A walk to remember


“True strength lies in submission which permits one to dedicate his life, through devotion, to something beyond himself.”

— Henry Miller

Every year, during the month of Esala (July) thousands of pilgrims in Sri Lanka embark on a strenuous lengthy walk to express their devotion to the god residing in Kataragama. For the Sinhalese, he is Kataragama Deviyo, Mahasen, or Kanda Kumaru; for the Tamils, he is Skandha or Kanda Sami; for the Vedda people also he is a beloved and feared god, thus, making the sacred jungle shrine at Kataragama a place of worship by three communities.

This long strenuous walk starts from the far North of the island in the month of July every year, during the Kataragama Esala Festival. Thousands of devotees walk towards the shrine at Kataragama to take part in the annual Esala festival. Thousands of Sinhala, Tamil and Vedda devotees walk for days, across the dry and semi-arid lands of the North-Eastern coast, and dry forest lands, crossing rivers, vast sand dunes, and mountains. They come across the Yala National Park through the gates of Okanda and finally reach Kataragama. The majority of the devotees of the Paada Yatra are Tamils, then Veddas, and Sinhalese. A few foreigners also take part in this arduous walk.

This journey, although seems to be tiring in our view, is not for a faithful devotee. This long journey is all about faith and devotion and their love for their god. It is also a spiritual journey as the devotees – regardless of their race, religion, and social and financial status – are equal during this journey and follow a simple and rough life during these days, completely away from luxuries and comforts. According to folklore, it also resembles the walk of Skandha or an ascetic who once travelled from India to Kataragama. It is also considered as a journey that follows the foot trails of God Kataragama and his consort Walli, as folklore says that the two journeyed from Okanda to Kataragama on foot.

Devotees also consider it to be a meritorious act to offer food, water, medicine, and assistance to these Paada-Yatra devotees; especially to older people, sick people, and pregnant mothers.

The Kataragama cult is older than 20 centuries. And as many groups such as the Sinhalese, Tamils, and Veddas are venerating this god, various stories, cults, and beliefs are interwoven and even overlapped with each other. So, is the story behind Paada Yatra. There are many origin stories behind this ritual.

Today, we shall meet someone who has experienced the Paada Yatra and spent time with the devotees during the Paada Yatra season at Kataragama.

Joining us to share his experience is a young researcher on social sciences, Ruwan Windsor who has also spent quality time with Paada Yatra devotees.

The journey of devotion begins

As he explained, the Kap Situweema ritual at the Kataragama Devala was held on 15 June this year and Paada Yatra starts on this day. Devotees of Skandha or Karthikeya start their devotional spiritual journey leaving their homes, only carrying a few essentials such as some food and cooking utensils, and a cloth or two. As Ruwan told us, on 22 July Yala gates are opened for these devotees and on 5 August the gates are closed.

He said that the entire Paada-Yaatra ritual is a uniquely different culture and the devotees arrive at the Kataragama Devala premises a few days before the perahera commences. 

“It is a wonderful sight to see a large number of devotees walking towards the sacred shrine, across Sithulpawwa. There are devotees of different age groups. Most of them are in orange attire. Men are usually bare-chested and wear Rudraksha devotional chains around their necks. The leader of the team has a Velayudha and a bunch of peacock feathers.”

Rudraksha Mala is a devotional chain Hindu devotees wear around their necks, hair, or hands and used in prayers and chanting. These are made of the seed known as Rudraksha which is the dried stone of the stone fruit, botanically known as Elaeocarpus Ganitrus. Buddhists also used them for chanting.

As Ruwan said, the leader of the team shouts, “Haro Hara,” and then the rest of the team also repeats.

“To witness this in the mornings on the Kataragama – Sithulpawwa road is a blissfully beautiful thing.”

After they enter the devala premises, their main task is to find a suitable place to spend the coming days. Those who come first, stay in the area between the two main streets of the premises.

When the crowd increases, the groups that come later spread out and stay on both sides of the main streets and in the largely empty space behind the alms hall of the devala and behind the Muslim mosque.

“Before the 1970s, there had been resting halls known as Madam, especially dedicated for Tamil pilgrims and Paada-Yatra devotees would rest in these halls. However, in the ‘70s, under Pooja Bhoomi Sanwardhana projects, these resting halls were removed and the only remaining madama at Kataragama is the Rama-Krishna Madama. It is the white building situated close to the Thevani Amma Kovil. But, this is not being used as a Resting Hall today,” said Ruwan. 

Therefore, Paada Yatra devotees make their own tents using the polythene they bring along with them. They also bring cooking utensils and things that they need to prepare food.

“So we witnessed how they would cook during the perahera days. Family members get together and prepare meals, while sometimes we saw the young males would sing songs or walk around the devale premises.”

According to Ruwan they mostly prepare rice with sambaru.

Ruwan also said that he saw many foreign devotees taking part in Paada Yatra and they are devotees of god Kataragama or Skandha.

Dansal for devotees

For those who do not cook, or are unable to prepare their own meals, the devala organised two dansals (food alms for all). All three meals were provided at these two dansals for 14 days. Anyone who visited Kataragama during these days could eat food from these.

“The one organised by the Basnayake Nilame, food was provided for approximately 5000 people per meal. Sri Lanka Army contributed to this dansala and their service for 14 days was outstanding. The second one was given by the Thevani Amma Kovil. We believe that all those who contributed to this, have gained great merit,” furthered Ruwan.

Ruwan also said that a couple of dansals were given at Yala for the Paada Yatra pilgrims and two were organised by the Diyawadana Nilame and the former acting Basnayake Nilame Dilruwan Rajapakshe. He also said that the great contribution and service of the three forces of Sri Lanka should be remembered with gratitude.

Their devotion and love for god are unbelievable

Ruwan explained the devotion of the pilgrims. He said that many released their vows during these days by shaving their heads, sticking pins on the body, and so on. Devotees cleanse themselves by bathing in the sacred Manik River. After bathing, men apply Vibhuthi or Thinnoru all over their bodies, and women, dress and adorn themselves in the best possible way they could.

Although there are many enchanting dances and events at the perahera, these devotees are eagerly waiting to see the arrival of the main Tusker carrying the god (the tusker carries the jewels and weapons of the god, which represents him. For devotees, this is the arrival of god, riding the tusker).

“I have seen many devotees shed tears of happiness in devotion when they witness the arrival of the god; especially Tamil women. It is a tradition to put flower petals when god arrives on the tusker. These Tamil mothers, after the tusker leaves, collect these flower petals from the Walli Amma Devala and the main devala. They collect these petals with great devotion to god. When the muruthan (the food offered to god) is distributed among devotees at the Walli Amma Devala, these devotees take them into their hands as if they were given divine medicine. I cannot explain their love and devotion to God Kataragama and Walli Amma.”

Food of devotion and love

“There is a unique pooja they perform at the Walli Amma Devala. It is known as the ‘Maa Wilakku Pooja’ or in Tamil as ‘Mathenneyi Wilakku Pooja’. For this, they use flour made of Foxtail Millet (known as thana haal in Sinhala), bee’s honey, Ghee and Banana. This food resembles the first food given by Walli Amma to the God Kataragama. First, they take a clean pot, add flour and honey, mix them well, then add Ghee and peeled bananas. Then a piece of cloth is put inside it and the cloth is then lighted like a lamp. Then they move the burning piece of cloth and cook the mixture in it. This is the pooja. Once it is done, they distribute the cooked food to those who are present,” explained Ruwan.

“It is a delicious food with a distinct taste.”

Sinhala and Tamil harmony; language is not a barrier to unite

Another reason why the Walli Amma Devala is special to Tamil devotees is that, although the priest is Sinhalese, he is fluent in Tamil and has very good knowledge of the Tamil culture.

The current Chief Priest of the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devala, Somipala T. Ratnayake’s brother Wimal T. Ratnayake is the Priest of the Walli Amma Devala. He has even received the hospitality of the Chief Priest of the Tiruchendur Temple – a shrine dedicated to God Kataragama in South India – and was invited to stay there and participate in the rituals of that temple. As he has very good knowledge about this cult and about the Tamil beliefs, Tamil devotees get along with him very well.

“I think that those who want a solution to the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka should visit Kataragama during these 14 days to witness the Sinhala-Tamil unity and harmony. We cannot speak or understand Tamil. Most of them cannot understand English or Sinhala. But when we host them, they keep their hands on their chest, bow a little and treat us back with an innocent genuine smile, which is able to break all language barriers,” concluded Ruwan. 

(Pix by Manilka Jayasingha)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy