Ravana is from their respective ethnic group, though the Ramayana events belong to a period, when presumably neither Tamils nor Sinhalese inhabited the island.
Sinhalese ultra-nationalists of the Hela-movement, driven by anti-Indian animosities, created the “Hela Yakka” myth of an ancient Sinhalese (Hela) civilisation with demonic (Yakka) powers enabling them to conquer almost all continents of the world (or even to travel through the universe, via the Ranmasu Uyana hyperspace stargate in Anuradhura), before the bad Indian invador Rama with his nuclear weapons or only on behalf of the traitor Vibhishana regrettably destroyed all this entirely fictional glory. Not surprisingly, the Lankavatura Sutra - because introducing Ravana a disciple of a Buddha - can be well integrated in this new kind of Ravana stories that we should better forget.
Ravana Sites in Sri Lanka
The most famous places of worship for Ravana in Sri Lanka are sacred sites of the Tamil Hindu minority:
Trincomalee’s Konneshwaram temple, the most significant shrine in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, is one of the five Tamil Ishvarams, where Lord Shiva is venerated. Konneshvaram is associated with Ravana, too, sind he and his mother had once worshiped Shiva at the shrine.
Located close to Trincomalee, the Kanniya hot wells are a sacred site associated with Ravana. Ravana stuck the earth with his spear in seven spots to find water for his mother's funeral, and so hot water was - and still is - spouting out of those seven wells.
There is also an example of a mainly Sinhalese Buddhist site, where a room is dedicated to Ravana. In the famous Ella gap, not far from the picturesque Ravana Ella waterfalls, a small track leads to a small cave temple belonging to a Buddhist monastery and dedicated to Ravana. It is said to have been constructed under King Walagamba from Anuradhapura during his years in exile from Anuradhapura.