God Kataragama is a deity of the forests, first worshipped by hunter-gatherers. He later became a war god as the population began to lead a more settled, stable life.
For millennia this deity has been worshipped by Hindus as well as Buddhists. The annual celebration at the shrine is in July. The month long festivities culminate with a grand perahera. The procession includes elephants, a huge number of regional dances, musicians and other colourful features. The central, unique element here is composed by the Tamil devotees who perform penances. These include piercing tongues and cheeks, dragging carts attached to their skin by hooks and fire walking. Ecstatic who suddenly burst into wild dances are another feature that links modern Kataragama to a distant, primitive past.
Among those converged in Kataragama for the celebration are some who are more elevated than the pilgrims who come by bus, van or car. The average pilgrims seek the blessings of these special devotees, for they have travelled nearly two months, on foot, to reach the shrine. They are the Pada Yatra pilgrims.
This long, extraordinary pilgrimage begins at Nagadeepa in Jaffna. Those who undertake the arduous journey are considered to be doing something as pious as travelling to Mount Kailas in Tibet. (Indeed Kataragama is sometimes called the “Southern Kailas”.) The pilgrims include Islamic devotees, who believe that Kataragama was where Prophet Moses went to look for his teacher al-Khadir. For them Pada Yatra is a retracing of the prophet’s journey.
The journey is dangerous as well as exhausting. Inclement weather, wild animals or diseases can prey on the devotees at any moment. They travel through terrain where leopard, elephant, bear, boar and crocodile are more common than man. It is a great experience of reverence. Their path lies through the country’s hauntingly beautiful landscapes, and their nights are spent in camaraderie around campfires. At villages and temples (no less than 73 temples lie on their route) they are met with great hospitality.
The pilgrims end their journey arriving at Kataragama the day before the flag hoisting ceremony, which inaugurates the festival. Their devotion is humbling – a valuable lesson of faith for all.
This year, the flag hoisting ceremony will take place on July 5; the Maha Perahera or the major procession on July 19 and the final ritual, called the water cutting, will take place on July 20.