July 2017


The Spiritual City of Kataragama
July 2017




A panoramic view of the Yala National Park showing the Akasa Chaithya
© Dushantha Wasala

A mere 300km off the main city of Colombo towards the far east end just outside the northern boundary of the Southern Province lies the spiritual city of Kataragama.


Words: Nethu Wickramasinghe | Photography: L J Mendis Wickramasinghe


Unlike any other location, in Sri Lanka, not only natural elements such as the trees, streams, hills and rocks are revered, but even all living things for they are linked to the beliefs of thousands of years of faith.


Many come to Kataragama to worship the great warrior deity God Skanda, who is also known as God Kataragama. The mountain, Wadahiti Kanda, Kiri Vehera, Sella Kataragama, Sithulapawuwa and Tissamaharama stupa are among the many pilgrim sites. The spiritual city is not merely a place for worship, but it is also a perfect southern destination sought by many to enjoy the serene bliss of the wild that surround Kataragama where three of the National Parks: Lunugamvehera, Yala and Bundala can be easily reached.


It was a Poya day, just before dawn as we set foot on the premises of the Tissamaharama stupa, which is situated 20km from Kataragama. The sight of this white pristine stupa from a distance was undeniably breathtaking, as we were tempted to visit this well illuminated stupa in the twilight hours. The peaceful surroundings pervaded an aura of bliss, while many devotees observed sil clothed in immaculate white as is customary on Poya days. Here was a large neem tree, which was said to have leaves that were not bitter, providing shade and shelter to the devotees.


The stunning mountain range of the Wadahiti Kanda can be seen from a distance on the Tissamaharama road, just three kilometres away from the Kataragama Temple. Although not much of its history is well-known, according to folklore this was where God Kataragama had resided as the name Wada-hiti implies in Sinhala. Lush green paddy fields surrounded the area, while many pilgrims lined early morning in groups to head to the mountain tops.


There were little boutiques selling colourful blooms of Olu, Nelum, as well as Manel, on either side of the streets closer to those places of worship. It is customary for these devotees to commence worshipping from the Kiri Vehera stupa while in the temple complex of Kataragama irrespective of ones' religious beliefs.

The sight of the stupa from a distance was undeniably breathtaking, as we were tempted to visit this well illuminated stupa in the twilight hours.


Our senses were filled with the serenity of the atmosphere, which was pervading with the fragrance of incense as we headed towards the Kiri Vehera. Known to have been constructed by King Mahasen in the sixth century BC, at the place where he listened to the sermon of the Supreme Buddha during his last visitation to Sri Lanka, this stupa is milky white in colour. This is one of the Solosmasthana, the 16 sacred places of worship for Buddhists in Sri Lanka.


Wasana the enigmatic crossed tusker was close to the temple; it is he who has been entrusted with the task of bearing the sacred relics of the Kataragama Temple in the Perahera.


Pada Yatra


Pada Yatra where pilgrims of the north make their trail on foot from Jaffna to Kataragama in May, heralds the beginning of the annual season of Kataragama. People swell in thousands during the season that ends after the rituals of the Kataragama Esala Perahera.


A juicy fruit basket in hand as offerings to the deity, devotees in silence made their way to the Temple of the God Kataragama that is called the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya. Within the temple, God Skanda is depicted with six heads and twelve hands seated on a peacock alongside his two consorts goddess Deivanai and goddess Valli. Devotees believe the god is listening to their prayers and will relieve them if faithfully appealed. Mayil or the Peacock is believed to be the vehicle of the god.


What is truly impeccable about the vibrant rituals that surround these mythical beliefs is that majority are interconnected with vicissitudes of nature. Peacocks are enigmatic birds having the lengthy vibrant plumes as their tails and quite interestingly its lengthy tail feathers drop during the months of June - July, the duration of the Esala procession. The feathers thus become a symbolic decorative material of the Kataragama Esala Perahera.


Just as dusk set in, we headed towards the Sithulpawuwa Rajamaha Viharaya. The gushing winds and scenes of the surroundings from the summit of the rock was undeniably awe-inspiring.


Kataragama - for thousands of years shaped the souls of those from different religions, culturally bonding people far beyond boundaries.

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    Mayil the vehicle of God Skanda is symbolised by the majestic peacock

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    Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya, the abode of god Skanda
    © Dushantha Wasala

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    Wadahiti Kanda as seen from a distance

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    © Dushantha Wasala

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    Tissamaharamaya beautifully illuminated on a Poya day

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    Beautiful blooms at a flower stall near the Kiri Vehera

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    View from the top of the Sithulpawuwa Raja Maha Viharaya

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