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.

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