Earnest devotees of Kataragama by the thousands—hailing from all communities but especially Tamil Hindus—are now undertaking the annual Pâda Yâtrâ or foot pilgrimage through Yala National Park to Kataragama for this month’s Esala festival that started on July 12.
With decades of fear and uncertainty swept away, this year more devotees are walking than at any time in living memory, possibly even more than in 2004 when Wildlife Department officials counted over 30,000 pilgrims entering Yala East National Park on the final 70-kilometre stretch from Okanda to Kataragama.
The first waves of pilgrims all up and down the east coast have already arrived to Okanda Murugan Kovil in Yala East where tens of thousands are pausing to rest and worship before entering Yala Strict Natural Reserve on the long jungle trek to Kataragama.
The Kataragama Pâda Yâtrâ traditionally starts from points in the Jaffna peninsula like Nallur and Selva Sannidhi Murugan kovils, from where the pilgrimage may take up to two months to reach Kataragama. This year for the first time since 2005, a few souls are walking the full distance, joined along the way by a few more from Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, and Trincomalee districts.
The ones who walk from afar are those who savour the traditional pilgrim’s life of sleeping in temples and under the open sky, accepting whatever alms that strangers may offer, and bearing up under scorching sun while walking barefoot on searing hot roads, clad only in simple pilgrim’s garb with a small bundle of offerings and belongings balanced upon their heads. All along the way, villagers await their chance to offer dâna to the small bands of swâmis and swâmi ammas.
For many pilgrims the Pâda Yâtrâ is a chance to visit ancient shrines all the way to Kataragama in the company of veteran devotees. Their long trek takes them to famous temples at Sittandy, Mamamgam, Kaluthavalai, and Mandur in Batticaloa District. In Ampara District they follow the coast via Tirukkovil, Pottuvil and Okanda through Yala National Park to reach Kataragama.
Some pilgrims may carry the Kataragama God’s bright red and yellow cock banner. Others wave peacock feathers, while senior swâmis bear aloft the Vel or lance, symbol of the God’s invincibility. Even children dressed in vetti may be seen accompanying their grandmothers, shouting ‘Haro Harâ!’ (‘Hallelujah’), and joining in the constant recital of bhajans in praise of God Kataragama.
Pilgrims sleep under the stars at night or in temples, but never in private homes. Consumption of alcohol is strictly prohibited. Elder pilgrims especially enjoy the respect of villagers and pilgrims alike, who consider them as treasuries of age-old traditions.
Many villagers take vows to join the Pâda Yâtrâ as it passes through their own village, so the parties of pilgrims tend to grow as they move from village to village.
The Kataragama Pâda Yâtrâ tradition (www.padayatra.org) has been making a slow comeback after facing near-extinction following the 1983 civil disturbances. With the birth of the Kataragama Devotees Trust in 1988 and subsequent efforts to revive the foot pilgrimage tradition, pilgrims began to join by the hundreds in the mid-1990’s.
On June 19, a large group of pilgrims assembled at Verugal Murugan Kovil on the border of Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts and set out on the annual karai yâthirai or coastal pilgrimage to Lord Kataragama Skanda’s great shrine. They are the Âdiyâr Kûttam, the oldest kûttam (pilgrim’s circle) walking from as far as Selva Sannidhi annually since 1988. This year they are led from Verugal by Maheswara Swami of Karaitivu, accompanied by a host of colourful swâmis and swâmi ammas, as well as young people and even whole families.
Despite the Pâda Yâtrâ’s burgeoning popularity in recent years, old-timers lament the fading away of the old swâmis and swâmi ammas, and with them the ancient practices and knowledge that they kept alive.
Whole families, youth groups and even NGOs now pack up and race by vehicle to Okanda, where they alight and walk, often dressed in outlandish attire and outfitted with the luxuries of home, as if going on a picnic.
And yet, amidst the throngs of town dwellers clad in shoes or bata slippers, one may also find the occasional kûttam led by veteran pilgrims who not only know the paths and the halting places, but also recall the old songs and stories associated with the Pâda Yâtrâ. Many try to preserve the traditions and practices that they have seen and heard of.
Nowadays in countries like India, religious processions and pilgrimages are sources of communal friction. But the Kataragama Pâda Yâtrâ remains a source of consensus and communal harmony, a fact that Sri Lankans may rightly reflect upon and be grateful for.
(This writer has walked the Kataragama Pâda Yâtrâ 20 times since 1972).