Ever since I learned about the pilgrimage town of Kataragama town in Sri Lanka, I always wondered what made it so special. What made it a converging spot for all the major and minor religions of Sri Lanka? I organised a fact-finding trip so that I would be able to understand just why the place is so sacred. After a bit of research, I found that the ideal time to witness the religious pilgrimages is during the middle of the year, in July/August. What is to follow is my experience that made me truly appreciate the cultural diversity of the island.
When I first visited the town, it was really nothing much. I have to admit that it was much greener than the commercial capital of Colombo, but it did not surprise me. There are several towns that are surrounded by greenery. It was the places of worship that defined the character of the town, as every major religious complex had a unique history of why it was built in this town.
Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya
Most of the religious proceedings come from this particular temple that is dedicated to Kataragama Deviyo. The story goes that the deity fell in love with a maiden princess known as Valli. She was raised by the indigenous Veddah tribes and was so beautiful that Kataragama decided to go in search of her, leaving his home in the Himalayas. The deity finally found her in the present-day town.
The main temple is believed to be the place in which Kataragama and Valli spent the rest of their lives. The union is still celebrated even today by the colourful procession known as the Kataragama Esala Perahera (procession). It was such an amazing experience for me. The pageantry and the various rituals conducted by the different religious groups made me appreciate the cultural melting pot the town was.
It is believed that the Lord Buddha once visited the area, which makes it one of the ‘Solosmasthana’ (One of the 16 sacred places visited by Lord Buddha during his visits). Therefore, making it an important place of pilgrimage for many a Buddhist. The majority of the pilgrims, however, come to witness Esala Perehera.
I saw quite a lot of activity here during my time. I remember very well, the number of ‘dansal’ stalls giving out meals to pilgrims. These stalls were a way of showing generosity and kindness to the people of the area. It was my first experience of such a thing, so I decided to try out the food and it was just spot on. I was not only able to taste authentic Sri Lankan cuisine, but also have some interesting conversations with the locals.
One of the conversations I had in a ‘dansal’ stall was how the procession starts. I was surprised to hear that it starts at the mosque. The local Islamic belief is that there was a saint called Hazrat Khizr (the green man). He is believed to have found the ‘water of life’, which supposedly gives immortality.
It is at this mosque that the flag is hoisted, signalling the start of the procession. Nowhere in the world would you get several religions to converge in one place
The Esala Perahera was vibrant in every way. It was almost like a carnival with so many performers going about the town, dressed in traditional attire. There was just so much that I saw that a separate blog for that alone must be made. However, I can tell you about some of the highlights.
I remember seeing the ‘kasa karayo’ who would come with whips and hit it on the ground, making a sharp crack. Moreover, the ‘ginibol karayo’ or the fireball men were equally entertaining as they would dance through the streets with sticks of fireballs. The elephants that would join the processions were also dressed in fancy clothing with lights to make the proceedings all the more colourful.
Yala National Park
After witnessing the cultural activities that unfolded in Kataragama, I decided to take a little breather by staying at the exquisite Wild Coast Tented Lodge. Here, I was able to go on a traditional game safari drive and also a guided bushwalk. To me, it was a good change of pace, as it showcased the diverse species of flora and fauna on the island.
It was amazing to realise that the culture and the exotic beauty of the island can be witnessed without travelling to distant locations. The highlight for me at the Yala National Park was witnessing two leopards walking along the safari trails of the park. The sight was just breath-taking.
As a whole, my fact-finding vacation to the pilgrimage town of Kataragama was a success, as I learned so much about the diverse culture of the island. Moreover, I was also able to witness the island’s exotic natural wonders as well. In my mind, a perfect trip!