The town is separated by the Menik Ganga (“Gem River”) from the so-called Sacred Precinct to the north, an area of sylvan parkland overrun by inquisitive grey langurs and dotted with myriad shrines; pilgrims take a ritual bath in the river before entering the precinct itself. The first buildings you’ll encounter are the ul-Khizr mosque and the adjacent Shiva Kovil – the former houses the tombs of saints from Kyrgyzstan and India and is the main focus of Muslim devotions in Kataragama.
The evening puja
The evening puja
Kataragama’s Sacred Precinct springs to life at puja times. Flocks of pilgrims appear bearing the fruit platters as offerings to Kataragama, and many smash coconuts in front of his shrine. As the puja begins, a long queue of pilgrims line up to present their offerings, while a priest makes a drawn-out sequence of obeisances in front of the curtained shrine and a huge ringing of bells fills the temple. Musicians playing oboe-like horanavas, trumpets and drums perambulate around the complex, followed by groups of pilgrims performing the kavadi, or peacock dance, spinning around like dervishes while carrying kavadis, the semicircular hoops studded with peacock feathers after which the dance is named. The music is strangely jazzy, and the dancers spin with such fervour that it’s not unusual to see one or two of the more enthusiastic collapsing in a dead faint on the ground. Eventually the main Kataragama shrine is opened to the waiting pilgrims, who enter to deposit their offerings and pay homage to the god, while others pray at the adjacent Buddha shrine or bo trees.