Shrine in the jungle

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By 2017-08-12

Rather unusually, the Kandy Esala Perahera and the Kataragama festival almost exactly coincided this year. Thoughts went to both: Menika's birthplace Kandy and the shrine in the jungle that Leonard Woolf described it in The Village in the Jungle as the faraway place with special powers that could heal Silindu from the yaka's curse that had descended on him. Maybe it was thus forested and hidden when Woolf surely visited it, probably on horseback when he was the Assistant Government Agent cum Magistrate in Hambantota in 1910.


Time was when Kumari and her kin from Kandy hardly went to Kataragama; their main places of worship being the Dalada Maligawa and Anuradhapura. Closer home were the three famous ancient temples of Embekke, Gadaladeniya and Lankatilleke. The Kataragama Devale was visited in Kandy town down Colombo Street. Homage was paid to the gods and those of the Hindu Pantheon in the devales in close proximity to the Dalada Maligawa. It was much later as a young adult that Kumari visited Tissamaharama and Kataragama and this too ,more to worship at the Tissamaharama Maha Seya and Kiri Vehera. Ratnapura influence entering her life, she accompanied those people who strongly believed in the powers of the God Kataragama and made vows and paid devout homage. Kumari always preferred to adhere to the Buddha's Dhamma and though she believed in the power of the gods, preferred not to bargain with them. Of course she went to the devalé at Kataragama with due respect and devotion. Latterly, because pujavatti bearers were in such a long queue snaking their way around the devalé, opted to go in direct and drop money in the till. The ambience inside the devalé was a mix of the unique with the mystique. The bells would chime at pooja time; the curtain with the god on a monara embroidered on it would be swished aside as a kapurale went in or emerged from the inner sanctum and you got a glance inside. Ash was given you and if you had presented a vatti half its contents returned to you. Coconuts were dashed, one per person, piously.

Legends and myths

The origin or the inauguration of the Kataragama devalé is not clear as it is not historically recorded. The Mahavamsa mentions it as a sacred place from the 5th century AD. The shrine is believed to have been established as an adjunct to the guardian deity Skanda-Kumara within a Buddhist temple complex. Legend has it that Skanda-Kumara came to Ceylon and asked for refuge from the Tamils. They did not accommodate him. The Sinhalese installed him as a guardian deity in Kataragama, hence the ease with which Buddhists do the Kataragama pilgrimage, while the Tamils often do penance like sending metal shafts through their cheeks or drawing carts by inserting nails in their backs. Another modern version of this is that God Skanda or Kataragama Deviyo wanted to test his devotees. In the guise of an old man he descended to the banks of the swollen Menik Ganga and asked a Tamil man to help him across. He was spurned. A Sinhalese man carried him across. Hence his continued benevolence to Sinhalese pilgrims! Obvious racism in these anecdotes!

A feasible legend is that there lived a subgroup of Veddahs in this area. They had a hill which they named Vedihitikanda – Mountain of the Veddahs. They made offerings to the god who resided on the summit of the hill. He married a Veddah woman, Valli, and hence her abode in the quiet Sella Kataragama along the Menik Ganga a little distant from the the devalé.

Historical and legendary facts

Tissamaharama was a prosperous area and during the Buddha's third visit to this island, he is supposed to have meditated here with 500 Arahats. Devanampiya Tissa's younger brother, Mahanaga, moved down south and founded the kingdom of Ruhuna. Buddhism had been introduced to the country by Arahat Mahinda Thera so the religion would have taken root in the kingdom of Ruhuna too. The large chetiya at Tissamaharama is said to have been built by Kavan Tissa, grandson of King Mahanaga. Kiri Vehera was built or rebuilt in the 1st century BC. Dutugemunu is said to have paid obeisance to the Kataragama devalé as he set out to battle King Elara in Anuradhapura. Tissamaharama, centred round this Buddhist temple with its massive stupa, was a seat of learning and education from the 3rd century BC to the 11th AD.

A fact that Kumari was not aware of, but got to know by Internetting was that Kataragama is connected to sorcery and charms. That really is sad. It is bad enough bargaining with the god for protection; for the safety of one's newly bought vehicle; for good health; for success in an examination. Kumari's idea is that man has to seek his own salvation and thus ensure his protection. There are devathavas or benign spirits around who may give protection to good people, but to bargain with a god is not correct. People say they will offer a gold coin if this is granted or make a pilgrimage. Some vow to roll around the devale. All pilgrims are strictly vegetarian before and during a pilgrimage to Kataragama.

Much missed is the Ramakrishna Mission quarters that served excellent vegetarian meals with people seated on the floor and the food coming in large buckets on wheels! Rooms for overnight stays were also available, free of charge. The Mission, Kumari believes, had to close down as the devale too came under full control of Sinhala Buddhist supervisors – the Nilame and others. Coming back to the fact of sorcery being practised, Kumari read that bad luck and evil could be wished upon someone by making offerings to either of two evil-creating spirits, one in a spot in Morawaka and the other on the banks of the Menik Ganga a mite distant from the sacred area.
Islam veneration

Kataragama has a mosque in the sacred area. Islamists call this area al-Khidr meaning Land of Khidr, he being a Muslim cleric who settled down here with some followers. Apart from the mosque are tombs believed to be those of the religious persons who lived with Khidr.

Whatever the significance of the place, it is venerated by the thousands during the season and off-season. Fire-walking is a famed event during the festival when men dip their feet in water and walk on live coals to emerge with unscathed soles. Faith achieves near miracles. The aura, particularly around the very old and wide spreading Bo tree is definitely sanctified. – Kumari



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