Kataragama Perahera: A Living Tradition
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
The Kataragama Perahera which commenced on 25 July 2020 culminated on 4 August after the performance of the sacred water cutting ceremony at the historical Jeewamali Port of the Menik River.
It is a festival held in honour of the country’s chief god of war, residing in a small yet holy jungle-shrine situated in the semi-arid jungles of Southern Sri Lanka, shielded by a mystic ambience.
Known as Kacharagama in ancient texts, this kingdom was ruled by a Sinhalese; Mahasen. He built the Kiri Vehera stupa at the place where he met Gautama Buddha. It is believed that this local ruler was reincarnated as a powerful guardian god and was known as the god of Kataragama.
According to folklore Dutugamunu, the greatest warrior king of the Sinhalese, took an oath at this place before he set off to war against Elara. After winning the battle the king built a shrine and proffered a large number of villages for the maintenance of the shrine. He performed the first perahera to honour his beloved god of war and had decreed that an annual perahera should be held as long as the sun and moon endures. The first tusker to parade in the Kataragama Perahera was the great tusker of Ceylon, Kandula.
For the Veddas it is their beloved Kande Yaka or the hunting god and for the Hindus it is the feared Skandha or Kartikeya who resides in Kataragama.
The perahera commences with the ritual of kap situweema, which is performed 45 days prior to the main perahera. Once the main perahera is over the kap that was kept inside Walli Amma’s shrine is taken back, cut into pieces and buried at the port where the water cutting ceremony is performed. A pirith ceremony is held at Kiri Vehera after the kap situweema.
The last perahera starts from the Maha Devala and walks towards the Kiri Vehera. After the alms giving and water cutting ceremony is performed the perahera officially ends.
The main tusker of the perahera is the majestic Kataragama Wasana.
What is notable at this perahera is the striking number of female performers, the honour and pride bestowed upon the Alaththiammas and the significance given to Walli Amma. Another striking feature of this perahera is the folk dances of the Sinhalese and Tamils. Unlike the more refined and sophisticated Udarata dances, the Pahatharata dances and their costumes are native, bold and sparkling. They are dynamic and cheerful. The beats are energetic and raw.
What will truly capture the viewer’s eye is the amusing Salu Paliya dance, the vibrant Vadiga dance and the iconic Peacock dance performed by beautiful damsels. The Vedi performances and the Kavadi dance are also unforgettable displays.
This event is a part of the lives of devotees rather than a grand state festival. It is their way of paying tribute to their beloved god.
(Pix courtesy Manod Lakchan)