“What time are we going to reach Kataragama,” I remember asking my mother seated next to me. I may have felt hungry. My grandfather seated in front, heard me and frowning, turned around, swiftly covering his lips with his index finger. “You shouldn’t discuss such things in this God’s territory, my son,” he said gravely. [...]


Pilgrims’ progress to Kataragama in days gone by


As evening falls devotees throng the devale premises. Pic by Nisal Baduge

“What time are we going to reach Kataragama,” I remember asking my mother seated next to me. I may have felt hungry. My grandfather seated in front, heard me and frowning, turned around, swiftly covering his lips with his index finger.

“You shouldn’t discuss such things in this God’s territory, my son,” he said gravely.

On second thoughts he may have felt sorry for me and pulling out his watch dangling by a gold chain, from under his long-sleeved white shirt, added, “By the God’s grace, we should be in Kataragama by late noon. But you can have some biscuits if you are hungry.”

We had just passed Hambantota and the landscape had turned arid. Occasionally a thatched house was visible in a sparse opening of the thorny thicket. There was hardly any green, just shades of parched browns and on a tall tree, a ramshackle tree house to watch over the remote chena cultivations. As we passed Ranna, I remember my grandfather telling us beyond was elephant country. Pilgrims as a rule avoided travelling after dusk fearing the wild elephants on the road. It was obvious that we were in the dry zone where there hadn’t been a drop of rain for ages!

We were on our annual pilgrimage to Kataragama. Though travelling in a comfortable Volkswagen Type 2 this year, the year before we had enjoyed the early morning train ride from Maradana to Matara at which point we had tasty short eats from Broadway before boarding a buggy cart to go over the bridge to the bus halt on the far side. The CTB Kataragama express made sure we arrived at the sacred city by early evening.

My grandfather who was the ‘nade gura’ kept us entertained with stories and  described the same journey in the ’20s and ’30s when the road from Tissamaharama to Kataragama was no more than a cart track. Vehicles went only as far as Tissa, and the pilgrims had to tackle the 11 miles of rugged terrain by bullock cart. To spare the bulls the noonday heat, they travelled at night, often reaching the shrine at dawn. There were little wayside boutiques lit by hurricane lamps offering sweet cakes and coffee, and pilgrims chanted pirith en-route whilst others sang folk songs.

The Ramakrishna Mission where we stayed was run by Indians who were very kind to the pilgrims. Two large lockable rooms with enough comfy quilts piled in a corner were allocated for us and the common toilets in the backyard were more than adequate. The tradition then was to enjoy a dip in the river before one paid homage and the group strolled through the forest garden to the banks with great enthusiasm. The vendors had their makeshift shops on either side of the gravel path selling all one needed.

The Kiri Vehera pagoda was no more than a collapsed load of bricks on an earth mound and the shrub jungle was seen invading the footpath leading to it. The trail was lit only fitfully. There were more beggars than flower sellers, and some had bonfires at their porch to keep the malaria mosquitoes at bay. Once you reached the ancient patio of the pagoda which was intact, you saw nothing but the encroaching wilderness all around. When devotees lit oil lamps, the sacred air of a timeless forest shrine was evident.

We worshipped the pagoda and collected enough merit which we were going to invoke on God Skanda next. The God’s shrine was flamboyantly lit with coloured bulbs, mostly red. Unlike today, not all carried fruit trays into the sacred chamber, yet all offered some contribution in the name of the God and were blessed with peacock feathers fanned by a South Indian swamy. Even the poorest produced a coin from somewhere to insert into a till.

If one arrived at the time of the evening puja one would be fortunate enough to view some great timeworn rituals being performed. The bells would toll at once evoking deep religious sentiments in devotees towards the God of success. Then all would queue up in resolute faith, spontaneously lifting their trembling palms together over their heads to chant slogans and send out accumulated merit to the holy spirit of Kataragama. They would think of their loved ones who couldn’t make it, those ill at home, those who are no more who await blessings of the living to better their new life and finally, of any personal wish they desperately wanted fulfilled. Thereafter, they happily dispersed after saying their prayers to God Ganesh in the adjacent shrine but not before they had cracked a coconut in front of the main shrine to symbolize smashing of ego and ignorance to give way to knowledge and purity!

I recall an elder in the group telling us of a miracle she had witnessed many years ago. It was during the August festival at the traditional firewalking ceremony when devotees walked barefooted on glowing embers in front of the shrine. Whilst some ran, most did it briskly chanting ‘haro hara’. A few withdrew halfway. From the zealous audience there emerged an ageing bearded swamy clad in a saffron robe and with sedate tread  stepped on the smoking bed of ash as if it was the springiest lawn. He sauntered slowly on the kindling embers reciting a mantra. When the storyteller followed the swamy’s exit from the ash bed, to her utmost astonishment he couldn’t be located anywhere. He had just disappeared. She asked her companions whether they saw the spectacle and to her shock, they hadn’t seen any swamy in walking meditation at all!

A highly musical ‘Kavadi’ dance was frequently on offer to please Lord Murugan as part of fulfilling vows.  The act drew large crowds.

Dinner was always crispy hoppers with chillie-hot ‘lunu miris’ at the well illuminated bazaar by the river. There was a line of old women in cloth and jacket seated behind stoves on the ground and benches under petromax lamps served as seating. The Ramakrishna mission served breakfast and lunch in their sprawling hall where staff rolled out wheeled metal buckets with curries. Breakfast was delicious dosai, and lunch was vegetarian rice and curry served on banana leaves.

Pilgrims felt carefree after the pilgrimage and the next day, explored other sites like the Sella Kataragama shrine, happily walking the distance of a mile or so under the shade of giant trees as the road was almost unmotorable. There were boutiques along the way and the river water was pristine, cascading down a lovely rocky bed. The historical shrine of God Ganesh stood at a bend under the great forest canopy for pilgrims to pay homage.

The younger folk opted to climb the ‘wadasiti kanda’ mountain where a small shrine had survived at the top and one could enjoy fascinating views.

They also visited the Tissamaharama temple built in 3 BC by the Ruhunu dynasty and the forest hermitage of Sithulpahuwa as a day excursion. The 12-mile journey through the jungles of Yala was always adventurous and once I remember a small bus plying in the opposite direction warning us of a rogue elephant chasing vehicles ahead. My uncle knew the actor Prem Jayanth who happened to occupy the front seat of that vehicle. When the ladies panicked in spite of the chance-meeting with the handsome actor, it was my grandfather who assured them that no such harm would befall us since we were under the divine protection having already fulfilled our vows! We saw elephants but they didn’t chase us.

A resident monk or an acolyte at the rocky outcrop would relate peaceful encounters they regularly had with either a wandering sloth bear or a prowling leopard in the numerous drip-ledged caves they used for meditation.

There were very many smaller shrines meant for different deities and one for ‘Valli Amma’ – the native wife of Skanda as well. The mosque meant for the Muslims to worship was as old as the rest, it was known.

The pilgrimage usually ended at the bazaar and we children got new toys whilst the domestics got gifts of curios not to mention sweets for all for the journey home.

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