Evoking the blessings of Skandha


As the month of Poson approaches, Sri Lanka prepares to pay tribute to their mightiest god of war, who resides in a little jungle shrine in Kataragama, at the banks of the Manik River. The annual perahera is the greatest tribute paid to this particular god by devotees. Known commonly as God Kataragama or Kataragama Deviyo, he is also known as Skandha, Kanda Devi or Kanda Kumaru, and Mahasen.

 Veneration of God Kataragama is also one of the oldest known cults in Sri Lanka and also can be seen as a place where the Sinhalese, Tamil and the Vedda people get together to worship one god. Unlike many other gods, Skandha or Mahasen is venerated by all these three communities. Hence, the Perahera is a wonderful fusion of ancient cultures and traditions and a fine example of Sri Lanka’s religious harmony and coexistence that has been practised for millennia. 

The Kataragama Devala Perahera stands out for being probably the oldest perahera in Sri Lanka and also for its many unique features. According to historical sources and folklore, the Kataragama Perahera was first held by King Dutugemunu (161 – 137 BC) as an honour for the god of war who resides in the humble jungle shrine at the banks of the Manik River. This was because the king was blessed by the powerful god to win the war against Elara.

Since then, the perahera is held every year as an honour for the God Kataragama.

It is the ritual of Kap Situweema that officially marks the commencement of the Kataragama Perahera. This year, this sacred ritual was held on 15 June at Kataragama.

In our previous articles, Ceylon Today has extensively presented you the details about the historical background of the Kataragama veneration cult as well as the perehera. This week we shall bring you the details about the ritual held to mark the commencement of this sacred and historical event, the Kap Situweema.

Kap Situweema is performed 45 days prior to the main perahera. Once the main perahera is over, the ‘Kap’ is taken back, cut into pieces and buried at the port where the water cutting ceremony (Diya Kepeema) is performed. Devotees believe that burying the Kap on the shores will result in heavy rains.

To know more about this sacred and mysterious ritual we contacted the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devala and also, did some academic research in this regard. Presented bellow is the information we managed to gather.

Kanu Kapana Mangalya

The Kap Situweema is an age-old tradition held to ward off the evil eye and to evoke the blessings of the gods. As Ven. Dr. Aluthwewa Sortha Thera writes in his book, Kataragama Puda Sirith, that the preparation of the Kapa or the tree trunk that is used in this ritual is a special kind of sacred ritual. The Kapa is also known as the Kanuwa (pillar/pole). Hence, the ritual prior to the Kap Situweema is known as the Kanu Kapana Mangalya.

Devotees believe that if they perform a Kap Stuweema before any good deed, it will bring success and prosperity to all their work. Hence the Kapa or the Kanuwa is considered sacred and holy. Thus, selecting and preparing the Kanuwa is also done with utmost religious sacredness.

Scholars also believe that this ritual may be a remnant of the age-old tree worshipping cult of our ancestors. The tree that is been used as a Kapa is the Rath Karawu tree which has two trunks that are grown in the same bush together. The Kanuwa is cut at an auspicious time on the Vesak Full Moon Poya Day.

Why only Rath Karawu trees are chosen as Kap?

It is believed that when King Dutugemunu was wondering where exactly to build the shrine, the God Kataragama, shot an arrow to mark the place. And that arrow he sent flying was made of Rath Karawu wood. Hence, the Kapa is always a Rath Karawu tree trunk. Another explanation is that Rath Karawu has a higher germination rate and that symbolises life, prosperity, and fertility.

How the ritual is performed

The Kanu Kepeeme Mangalya is performed as a sacred ritual. The devala tusker, two priests, and a small perahera along with a few more devala officials leave devala early in the morning, before sunrise. They all walk towards the chosen Rath Karawu tree. The axe and the knife are also cleansed. Both objects are kept at the root of the tree and a Nanumura (ritual cleansing) is performed.

However, with time, certain traditions of this ritual have undergone slight changes, as an adaptation to the time and situation. The devala tusker does not join the journey of the Kanu Kapana Mangalya today as they walk a long distance inside the jungle. Also, the team leaves in the afternoon on the Vesak Full Moon Poya Day for this task. Devala officials including two Gotumahana Pilee Ralas, Perahera Balana Rala, Gabadakara Rala, Uuliyam Pangukaru, and Muhandiram Pandamkaru, join the two Kapu Mahattayas in this ritual.

Three limes are squeezed and the juice is applied to the chosen tree. The tree trunk is cleansed with water after this. Then the chosen tree is cleansed by applying white sandalwood paste and dummala. An oil lamp with nine flames is lit in front of the tree and nine fruits are offered to the tree.

 Then, the trunk is cut by Theve Kapu Ralas who worship the god before cutting and also their mouths are covered. The cut tree trunk is then cleansed with water and the Nanumurua ritual is held. The Nanumura is held at the banks of the sacred Manik River. Gotu Mahana Pile officials then clean the trunk by peeling the outer surface and hand it over back to Theve Kapu Ralas.

Afterwards, red flowers and panduru (offerings) are offered to the trunk (two Kap Kanu’s) and the two trunks are covered with white clothes. The sacred trunk is then carried to devala in the perahera and placed at the Walli Amma Devala. At the port called Rada Thota a Nanumura is performed on the two Kap Kanus (cleansing them with water).

In the early morning of the following day, the sacred Kaps are brought back to the Kataragama Maha Devala and taken inside to the devala through its left entrance. This is performed early in the morning during the Brahmamuhurtha auspicious time, and the Davulkara Muhandiram plays the Davula seven times in front of the Walli Amma Devala.

Then, the sacred Kap is taken out of the shrine at an auspicious time. Gabadakara Rala, Perahara Balana Rala and two Theve Kapu Ralas carry the Kap along with the axe and knife inside Maha Devala. At this point, a member of the Vedda community joins this team reminding us of the involvement of the Vedda people in the Kataragama veneration cult. Four Alatthi Ammas (we have explained this in our last year’s Kataragama perahera article) join this team.

 Officials of the Thevani Amma Devala also join this perahera and all the other surrounding devalas of the sacred premises including the Gana Devala, and Maha Badhra Kali Devala pay tribute to this sacred ritual.

The sacred Kap is then circum-ambulated around the sacred Bo tree (Ashtaphala Bo tree) and the other Bo tree as a mark of respect to the Buddha and Dhamma. Then the two Kaps are placed at the Mini Bandi Mandapaya at the Maha Devala, placing one end of the Kaps at the stone step and other two on two brass pots (kalaya).

While this is happening Hevisi drums are played adding, a magical mystical religiousness to the atmosphere. Then flowers are offered to the Kap and they are tied on the edges of the two Kap Kanus. Then during an auspicious time, the Kap Situweema is performed in front of the Maha Devala with a red fabric tied around the two Kaps.

Alatti Ammas perform ‘Alatti Baama’ as a ritual of evoking the god’s blessings. Theve Kapurala gives the Anguru Kuduchchiya (charcoal tray) to the main devala and worships the god. Then, the Gotumahana Pila lights the Panjalaththam lamp and place it on the steps.

The Muruthan Poojawa is done after the second Alatti Bama. Muruthan Poojawa is the offering of milk rice (Kiribath) and kevum to the god. The devala official known as Uliyam Pangukaru offers milk rice and kevum placed on two trays along with a half-cut coconut filled with water and oil lamps to the two Kap Kanus. Meanwhile, milk rice and kevum are also distributed among the devotees.

The entire Kap Situweema ritual symbolises the cycle of life and fertility. Scholars believe that the Kapa represents the Yashtiya or the stick of Indra – god of rain. Also, the Kap Situweema may be a remnant of pre-Buddhist linga worship cults, and festivals held for fertility and prosperity.

Also, the month of Esala is special for Buddhists. It is said that the Buddha held his first sermon on an Esala Full Moon Poya Day and that the divine Parasathu tree in heaven blossoms in the month of Esala. Gods listened to the Buddha’s first sermon sitting under this fully-bloomed Parasathu tree. Hence, some believe that the Kap Situweema performed at Esala Perahera symbolises this divine tree.

After 45 days, at an auspicious time, the Kataragama Maha Devala Perahara commences. It is believed that during the whole time the perahera is held, God Kataragama visits the human world and resides on the Kap Kanus; hence they are considered sacred.

Three days after the perahera, the Kapa is removed and divided into two parts and buried at the Jeewamali Thota (the sacred port where the water cutting ceremony is held). Burying the Kapa is believed to bring rain and fertility.

 At present day, around 2 a.m., Gabada Kara Rala enters devala and closes the door. Then he removes the two Kaps, performs Nanumura, applies sandalwood water on the Kap, and cuts each Kap into three parts before burying them at the historic Jeewamali Thota (this is the port where King Dutugemunu had a bath before offering alms to the monks after he won the war).

Upon close observation and studying, it becomes clear that Kap Situweema ritual is performed to bless the society by evoking the blessings of the God Kataragama. This ritual has many symbolic meanings. The Kapa being placed at the Walli Amma Devala and then later brought back to God Kataragama’s shrine symbolises many interesting things. It symbolises the union of the god and goddess which can be seen as the union of the male and female powers. Also, it could be reminding us of an almost faded goddess-venerating cult.

 Also, the Kapa itself may be symbolising age-old and pre-Buddhist phallic worshipping that existed in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world. These cults and rituals prevailed in agrarian societies that completely depended on agriculture. For such societies, the forces of nature were vital deciding factors. Hence, they would perform rituals and traditions to please the gods of rain, the sun god and earth gods/goddesses.

May the Kap Situweema of the sacred Kataragama Devala which was held on 15 June bring prosperity, fertility and happiness to the people of Sri Lanka, and may the most sacred and ancient Kataragama Perahera evoke the blessings of the mighty god residing at Kataragama upon all Sri Lankans.

(Information courtesy Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devala, Kataragama Puda Sirith by Ven. Dr. Aluthwewa Soratha Thera, and Dutu Nodutu Kataragama Devindu by K.D. Devapriya, and pix courtesy Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devala)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy