26th August 2001
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The reward of the faithful

Continuing Marlon Saldin's journey to Kataragama with pilgrims on the Paada Yatra

We had reached the Menik Ganga and beneath these giant trees, mainly Kumbuk, we made camp. 

The darkness brought with it a certain tension. The jungle seemed alive with all manner of noises. At around 8.00 p.m. a scream was heard in the jungle. 

A whisper of "pulli" - (leopard) quickly changed into "Karadi" -(bear). A huge cry of "Haro Hara" went up from the pilgrims. They gathered into tighter groups and started adding more logs into the already blazing fires. 

Some twenty minutes later, the bear was heard again, this time much closer. The men then ran shouting to the edge of the jungle carrying flaming sticks to frighten it away. 

The bear perhaps trying to get to the riverbed for a drink of water, that evening had to quench its thirst elsewhere.

Everyone woke-up late the next day. My group, like most others, stayed here an additional day to rest and recover lost energy. 

The Menik Ganga was the perfect spot for this, for so long as you stayed in the shade, you remained cool with a refreshing breeze always passing through. 

We were visited in the morning by an army foot patrol! They were respectful, addressing our group members as "Amma" and "Appa" and sharing a coffee with us before moving further down the river.

The food I had here was delicious! From seemingly empty plastic bags they would bring out a few vegetables, brinjals, carrots, pumpkin and potato being the most common, also soya beans and dhal, and then boil or fry them with a handful of spices and herbs. 

The result was a plate of curry that was unforgettable. One lady gave me half of a raw woodapple, where the pulp had been removed and mixed with salt, green chilli and a few spices - it was the most wonderful hot and sour woodapple! 

It was around 2.00 p.m., when we reached the bridge that divides Yala blocks 1 and 2. Prior to this a few army officers had come to the area where we were cooking and struck up a conversation. 

A few officers knew Tamil and chatted with us all. Amongst them was Asanka, an officer from the St. John's Ambulance Brigade, ready to assist anyone in need.

As we were crossing the bridge it started to rain and all the checking, questioning and documentation was done amidst a steady drizzle. 

The army conducted a friendly but professional search of all our goods before letting us through. We decided to continue through the steady drizzle as we still had a long way to go. 

The drizzle, at least to me, was a relief. True it soaked everything and made the ground muddy, but after almost a week of intense heat, it was most welcome.

Through Yala block 1, the pilgrims marched. The drizzle persisted until we reached the Katagamuwa army camp. 

The entire group was too tired to even report to the post, so the officers came to us. They were well prepared with a Tamil speaking female officer present for the translations. 

We refilled our depleted water stores and headed for the Katagamuwa tank to camp for the night.

Across the tank we saw our final destination Vedihiti Kanda and beyond - Kataragama. We were on the final leg of the pilgrimage with around 16 kms to go.

Chenas, houses and villages were beginning to appear by the side of the road, and the villagers would greet the passing pilgrims, but we were by now, overcome with tiredness. 

(This was the first instance that I had come across the outside world since I left Pottuvil, about a week ago). Nevertheless, with grim determination we arrived at Kataragama with a relentless sun bearing down on us.

The Menik Ganga had 3-4 feet of water and everyone had a leisurely swim and washed clothes and utensils, before donning the proper attire for Kataragama. My group looked very prim and proper with their new set of garments that seemed to have come from nowhere! Refreshed, we made for the grounds where all pilgrims stay. Some were the early arrivals of Paada Yatra, while others had arrived by bus, van or lorry. 

Here I was to meet "Patrick Saamy" an American who has been on Paada Yatra since 1988. He starts out from the Kandasamy Kovil in Trincomalee and walks all the way to Kataragama, stopping at kovils along the way. 

It's a 40-day pilgrimage covering some 398 kms. He even converses in excellent Tamil and stays with the pilgrims until the end of the Kataragama festival.

The highlight of the festival was the perahera, a large and colourful pageant with many elephants. On that particular day, an elephant a little in front of me became excited and ran amok, injuring its mahout. It was absolute pandemonium with everyone running helter skelter! But to the credit of the organizers, they managed to get the perahera back on track in around 20 minutes! 

But what I was to witness after the perahera, within the Mosque would leave every pilgrim breathless! In a ceremony where all the Lebbes and Fakirs pray to the drumbeat, one or two would suddenly pick-up a sword, knife or dagger from an assortment of such weapons and in a heart-stopping moment, drive this instrument into their head, hand, mouth or stomach. 

The crowd witnessed this with awe and disbelief. One leading international documentary channel reporter fainted at the sight! 

From here it was a mad rush to the Sri Theivayanai Amman Kovil for dinner or dhana, where around 6000 people were fed!

It was a sad and tearful moment when after two hectic, sleepless nights at Kataragama, I had to say goodbye. I had shared a rare experience with the pilgrims along the way. 

The 125 km trek through the scorched, hostile terrain had been made easier for me by the many kind words and generous deeds of these very courageous and dedicated people, the pilgrims of Paada Yatra 2001.

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