August 2016

Pada Yatra: foot pilgrimage from jaffna to kataragama
August 2016

Pilgrims pass Okanda temple, venturing to deeper south

Among the ancient living traditions that survive in Sri Lanka, few are as well-known or as misconstrued as that of the Kataragama Pada Yatra. The two-month long Pada Yatra or foot pilgrimage from Jaffna to Kataragma starts in June and ends in July. It is the oldest annual pilgrimage in Sri Lanka, traditionally a procession of village devotees who represented the rural voice of Sri Lanka. However, nowadays pilgrims represent the full spectrum of society. Sri Lankans from all walks of life, join together to complete this epic spiritual journey along the beautiful and diverse landscapes of the island's East coast.

Words Cecily Walker

A common misconception is that the pilgrimage belongs to the Hindu religion and the origins of the Yatra are shrouded in myth and legend. Several versions argue that it began with Lord Murugan (Skanda) himself when he landed on the shores of Sri Lanka and decided to walk to Kataragama. But in fact, Pada Yatra is said to predate the arrival of all four of Sri Lanka's major religions, and is essentially a tradition inherited from the island's indigenous forest-dwellers, the Veddahs. Even the Kapurala priest-custodians at the Kataragama shrines readily acknowledge this as the true origins.

The pilgrimage is a spiritual challenge and certainly not for the faint-hearted. Leaving everything behind but a bundle of essentials, the pilgrims experience the homeless life of a beggar or religious recluse. Deep lessons about the paradoxes of life are driven into them in a sustained act of self-denial. Typically, the pilgrims walk 10-15 km per day, halting at 73 traditional places of worship where they accept dāna (hospitality and alms) from waiting villagers. The pilgrims partake in a strict and simple routine of sleeping and living outside, under trees, or in shrines and temples. Consumption of alcohol is strictly prohibited. Devotees depend on the hospitality of villages for meals but it is these factors that make Pada Yatra such an intense spiritual opportunity for those who receive the ‘call'.

The route follows the East coast as far as Pottuvil, where it turns inland to cross the jungle to reach the final destination, Kataragama. Over the years, the final stretch through Yala National Park has been treacherous. Intrepid pilgrims pass through wild jungle packed full with elephants, deer, sambur, boars and occasionally even leopards. Every year brave pilgrims risk and even lose their lives in these final miles. However, the stories and memories brought home after such an experience last a lifetime.

The kataragama Pada Yatra tradition has been making a slow but successful comeback after facing near-extinction following the 1983 civil disturbances. Since the end of the civil war, decades of fear and uncertainty have been swept away which has resulted in an increased number of devotees. Many villagers take vows to join the Pada Yatra as it passes through their own village, so the parties of pilgrims tend to grow as they move from village to village. It is estimated that over 30,000 devotees take part in the final days of the pilgrimage.

Regardless of race and religion, the Pada Yatra for many pilgrims is the chance of a lifetime to visit ancient shrines and join with their fellow countrymen to journey and explore the miles of coastline between Jaffna and Kataragama.


Fact box
An interesting yet unsubstantiated interpretation of the pilgrimages' origins links the Pada Yatra to Alexander the Great. In the aftermath of Alexander's final and bloodiest battle, Hydaspes, it is said that he renounced violence and became a mendicant preacher. Fleeing from India to nearby Sri Lanka, it has been argued that the arrival of Lord Skanda was actually fugitive Alexander the Great. (Therefore Skanda was simply a derivative of Alexander > Iskander > Skanda) With this reasoning, it becomes likely that the Northern devotees partake in this pilgrimage and/or do penance in Kataragama as result of their ancestors' rejection of Skanda when he first landed in Sri Lanka. Rejection after rejection, forced him to continue South along the coast until finally, near Kataragama, he was accepted by the populace. If this is the case, those who live in the areas that rejected him must do penance when visiting the shrine. This is done either by completing the Pada Yatra or through other types of penance such as walking on hot coals.


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    Respite for the day: pilgrims spend their nights in wild jungles

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