Nineteen kilometres further inland from Tissa lies the small and remote town of KATARAGAMA, one of the three most venerated religious sites in Sri Lanka (along with Adam’s Peak and the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy), held sacred by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike – even Christians sometimes visit in search of divine assistance. The most important of the town’s various shrines is dedicated to the god Kataragama, a Buddhist-cum-Hindu deity who is believed to reside here.
Kataragama is easily visited as a day-trip from Tissa, but staying the night means you can enjoy the evening puja in a leisurely manner and imbibe some of the town’s backwater charm and laid-back rural pace. The town is at its busiest during the Kataragama festival, held around the Esala poya day in July or August. The festival is famous for the varying forms of physical mortification with which some pilgrims express their devotion to Kataragama, ranging from crawling from the river to the Maha Devale to gruesome acts of self-mutilation: some penitents pierce their cheeks or tongue with skewers; others walk across burning coals – all believe that the god will protect them from pain. During the festival devotees flock to the town from all over Sri Lanka, some walking along the various pilgrimage routes which converge on Kataragama from distant parts of the island – the most famous route, the Pada Yatra, leads all the way down the east coast from Jaffna, through the jungles of Yala, and is still tackled by those seeking especial religious merit. Most of today’s visitors, however, come on the bus.
Kataragama town spreads out over a small grid of tranquil streets shaded by huge Indian rain trees – outside poya days and puja times, the whole place is incredibly sleepy, and its quiet streets offer a welcome alternative to the dusty mayhem that usually passes for urban life in Sri Lanka. During the evening puja, Kataragama is magically transformed. Throngs of pilgrims descend on the Sacred Precinct, while the brightly illuminated stalls which fill the surrounding streets do a brisk trade in garlands, fruit platters and other colourful religious paraphernalia, as well as huge slabs of gelatinous oil cake and other unusual edibles.Read More
Perhaps no other deity in Sri Lanka embodies the bewilderingly syncretic nature of the island’s Buddhist and Hindu traditions as clearly as the many-faceted Kataragama. The god has two very different origins. To the Buddhist Sinhalese, Kataragama is one of the four great protectors of the island. Although he began life as a rather unimportant local god, named after the town in which his shrine was located, he gained pan-Sinhalese significance during the early struggles against the South Indian Tamils, and is believed to have helped Dutugemunu in his long war against Elara. To the Hindu Tamils, Kataragama is equivalent to the major deity Skanda (also known as Murugan or Subramanian), a son of Shiva and Parvati and brother of Ganesh. Both Buddhists and Hindus have legends which tell how Kataragama came to Sri Lanka to battle against the asuras, or enemies of the gods. While fighting, he became enamoured of Valli Amma, the result of the union between a pious hermit and a doe, who became his second wife. Despite Kataragama’s confused lineage, modern-day visitors to the shrine generally pay scant attention to the god’s theological roots, simply regarding him a powerful deity capable of assisting in a wide range of practical enterprises.
Kataragama is often shown carrying a vel, or trident, which is also one of Shiva’s principal symbols. His colour is red (devotees offer crimson garlands when they visit his shrines) and he is frequently identified with the peacock, a bird which was sacrificed to him. Thanks to his exploits, both military and amorous, he is worshipped both as a fearsome warrior and as a lover, inspiring an ecstatic devotion in his followers exemplified by the kavadi, or peacock dance (see The evening puja), and the ritual self-mutilations practised by pilgrims during the annual Kataragama festival – a world away from the chaste forms of worship typical of the island’s Buddhist rituals.