12th October 1997


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The pilgrim path

Writing in the 'Loris', the journal of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society. Ranil Bibile retraces the ancient Pada Yatra.

For well over a millennium, perhaps two, the faithful have walked hundreds of miles barefoot across the hot sandy terrain of the east coast of Sri Lanka during its most parched month, to pay obeisance at the jungle shrine of God Skanda at Kataragama. In the old days some pilgrims would walk from India, "frequently bringing with them pots of water from the Ganges at Benares, slung across bamboos", said Modliar Simon Casie Chitty in The Ceylon Gazetteer' of 1834.

Times have changed. The thousand and more pilgrims of the past have dwindled to a few dozens who dare challenge the modern perils on some parts of the route. But even with the reduced numbers the 'Pada Yatra', as the foot pilgrimage is called, still goes on most years, as it has for countless centuries.

In 1994 I had a window of opportunity to follow the same path as the pilgrims, fortunately in a 4 WD vehicle and not on foot. Even at that time there was some tension on account of previous terrorist activity, but now (in 1996), those areas have once again been swamped by the terrorists and are therefore inaccessible to most citizens of this country. Therefore, a somewhat detailed narrative of our 1994 journey may prove informative to members of the WNPS, most of whom must surely have a desire to venture into those distant parts again some day.

That year (1994) the organised part of the Yatra began in Trincomalee on June 4th and wended its way southwards for 226 miles, over 30 days, in stages ranging from 2 to 14 miles a day, until Kataragama was reached on or about the 8th of July. As always, the route followed the Island's eastern littoral and passed such once idyllic places as Panichchankeni, Mankeni, Passikudah and Sinnamuhattuvaram. The most difficult stages were towards the end, south of Pottuvil and Panama, as the trail shimmered through 72 miles of hot windswept wilderness, inhabited by bear, elephant, buffalo and leopard, and with few sources of fresh water. Underfoot soft sand was burning and required great effort to traverse, one-inch long thorns known as 'kukulkatu' which can pierce even the toughest of tyres.

Pottuvil, East Coast, June 1994.

We arrive at Pottuvil in the early afternoon of June the 30th, after a lunch stop at Lahugala. The pilgrims have gone beyond Pottuvil and are already at Panama. So we move on, past the glistening sweep of beach and surf at Arugam Bay with its handful of intrepid tourists riding the waves. After crossing the Wila Oya, down the river's valley, which is said to be a refreshing sight indeed in the otherwise sere landscape, about forty or fifty pilgrims are gathered under a grove of trees at Panama's Pillaiyar Kovil. Afternoon though it is, some are just setting off for the 11 mile trek to Okanda's Murugan Kovil with their chattels upon their heads and their crimson and saffron garments billowing in the wind in startling contrast to the dusty track and the green fields. It is the last cultivated and permanently inhabited land we will see for several days.

We join the pilgrim path

At Kunukala Kalapuwa we see a lesser Adjutant, not the army type but the stork, 'Leptoptilos javanicus', which in fact is Sri Lanka's largest bird and quite rare. G.M. Henry states, "This weird -looking stork is found sparsely scattered throughout the wilder low-country jungles of the dry-zone, but is common nowhere..... it frequents the loneliest of jungle tanks, waterholes ..and is a very wary bird."

Shortly thereafter we are at Sanyasi Malai, a tree shrine, set at the foot of Wehera kema. There is a framed picture of Lord Ganesh - a Hindu deity, and a metal trident stuck in the ground. Halfway up the rock is a kema or rock waterhole surrounded by animal droppings. Scattered on the plateau above, amidst some stark thorn trees, are a few remnant brick and pieces of dressed stone from an ancient Buddhist temple, long since vandalised by treasure hunters.

Next we are at Helawa lagoon. An elephant feeds on the short grass, its dusty hide golden in the late afternoon sun. But the sound of our vehicles is not to his liking and he moves off in a huff, tail raised in a question mark.

To our right a stupa on a high rock - historic Kudimbigala, one of our oldest cave monasteries dating back to around the second century B.C. Twenty miles south of Pottuvil, it is, in this era, the most wild and isolated hermitage in Sri Lanka, Michael Carrithers writing in 1979 ("The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka") states that the animals which roam the hermitage - bear, leopard, wild boar, buffalo and elephants keep the casual visitor at bay, for this is a hermitage and not a temple. It has to be protected from what Gananath Obeyesekera called the 'relentless piety of the masses' so that the hermit monks have the time for meditation. Some of the caves are a mile from the alms hall and yet, in the twenty five years to 1979 "no one has been attacked by an animal at Kudimbigala, though forest villagers have often been attacked and killed."

We keep moving

At Okanda the burnt-out ruins of the Wild Life Department quarters and bungalow are a grim reminder of the terrorism that had struck here. It is 4 p.m. and the shadows are lengthening. A decision has to be taken whether to make camp here for the night or to push on to Kumana, 12 miles and about an hour to the south. We decide to try and make it to Kumana though no one in Pottuvil or Panama had been able to give us any information of the current track conditions.

As we move south of Okanda the trail deteriorates rapidly. It is extremely bad, the old culverts having collapsed many monsoons ago. The path shows obvious signs of being a torrent of water during the north-east deluge. We are forced to detour onto the salt flats and abandoned rice fields to find a way through. It is slow, agonising progress. At certain points large rocks obstruct the track and the vehicle's suspension takes a beating, even though we are moving in "footsteps" using the low range gears. At others, the paintwork is horrendously scraped by branches intruding onto the track. It is far too late in the day to stop every few feet to clear these branches. If any vehicles have come this way at all in the past one year, they have not bothered to clear the track either.

We are now entering an area of extreme beauty; of glittering lagoons and bleached salt flats, windswept sand dunes and great rock outcrops, golden plains and green forests. The whole area to the south was an ancient civilisation up until about the 10th century A.D. The once inhabited rock outcrops with kemas and caves, inscriptions and ruins, roll lyrically off the tongue-Bambaragastalawa and Kiripokunahela, Nelunpatpokunegala and Bowattagala, Namalpokuna and Kongala.

Since it is getting late we speed on through the Tirimawa Plain with its deer and buffalo, the dust clouds churning up behind the vehicles, on past the three giant boulders of Yodalipa (Giant's Hearth), the stunningly beautiful Bagura Plains sprinkled with deer, the Bagura Kalapuwa with buffalo, Kuda Wila a lone elephant feeding amongst the reeds, Tunmulla and its ruined bungalow haunted by jackals and overlooking a large gathering of crocodiles, past Kotalindawala, Andarakala Kalapuwa and a sounder of startled wild boar, Itikala Kalapuwa, Yakkala Kalapuwa, Kumana Villu - teeming with birds, and on to the Kumbukkan Oya itself, where we decide to make camp at the first clearing we find, besides a tree-shrine to goddess Pattini. The river here is green, and muddy underfoot, as the sandbank is closed and the water is backed up. It is getting quite dark. Camp is quickly made and a hasty dinner rustled up.

We light a small log fire and with three hurricane lanterns on the perimeters of the camp we all fall dead asleep, for it has been a long hot day. But it is not over for us yet. At around 2 a.m. we are woken up by a strange sound. Someone or something in the depths of the murky forest around us is gasping for breath, very loudly in and out, as though ill and at death's door. What's worse, the noise is getting closer and closer to us. Then in the dim lamplight we see a weird, bare-bodied figure emerge from the forest, gasping loudly all the time. I can only compare it to an old steam engine puffing up Balana to Kadugannawa, with sudden staccato bursts when the wheels slip. The figure goes to the tree-shrine which is just an old weather-beaten table under a tree with a picture of the goddess, just five feet from us, and makes some seemingly jerky, even violent movements. I think, 'perhaps it was not such a good idea to camp here in the first place'. Everyone in our party is sitting up, tongue-tied and frozen to their bedding. Suddenly the figure turns around, runs stopping the loud moans. We watch in amazement as he (or it) returns to the tree -shrine, not taking the slightest notice of us, and repeatedly passes a forearm over a flame lit with something. In the forest's darkness our eyes are riveted on the flame as it wraps itself round the black arm, from wrist to elbow, back and forth. The moaning continues, interspersed with gasps, and then, as suddenly as it appeared, the figure disappears into the forest, still making those ghastly sounds which gradually fade into the dark night as the insect noises take over the camp once again. There is no contribution we can make to all this, other than to ask in hoarse whispers, "What on earth was that?" No one is sure. We all saw it, so it was not a dream or an illusion. But we are too tired and too mystified to unravel this incident and soon fall into another deep sleep.

Kumbukkan Oya, Kumana.

Dawn brings forth a huge orchestra of bird calls in the riverine forests around us. From the direction of Kumana Villu though, it is rather a cacophony with the raucous calls of hundreds of Painted Stork and their kith and kin. The incident of the night is put aside. The tree-shrine looks just as it did to us in the fading light of yesterday's dusk. We later learn from pilgrims that this is a branch - a 'Shakawa' as they call it - of the legendary Kebilitta or Siyambalawe Devale which is 22 miles upriver in the inland forest and inaccessible to the Pada Yatra pilgrims and others, mainly villagers from Panama, who do things in these jungles. Hence they have opened this Shakawa by the river at Kumana for their protection. I had been to Kebilitta some months before and wrote of it in the June '96 Loris.

Some of us are off early to film and photograph at the Kumana Villu. As we draw close to the villu, we are overwhelmed by the incessant noise of the birds and see scores of little specks circling overhead. These turn into Painted Storks and Pelicans, the former soaring high in the sunlit sky. The trees besides the villu are full of adults as well as juvenile Painted Storks. The latter though, in their dull grey plumage, appear decidedly unpainted. They can only stretch their wings and cannot as yet fly. We see young Pelicans and Ibis in their nests, some with parents. On the ground, amidst the reeds, are Purple Coot, Spoonbill, Grey Heron, Egrets, Open-bill and other species. On the water, Moorhen swim past in couples and Jacanas trot on the lily pads mewing like contented cats. A not so common Kingfisher dives from the reeds into the villu.

We are at this wondrous place for a good two hours and then reluctantly leave to go to the site of the Kumana village to check it out. The origin of this village is somewhat of a mystery. The recent former inhabitants of the village too came into being in the aftermath of the Uva Rebellion when Kandyans from the Koslanda area fled down the valley of the Kumbukkan Oya to the coast at Kumana. Yet Robert Knox indicated the Kumbukkan Oya in his map (circa 168,1 A.D.) and marked the village of "Coemana" near its mouth. Perhaps it was later abandoned, and settled again in the aftermath of the Uva Rebellion.

Today the village is abandoned, again. The wattle and daub houses are all roofless and crumbling. Only the solid school house is intact. Divul pickers from Panama use it as a base, and store the fruit in a room there until a tractor comes to take the divul away. Elephants have damaged the roof of this room to take away their share too. These pachyderms have also felled numerous coconut trees to get at the nuts and leaves. The fallen trees lie around in all directions. We cannot find even one coconut on the ground for our camp kitchen. The wells are polluted with small dead animals and are unusable.

We go back all the way north to Bagura to check the wells. The one at Tunmulla has clear water and seems usable. At Bagura, one well has water weeds in it but looks usable whilst the other is polluted with a dead animal.

From Bagura an old track, now overgrown, leads seven miles inland to Mahalenama eliya, the legendary haunt of the Nittaewo - that half man, half brute creature which walked upright, had a body covered with red hair, could not speak but uttered brutish noises, and attacked with long claws. There are many myths and legends about this creature, real or imagined, but this is not an article on that subject. Unfortunately, the overgrown track prevents us from attempting to get to Mahalenama Eliya and we head back to camp, where we decide to move away from the tree-shrine and go further upriver, three and a half miles to Mahagalamuna. In the event it takes us nearly an hour. The track is heavily overgrown. Fallen trees and branches have to be axed and removed. In the end the journey is worth it. For Mahagalamuna is paradise.

More than two thousand years ago, around 200 B.C., there were great goings on here. The Magama kingdom was at its height and large irrigation schemes such as the delightfully named Athurumituru Wewa and Mandagala Tank were being built or in operation. What is today the domain of the wild beasts - the Yala Strict Natural Reserve (SNR), the Yala East National Park, and Yala Block II, were settled, with villages and irrigated agriculture. Many of the plains which are today the grazing grounds of deer and elephant and buffalo were then paddy fields. Mahagalamuna (The Great Stone Anicut) fed water to Kumana Wewa.

At this historic spot we make camp, on a finger of rock jutting out into the river like a pier. The foundations of the Great Anicut still litter the river bed and through its gaps the water flows in Jacuzzi-like jets. Downstream the river flows eastwards, clear water meandering past golden sandbanks in a canyon of great green Kumbuk trees such as I have never seen anywhere else - no doubt the reason why the river was historically named the Kumbukkan Oya. Across the river is the SNR. We spend hours in the cool water. At nightfall there are calls of nightjars and owls though muffled by the sound of the waters. Tired out, we get a good night's sleep at last. If anyone or anything comes by the camp tonight we do not know of it.

Kumbukkan Oya

In the morning, just as I rise, I see out of the corner of my eye something, speckled black and white like a butterfly, running down a tree trunk. But as butterflies do not run I reach for my glasses and look at a four legged reptile which is now changing its colour rapidly to that of the tree bark. We all move closer to have a look. Soon it only has a small stripe of white left on its body, along the lower jaw. Before it disappears I manage to obtain some video footage and am told afterwards that it is the rare Calotes ceylonensis.

We decide to retain this camp for another day. Anil and I plan to explore various tracks south of Bagura whilst the others want to laze about in the camp.

With some difficulty we locate the vehicle fording point on the Kumbukkan Oya. The approach is concealed by a fallen tree and overgrown with shrubs. Villagers at Panama had told us that no vehicle had used this crossing for several years. With some difficulty we ford the river, but immediately on the other side, in the SNR, we find that the track is completely impassable due to fallen trees as well as ten-foot high plants which had grown in the intervening years.

We recross the river and go past Kumana Wewa along another, not so badly overgrown trail. As usual, the track and the open areas we pass through have piles of elephant droppings. The wewa is shallow and muddy and full of water plants with lilies and lotuses in bloom. Cormorants and Darters are drying their wings in the sunlight, sitting atop the island rock in the middle of the wewa. The rock is white with bird droppings. We try to reach Bowattagala to see the caves and the fish engravings of the Kastriya clan who ruled here millennia ago, but the track is again impassable. Beyond the black face of Bowattagala Rock, in the shimmering distance we see the rock needles of Nelunpatpokunegala, mysterious and inviting, like a lost world, but, inaccessible now.

At Yakkala Kalapuwa there is a dead buffalo in the water which was not there yesterday. We drive across the salt flats upto the edge of the lagoon,.where it meets the sea amidst huge sand dunes covered with Spinifex littoreus. To the south the sand dunes become sand hills. The beach is littered with driftwood. Large-crested Terns hover over the water where the great Indian Ocean rollers crash onto the beach.

We get up to Bagura and turn south for camp at 5 p.m. Now there are scattered herds of deer, several jackal, buffalo and wild boar on the plains and lagoons. Tunmulla is full of crocodiles. At Andarakala and Kumana we are delayed by lone elephants blocking the track. They do not move off in a hurry. The one at Kumana at nightfall is in a particularly bad mood and keeps making threatening noises, but eventually gives way to us. It is dark when we get near the tree-shrine and find about seven or eight groups of pilgrims with as many cooking fires burning. It is quite crowded and they are in good spirits. Tomorrow they will leave for the well at Potana, also called Navaladi, a very arduous sector of 11 miles.

Back at our camp we discuss how to open a route for our two vehicles on the other side of the river. The ford is one kilometer upstream of the shrine. Hence at least a kilometer of track on the opposite bank of the river has to be cleared, which is a tall order for us. We decide to enlist the help of the divul pickers who we know are around, failing which we have no alternative but to backtrack all the way from Pottuvil to Monaragala. That night we locate three of the divul pickers and offer them an incentive to do some route clearing for us.

At 6 a.m. next morning the three men are off, carrying our axes and machetes. We wait, lazing in the water, enjoying our last hour at this breathtakingly beautiful spot. Reluctantly we break camp at 10 a.m. as the men come back and assure us that the track is clear upto and beyond the fallen tree. We set off and do the two and a half miles to the ford in 20 minutes and negotiate the river with some difficulty.

The Yala Strict Natural Reserve

We have now crossed over to the Southern Province. The track disappears again after 200 meters and we have to hack our way through. It is hard hot work and still we cannot clear a path wide enough for the vehicles to pass unhindered. So we have to barge through the growth on the track trusting the custom made underbody protection on the vehicles to do their job. Finally we break out into the Keulawela Eliya. But our relief at emerging from the narrow forest trail onto the open plain is short lived, for here the ground is covered with Kukul- Katu (Acacia eburnea) which is fatal to tyres. We have to navigate very carefully. The problem is compounded by the fact that getting out of an Eliya (plain) is a tricky business as once in it, all one can see is a horizon fringed with low trees and no discernible exit. As insurance I take bearings on the vehicle's compass in case we have to retreat to the river for any reason. Halpangoda Eliya is similarly negotiated. Next is Ettarakke Eliya, the border of the SNR and Block ll.

At the southern end of Ettarakke, we are forced to go over a whole bed of Kukul-katu as there is not a single clear path. On the other side of the bed we pull the thorns out of the tyres with pliers. One tyre begins to hiss ominously as the air escapes and is saved by pumping in a can of tyre-weld foam.

There is hardly an animal to be seen. Nor any pilgrims. It is hot, very hot, and there is not a single shade tree in the open plains. Nor is there any water. Everything is baked to a biscuit. More and more we realise what an arduous and dangerous pilgrimage this is to those who walk.

We reach Uda Gajabawa Eliya at noon. We have taken nearly two hours to travel just three and a half miles.

We pass Ethiliwela Eliya which no doubt was an area of ancient paddy fields irrigated by the Athurumituru Wewa. To our right we see the rock peaks of Kiribaddana Hela, Mandagala, Kotadamuhela, Kanabisaunge Gala, Athurumiturugala and Dematagala, all of them in the SNR and with ruins of dagabas, caves, inscriptions and other signs of ancient civilisation. Shortly after we leave this plain and enter the scrub jungle we meet the breakaway group of pilgrims. Eventually they decide to go back to the well.

We move on South. Across the track at Ketagalwala waterhole there is a dead Sambhur doe. Its neck is broken and bent absurdly back. It could have been the victim of a leopard as it came to the waterhole to drink. But it has not been fed upon. A myriad flies buzz about the carcass which stinks to high heaven.

At 4 p.m. we reach the Uda Pothana lagoon and plains, and stop in the shade of a Malithan tree to boil some eggs and have them with stale bread. It is our lunch. Not far away an elephant grazes on the plain, unconcerned about our presence. The wind whips up the sand as he kicks at the grass. The area is bone dry and stark beautiful. We have to make a decision soon about our night half. I prefer this very spot but the others want fresh water, so we decide to try and get to the Menik Ganga, ten miles south.

The going is much easier now, the track more defined. These areas are visited regularly by those staying in Yala Block 1. Just south of the Pilinnawa Plains we see the descendants of Englebrecht's herd of cattle, now gone completely wild and strangely wary, thundering across the wide open spaces.

At Katupila a difficult decision has to be made. It looks deep and we see jeep tracks heading north west to the shallower upstream crossing point. But it is 5 p.m. and we should already be making camp for the night on the Menik Ganga. We do not have the time to meander upstream, and so decide to take the plunge. Mine is to be the lead vehicle. The exhilaration of fording water turns to horror as, in the middle of the crocodile infested pool, the vehicle plunges into a dip and the water comes over the bonnet and laps at the windscreen. I fear for the air intake and everything else. The wheels also begin to spin. But with one final effort on the accelerator, praying that the engine will not stall, I manage to pull out of the water and churn up the steep embankment on the southern shore. There is brackish water filling the headlamps and the foglamps, and all over the inside of the engine compartment, but the motor is still running. Asoka follows in similar straits and emerges with water a foot deep sloshing all over the inside of his vehicle / at Mahagalamuna they must enjoy this. His horn begins to short circuit and we yank out the wires. Shortly thereafter we reach the banks of the Menik Ganga which is down to a trickle. It is no relief however, for there are crowds of people on the other shore in Block 1, not unlike Galle Face

Green. It is a Sunday and we are back in crowded civilisation. From here on the pilgrimage is a piece of cake. The most difficult part of the Yatra is over, until next year, and the next, and the next, for who knows how many centuries of millennia to come.

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