19th August 2001
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Great walk of faith

Marlon Saldin joins a determined band of pilgrims on the Paada Yatra

Paada Yatra is an ancient pilgrimage made by Hindu devotees, who once used to walk from the Wattapalai Amman Kovil in Jaffna, all the way south to Kataragama. They would start in May and travel some 300 kilometres to complete the pilgrimage by the end of July - in time for the Kataragama festival.

Pottuvil, from where I was to join the pilgrimage, was a hive of activity. There were open lorries, trucks, tractors, buses and vans; all full of pilgrims travelling to their next destination - Okanda. The latecomers would aim for closer places such as the Veharakema Gana Devi Kovil situated midway between Okanda and Panama or the Gana Devi Kovil in Panama. The Paada Yatra was alive and well in these parts!

I joined a group of three families from Muttur, who had come all the way to Pottuvil by bus and ferry, travelling almost five days. The Kulandevadivels own a grocery store in Muttur. There was Murugan and his mother Rasamma, his wife Amutha, her sister Sudha and parents Ambiga and Tambimuttu. There was also Maheswari and her little daughter Ramya who, though just eight, completed the entire distance unaided! Her sister Kanthi, an 'A/Level student from Trincomalee, and Kandhan, an 11-year-old relative made up the rest of the group. I was pilgrim number 13.

Everyone did their last minute shopping at Pottuvil as from that point onwards goods are hard to come by. I made my last minute purchases of more noodles, soap, sugar, oranges, onions and green chilies. My backpack already weighed a ton as apart from all the clothing and food that I considered would last a good 10 days, I was carrying six litres of water. 

We arrived late afternoon at Okanda, after stopping at Panama and Veherakema Kovils. Everyone would light camphor, pray and then relax for a few minutes with a drink of water, and then move on. I was only a few hours into the pilgrimage but the heat was already beginning to tell!

At Okanda Kovil we selected a shady area beneath a large tree and set up camp, laying large polythene sheets on the ground and then placing the bags carried on the heads of all pilgrims in the centre. The men would then get firewood and stones to prepare a fire while the women would start preparing meals or more colloquially "Soru". Only after the meal would everyone relax. While cooking, they would either have a wash or a bath, depending on the availability of water. 

The Kovil was well lit with the aid of a generator, which also powered a public address system that broadcast spiritual music, or so I was told! 

Everyone visited the Kovil for the evening ceremony, which lasted around half an hour. A few enterprising people from Panama had got some trade stalls going and these were well patronized by devotees. By nightfall, there were over 200 pilgrims within the Kovil grounds, men, women, and children out in the open. The weather was perfect, as a soft wind kept the evening cool. 

The next morning was special. This was the day of the flag raising ceremony, the same day as in Kataragama. The flagpole was really a huge 'Na' tree trunk. The devotees would break coconuts, light camphor and incense, chant "Haro Hara" and silently pray for their wants. The music within the Kovil was truly ethnic and most appealing! A drummer and some musicians with what seemed to be a combination of flutes and trumpets played on, varying their notes according to the ceremonies. 

Early in the afternoon my group invited me to join them for a ritual on the rock of Okanda. There were around seven deep rocky pools of water, and pilgrims are supposed to bathe or immerse themselves in every one. These are called "Kema" in Sinhalese. Some are very large and relatively clean but some are very small and very dirty! But they bathed and I did too! The largest was left for the last and everyone had a long bath in it and some washed clothes as well!

The evening was chaotic as more and more pilgrims arrived and set-up camp everywhere. We spent all evening at the Kovil participating in the flag raising ceremony. The flag is really an extremely long cloth with drawings and inscriptions. Everyone was present and their chanting of "Haro Hara" echoed long and loud into the night! At 6.00 a.m. Kulandevadivel lit a packet of camphor and everyone prayed around it. Then with a loud call of "Haro Hara" my group picked up all their luggage and placing it on their heads and shoulders, commenced the hardest and most difficult part of Paada Yatra. For beyond Okanda, nothing is certain. Water, the path, the weather, wildlife, the jungle and injuries are some of the uncertainties that lie ahead. The pilgrims would have to overcome all of this carrying their heavy loads and traverse this terrain of around 100 kms! A testimony of dedication and belief in God Murugan!

Barely over an hour into the pilgrimage, the humidity was very high. My shirt and trousers were soaked in sweat. I had already finished over half of my two-litre bottle of water, and my group was giving me anxious looks! Would the "Saami" - as I was now called - make it? All this was even before the sun came into contention too!

The sun, when it did come out, was relentlessly hot! When the breeze died off, the heat was scorching, the only escape being the shade of a tree! Apart from the tall trees, the scrub jungles and fields were dead and all waterholes and streams caked with dry mud! 

Breakfast to many pilgrims is a floury substance that has sugar, salt, dried coconut, spices and breadpowder. Some have it in powder form whilst the others have it as a hard cube. Whichever way you eat it, it manages to relatively fill you up and give you that much needed energy. 

We had decided to head for the Kabelitthathota Kovil, situated beside the Kumbukkan Oya. A flat area between the river and the jungle was selected and cleaned of fallen branches and leaves. This area was lush green and thick with vegetation. A refreshing breeze took away all the tiredness and sweat! As the river was dry, everyone digs up the bed and the water would start pouring into the hole. Some holes produce brakish and murky water while some produce very good drinking water! That evening brought in around 50 pilgrims to the banks of the river. 

I spent most of the evening in conversation with various groups. There was Premachandran, who was the chairman of Thropradi Amman Kovil, also Mattikali and friends from Batticaloa. They had commenced the Paada Yatra from Batticaloa. Premachandran has made this pilgrimage for the past six years, and said that all he wanted was a better life after death! 

Then there was Victor Rajanayagam who was the retired Assistant Director of Agriculture for Batticaloa and K. Paranirupasingham, the Assistant Director of Education for Karaitivu. They spoke excellent English and answered my many questions. They also summed up the reason why so many undertake this trying pilgrimage. "This is Hell and Heaven. This is all that there is to it; and for all the ill you have done you shall have to pay! This pilgrimage, is for us, penance!" 

It was a strange assortment of people under the canopy of Kumbuk trees that night on the left bank of the river. There were public and private sector directors, teachers, public servants, farmers, storekeepers, municipal workers, housewives and school children. 

With the sun peeping out the first of the pilgrims had commenced their onward march. Perhaps the previous day's hard journey had delayed my group who decided to leave at 1.00 p.m. The river had by now risen to around two feet of water in some places.

The land in this part of the country consists of dry fields and lakes, waterholes. rivers and thorn jungle.

Minutes into the trail and everyone began drinking from their water bottles as we were walking on a parallel path to the sun. We had to get to Naval Adi Ara but the going was not easy. 

The kids may have found this part of the journey interesting as many "Plam Plam" woodapples were found on the ground. The strong winds drop ripe woodapples which are happily picked up by passing pilgrims. Once in an open field we came across the skeletal remains of elephants. At times, our progress was hampered by soft sand underfoot. 

We arrived at Naval Adi Ara around 6.30 p.m. It was an open square of around 150 feet in length, surrounded by jungle. The open area consisted of white sand. In the middle were three shallow wells. While two were for bathing, one was for drinking! All the wells had only around six inches of water, but remained so during everyone's use. The water was rather salty but drinkable. Dinner was a quick affair as everyone wanted to sleep early, partly due to tiredness and in anticipation of the next day. 

5.00 am. sharp, and everyone was ready to leave. Chanting "Haro Hara" the pilgrims stepped into the darkness of the forest with around seven torches and one hurricane lamp shared amongst 70 people!. The urgency in their call, the time of departure and the size of the group made me understand that this was going to be the most serious part of the pilgrimage. 

Soon we were at a thorn maze where a little path was available at places to barely squeeze through. Within half an hour into the trail I was cut, scratched and torn. 

Dawn brought an incredible sight, as what I had believed to be around 70 pilgrims was 150 or more. From forest cover to forest cover across over a kilometre, the line of pilgrims stretched. This was the marching army of God Muruga and the soldiers came in every form. From infants to pilgrims upto the age of around 80, walking unaided. Turning back was unheard of, as they simply would march through any obstacle Mother Nature could come-up with until they reached their destination, Kataragama. Some would even lay down their life in the attempt as this was considered to be the greatest act of a devotee. 

This part of the pilgrimage to me was the crowning moment of the entire Paada Yatra pilgrimage as the morning hours produced a beautiful but hostile terrain, comradeship in assisting the people who strayed and sharing food and drink. As it happened by 8.00 a.m., we were lost. Within a thorn forest, it is the practice among pilgrims to place a broken branch along the route for guidance. But when 150 feet or more have gone over it, it hardly leaves any sign for the newcomers! Turning back too is no easy task, as around 150 people have to backtrack to the next junction. 

By 10.40 am, we were back on a relatively wide road and the pilgrims fell back to their respective groups. Some had planned to get to the bridge that separates Yala blocks1 & 2, some had decided to stay around a very stagnant waterhole. The others, which included us, were making for the river.

At last we were on the final stretch - the thinning trees became bigger, greener and more dense and we knew that we had made it to the Menik Ganga.

(Next week: Kataragama)

Boosting morale with a little kindness

By Shelani de Silva
If one were to ask a disa- bled soldier what he would need to lead a normal life, the list would be endless. This is hardly surprising since many of them come from poor families and have no resources to fall back on in times of crisis.

Through the years many people have come forward to help them, but still more help is needed as their numbers keep increasing day by day. 

The Lt. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa Trust was set up in 1992, its main objectives being to help disabled servicemen and their families, villages and villagers affected by the war, troops at the war front and battle casualties in hospitals.

In a rare gesture, two private companies RPK Management and Keells Plantations Ltd. have come forward through the Lt. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa Trust to donate land to soldiers.

The Sunday Times met three soldiers who though currently being rehabilitated at the Ranaviru Sevana Rehabilitation Centre are getting ready to start life again through self-employment, thanks to the generosity of these donors.

Twenty-four-year-old K. I. Damith who lost both his legs last year in Vavuniya, has already laid the foundation for his new home in Matara.

For Damith this is definitely a new lease of life and something to look forward to, so much so that he personally supervises the construction.

'I have managed to lay the foundation, which I believe is a great achievement. My sole aim is to complete the house. Whenever I get time I go to Matara. I get tremendous support from the villagers,' he said.

Damith who joined the army in 1999, says economic problems were among the factors that led him to enlist.

'I think this is the case with many soldiers. Once we get injured we are helpless, but it is such a consolation to find people coming forward to help us. The Kobbekaduwa Trust has helped us tremendously. It's only when you are injured that you realise how much you need the support of others. We don't need sympathy, what we want is for people to help us and our families,' he said.

Now Damith's main goal is to complete his house, and set himself up as a screen printer.

Twenty-five-year-old D.P. Kularatne, eldest in a family of three, received a plot of land in Haldamulla. Having joined the Army in 1997 he was injured at Alimankada while on duty.

'Being the eldest in the family I was the breadwinner but when I got injured I was helpless. Then you imagine the worst. But having organisations and people who can and are willing to help us is a real morale booster,' he said.

Kularatne too has completed a course as a screen printer, and he is making plans to start work on his own once he goes home. 'Financially we find it very difficult, but I am determined to complete my house. Now that I have got a plot of land, my aim is to have a house of my own' he said.

S. Nanayakara, 31, is blind in both eyes, but is cheerful and slowly learning to be independent.

When Nanayakara joined the Army in 1995, he was fulfilling his childhood dream. But loss of sight in both eyes left him and his family helpless. 'From that day on life has never been the same. It is worse when you are lying in hospital, not knowing how and where to start life again. But once I was taken to Ranaviru Sevana things changed. We are given vocational training, and also taught to lead an independent life,' he said.

Nanayakara too has received a plot of land at Polgahawela but coming from a family of ten, he is unable to start building a house.

'I am very grateful to the two companies and the Kobbekaduwa Trust for helping us. A person has to be in this position to realise the need. I know there are people who want to help and they have done so, but there are people who don't even know that we need their help. It brings so much relief to know that there are people who want to help us,' he said.

The need of the hour is for more individuals and organisations to come forward to continue helping these young men rebuild their lives.

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