In fact, the Aadi Vel festival in Colombo coincides with the Kataragama Perahera in the South of the island. Aadi Vel custom in the city is said to have started in 1874, when the colonial government forbade devotees from embarking on the traditional walk to Kataragama known as Pada Yatra owing to a spread of cholera. The Kataragama festival is a celebration of national significance and those who were unable to travel, initiated their own observance around Murugan temples in Colombo.
There are two main Aadi Vel festivals in Colombo; one begins from the Sammankodu Sri Kathirvelayutha Swamy Temple in Pettah and travels to the Sri Manickavinayagar Temple in Bambalapitiya. The other parades the streets from the Kathiresan Kovil in Pettah to the New Kathiresan Kovil in Bambalapitiya.
Aadi Vel is a colourful festival. The chariot decorated with two beautifully carved wooden horses and colourful garlands and flowers is drawn amidst a great deal of display. It bears the idol of Lord Murugan with his vel (golden spear) and his consorts, Theivaanai and Valli. As the chariot parades the streets, devotional sounds of Thavil and Naathaswaram – a traditional drum and wind instrument reverberate. The sound of fire crackers rings through, heralding the celebration of the great warrior god. Followers chant “haro hara”, while devotees smash coconuts before the chariot in fulfilment of vows, and countless bare trays with garlands, betel leaves, fruits, coconuts, burning incense sticks and camphor. Some devotees even offer a new silk cloth for the deity.
One of the most mystifying moments of Aadi Vel is Kavadi Attam (a ceremonial sacrifice and offering practiced by devotees) by men and women fulfilling vows made to the deity. Even young girls and boys carry the Kavadi. Those who do Thooku Kavadi, carry it with great reverence and devotion. The celebration of the arrival of the statues of Lord Murugan at Sri Manickavinayagar Temple in Bambalapitiya and at the New Kathiresan Kovil in Bambalapitiya will include special poojas and rituals. Devotees throng to pay homage to the deity beautifully adorned with garlands and silk.
Aadi Vel festivities end with the immersion of the Vel in the ocean; this coincides with the water cutting ceremony in Kataragama. Aadi Vel is a sacred celebration, with beautifully decorated kovils and fragrances that fill the hallowed places.