Monday, November 11, 2013

Travel Monday: Pilgrimage to Kataragama

Kataragama is located in the south-east of the island about 230km from Colombo. It is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka and holds significance for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. The town itself is relatively small in size but receives visitors and pilgrims throughout the year. Hindus make offerings and request blessings at the Maha Devale (or temple) which is dedicated to Kataragama Deva, while Buddhists primarily visit the ancient Kirivehera dagoba (though they are also known to visit the Maha Devale as they believe Kataragama Deva is a guardian deity of Buddhism in Sri Lanka), 500m north of the Hindu temple. I've heard Muslims associate Kataragama town with the prophet Moses and visit the Khizr Takya mosque located within the sacred area.

The most popular time of the year to visit Kataragama, and also the time for the most crowds (!!!), is during the Esala full moon period (July/August). Thousands of pilgrims make their journey to Kataragama, particularly to the Maha Devale to participate and celebrate the Kataragama Festival. During this time period you will observe pilgrims coming to perform penance for sins - sometimes you'll witness people going into a trance, undertaking scenes of self mutilation, fire walking and water cutting ceremonies and more.

There is also an ancient tradition, known as the Kataragama Pada Yatra, where pilgrims make a two month journey by foot from Jaffna, in the far north of the island, down the east coast to Kataragama. Pilgrims undertake this annual journey with an intention for purification and travel very simply on this journey. More information on this ancient tradition can be found at this website.

Map courtesy of
I have visited Kataragama on numerous occasions at different times of the year. Sometimes, I've stopped at Kataragama on my way to Yala National Park or surrounding areas, while other times I've specifically accompanied friends who are making offerings at the Maha Devale and/or visiting the Kirivehera dagoba. I usually stay overnight at a guesthouse in Kataragama or at a nearby town if it's peak season.

Each time I've paid visit, it's struck me how generous the place is… generous because of the generosity of people while making their pilgrimage, as well as generous for the sense of grounded energy and tranquility offered around the sacred area. However, during the peak festival season the atmosphere is different again. This is mainly due to the crowds, festivities and busyness around Kataragama.

There are a few things to bear in mind when visiting Kataragama. Some of these apply when visiting any of the religious sites around Sri Lanka. Pilgrims usually wear white colored clothing when they visit. If you're a tourist, it's respectful to wear clothing that covers your shoulders/upper arms and covers past your knees. It is also usual to walk barefoot as a sign of respect around temples and dagobas.

Given the tropical heat in Sri Lanka, my favorite time to visit Kataragama is usually in the evening. All the stalls remain open and there are visitors milling around. I usually head for the fruit stalls with my friends - there is an amazing array of the most luscious looking fruits - watermelon ("paeni komodu"), pineapple ("annaasi"), wood-apple, guava ("pera"), different bananas, papaya ("papul"), limeapple ("belli"), mangoes ("amba), apples, oranges, pears, mandarins etc...

There are also assorted traditional sweets, nuts and other local nibbles to select from - milk toffee, coconut toffee, cashew nut musket, kalu dodul, pani boondi, peni kadju, puhul aluwa, puhul dosi, rulang, seeni murukku, thala guli etc...

To make an offering at the Maha Devale 

You can select fruit to offer from any one of the stalls and they will prepare the platter for you, as well as placing the appropriate cloths and garlands on top.  Alternatively, you can purchase ready-made platter(s) which range in price from Rs.500 to Rs.3,000. Either way, the fruit stall supplies the baskets or platters, which need to be returned to them before departing the site.

Once you have your offering organized, you then can proceed to the Maha Devale. We usually walk barefoot as a sign of respect around the sacred area.

Once you have your offering organized, you then can proceed to the Maha Devale. We usually walk barefoot as a sign of respect around the sacred area. It's about a 5-10 minute walk from the stalls down a path and along the bridge over the local river known as Menik Ganga. I have seen pilgrims bathing in the river, which is said to be a place where you can take a sacred bath to purify yourself.

Upon reaching the main shrine area you have to wait in line to make your offerings and you will receive a chanted blessing. If you have any special requests you can make these at this time. At the conclusion of the blessing you wash your face with blessed water and wait a little bit for the return of the remainder of fruit platter. It is considered auspicious to eat some of the fruit, which has now been blessed, as well as sharing it with others.

Visiting Kirivehera Dagoba

After making offerings it is common to make your way towards the large Kirivehera dagoba, built by King Mahasena who ruled Kataragama around 580 B.C. You can purchase fresh flowers from flower stalls set up along the way to offer at the Buddhist shrines around the dagoba.

Pilgrims and visitors will usually circumambulate clockwise around the Kirivehera dagoba or sit quietly, chanting or meditating around the dagoba.

More information on visiting Kataragama can be found on the Kataragama Skanda website.

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