Kataragama in the South-east of the Island is regarded a sacred city and is busiest during the season of pilgrimage in the month of July or August along with the festivities held to venerate God Kataragama. The history and origins the city’s beliefs date back centuries. It is believed that the Deity descended to this region from India to seek his consort Valli Amman and following the success of his search with the help of his brother Lord Ganesh, Kataragama became his main abode.
The pooja nagaraya or the sacred city lies along the Menik River. While devotees flock to the site during the festival season, the site draw visitors throughout the year to worship at the Maha Devale or the main shrine. Significantly, people of various faiths pay obeisance to the deity. Hindus refer to the deity as Skanda – the God of War, Lord Murugan, Kadirkamam, Subramanya, or Kandasamy.
During festivities people from all corners of the Island arrive and the grounds surrounding the Shrine turns into a campsite. You can witness a sea of heads in the Menik River prior to the festivities as devotees observe a cleansing ritual prior to religious observances. Elephants and tuskers are lined at the temple premises in preparation of the pageant that takes place in the evening. Stalls line the streets selling offerings to make at the shrine, and there are many who arrive here on a foot pilgrimage all the way from the north of the Island, that lasts for a period of many months. Buddhists often visit the Kiri Vehera, a stupa adjacent to the Shrine that dates back to the 2nd Century. The precincts are also home to a mosque where devotees pay homage to the saint, al-Khizr, in a flag-hoisting ceremony.
One of the huge draws of the festivities is the fire walking spectacle that takes place late in the night. The faithful brave the bed of hot embers as they run across barefoot as a show of their faith in God Kataragama! This occurs after the conclusion of the pageant. The tusker accompanied by the procession carries the Relic Casket to the Valli Amman kovil and returns it back to the Maha Devale or Main Shrine amidst cries of ‘Haro Haro’ from the spectators.