Kataragama – a model of religious diversity-By Siri Ipalawatte – Canberra
The Kataragama Shrine. (Picture courtesy Infolankahttps://infolanka.lk/en_US/kataragama/)
The first time I visited Kataragama, 55 years ago, I was a Uni student: I rode there on my brand-new Vespa scooter, with a pillion rider, a friend, at night. The funnel of light thrown by the scooter’s headlight reduced the darkness created by the night sky on the deserted spooky road. With the wild thorny shrub on both sides of the road, driving down in this part of the country was a dangerous experience. The feeling of awe eroded a fair bit; however, the Kataragama Deviyo was known to bless new vehicles, so it was a tradition to make the auspicious trip here. We were there before midnight and managed to log a couple hours of sleep while involuntarily feeding ravenous bed bugs in a run-down circuit bungalow owned by the Department of Marketing. We got up early that morning for the pooja. I haven’t bought a new scooter after that, but I still continue my pilgrimage to this revered location, named after a popular god.
The name Skanda, Murukan, Karthikeya or the Kataragama deviyo may depend on which faith you belong to and it is difficult to sort out facts from myths. The folklore connected with Kataragama has been laid down in the epic heroic poem, Skanda Purana, originally in Sanskrit written in the fifth century BC, while the Tamil version is supposed to have originated in the eight century. According to the poem, Skanda was the second son of Siva and Parvati who lived on Mount Kailasa. It was Narada, son of Brahma, who enticed Skanda towards a Vedda girl named Valli whom he had spotted in South-Eastern Sri Lanka. Skanda came to the island in the guise of an old beggar and professed his love for her; she refused his advances but with the help of Ganesh – his elephant-headed brother – Skanda persuaded her to accept him. But there was a snag because he already had a wife –
Tevani – daughter of Indra. When Tevani heard that her husband was having an affair with another woman, the jealousy that flared up inside left her with no peace. Tevani was not going to renounce her rights easily and she came to Sri Lanka. But despite her stabs, she could not convince Skanda to let go off Valli. Finally, Thevani had to bite the bullet and the three of them went on to live happily in Kataragama. That is why you see Skanda flanked by two ladies, and there is a shrine dedicated to each one of them close to the maha-devale.
The Buddhists believe that king Dutugemunu, the national hero who fought the war against the Tamil invaders, was the first royal patron of Kataragama. He had made a vow to construct a shrine in honour of Skanda if he returns victorious. Masonry marks found in the bricks used in the construction and letters inscribed therein indicate that the Kiri-Vehera had been constructed in the first century BC. The incident associating the Kataragama deviyo with Dutugemunu’s victory naturally finds no place in the historical Buddhist chronicle, Mahavamsa, which glorifies him only as a zealous champion of Buddhism.
Indeed, even Veddas see Kataragama as a holy place of their forefather’s – Skanda’s romantic adventure with the girl born from a doe and brought up by the Veddas being the connecting link. Thus, the Veddas, Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka have all localized the myth in Kataragama. Incidentally, the idea that the events in the myth occurred at Kataragama is also well known in South India and that has influenced their religious traditions.
The Kataragama devotional complex also houses a mosque. There is a story about an Islamic saint called
Hoyathu, who came from the North of India to Kataragama, where he settled down for good. He built himself a house and carried out his religious work. Out of this building the present day mosque and residence of the priest developed. Another Muslim holy man named Kamria Nabi too came from North India and it is believed that he had discovered a hidden spring close to the mosque; the water from it gave immortality. Like the Hindu devotees, some Sufi Muslims, known as nabis, began to practice body piercings of various kinds. The majority of Sunni Muslims in Sri Lanka reject Sufism and never visit Kataragama. However, there is a general tolerance towards Sufi performances. Although the mosque at Kataragama is not linked to Skanda’s legend in any way, its holy location still brings together followers of the three main faiths on the island.
The sacred area of Kataragama is across the Menik Ganga and crossing the river itself is a symbolic act. As pilgrims approach the river, they find a large number of shops and stands setting ‘pooja vatti’. The fruits and other religious items are carefully displayed, and the shops are decorated with god’s colour, red. At another point of the river crossing are the kavadi stands.
The maha-devale is a small white building. Devale of his mistress, Valli, is connected to it by a narrow path. On the left of the maha devale is devale of his legitimate wife, Tevani. The front room of the maha-devale was simple and bare. In the sanctum hung a number of curtains – pictures of deviyo on screen depicted with six faces and 12 hands riding a peacock, one behind the other, thus separating the devotees from deviyo. Only kapuralas are allowed to go inside these curtains, which are never drawn apart. It was assumed inside it had a casket containing the yantra representing the god, engrained on a golden tablet.
For devotees – rich, poor, the lowly toiling proletariat, the sturdy, the crippled, the old and exuberant youth – there was no need to have a statue or pointer; it was the spirit that was important. The presence of the deviyo was felt as energy, while in his territory, inside the
maha-devale. Kataragama deviyo had listened to each of their problems, all said in silence at the same time, with his divine presence and sorted out solutions and remedies to all. After the pooja, devotees leave happy and content. They leave the devale, but it won’t leave them.
The pageant of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy attracts a large number of international tourists and hordes of Sri Lankans. It has become a cultural spectacle, and an entertainment than an object of piety.
Conversely, Kataragama is now busy throughout the year and is visited by people of all social classes and all nominal religious affiliations, especially during the Perahera time. The Perahera is held in the months of July/August and is a festival that coincides with the new moon in the Esala month. Tension and agony in the fire walking, rolling in the hot sands or even self-mortification that was done with a religious dressing, are enthusiastically accepted. At Kataragama ecstatic worship of the god takes emotional direction and joy with the celebrations being displayed by kavadi dancing. I remember in the mid-1970s a pop group called Super Golden Chimes singing a hit song ‘
kanda surinduni’. The words alone sounded solemn – ‘I have come to worship you, I have come to see you’ – but the music was extremely cheerful lilting with a dancing rhythm.
The various faiths in Kataragama have lived side by side in harmony for a long time and still staunchly preserves their valued diversity. This is a location where a Buddhist basnayake takes care of a shrine that belongs to a god of a Hindu pantheon; a location where Tamil Hindus from farthest parts of the island walk barefoot – pada yatra – for two months in a bid to please their god. It is a location that holds a place of pride in the hearts of Veddas and Sri Lankan Muslims. Kataragama will continue to exert a powerful influence as long as people feel the need for, and continue to believe in, the power of divine intervention in their affairs.