Rekindling faith | Sunday Observer

Rekindling faith

3 September, 2017

Catholism is the everlasting legacy bestowed on Sri Lanka by the Portuguese who ruled the country with an iron fist for over one and a half centuries until they were succeeded by the Dutch. The Western Coastal belt is largely dotted with Catholic churches most of which are consecrated to St. Anne’s, St. Anthony’s, St. Sebastian, St. James, and likewise.

‘Mangallaya’ or the ‘Feast’ is, in common parlance among the Catholic community of Sri Lanka, when they celebrate the annual feast of their respective churches. This is a grand occasion to display their faith in God, or Saints whose blessings they often invoke in the case of disease, tragedy, ill-health or sometimes when a baby is born.

Some of these feasts take the form of festivals for days continuously, when the devotees from distant parts of the country come well in advance of the feast and occupy the church land in makeshift huts.

It is nothing but the unwavering faith in them that drives the devotees to give up their comfort and ease at home and live in congestion for a few days.

The annual August ‘Ledunnge Mangallaya’ (Blessing of the Sick) at Tewatta Basilica is unique in its grandeur and glory. A few more such venerated festivals are Vahakotte in Matale, Calvary in Hiniduma, Madhu festival and St. Anne’s Church celebrations at Talawila.

Then there is the ‘Boattu Mangallaya’, where the devotees go in boats to celebrate the feast at Dandugama, close to Negombo.

Kattimahana St. Anne’s Church is one such church, off Madampe on the western coastal belt. Its annual feast is popular among the people as Carters’ Feast, a unique feature nowhere to be seen in the country.

History has it that the present inhabitants of Kattimahana are those who migrated from coastal villages to cultivate paddy in the 1800s. As they were predominantly Catholic they held their prayers in a wattle and daub structure with a statue of St. Anne.

Later, in 1898, under the patronage of Rev.Fr. John Pahamune of Ottakotuwa parish, the church was built in a coconut land.

The elderly folk in the village still relate how one ‘Galappu Muhuppu Seeya’ brought the statue of St. Anne in a procession of carts to the church, in commemoration of which, the annual ‘Carters’ Feast is held to-date, annually. This year they celebrated the 122nd anniversary and still the unbroken tradition is followed by the devotees.

Last Monday, we visited the Kattimahana Church to witness the famous Carters’ feast. The Parish priest of the church, Rev.Fr. Jerome Perera (54) told us that it was only last year that he came there. “I have been taking part in the feast since my childhood with my parents. Electricity was not available those days but lanterns filled the void.

The old church was thatched with coconut leaves. My father brought us in the cart and took part in the evening procession. Carts were the only mode of transport till the advent of motor vehicles.

Having temporarily forsaken the comforts at home, we chose to live in makeshift huts. Naturally, rains bring doom to huts,” he said. Among the devotees we met at the feast was Marcus Mama whose life was a tragedy. He had lost his left leg after a fatal accident in 2012 on his way to the church feast.

This cart is the sole mode of transport for my family to pay tribute to St. Anne at this Kattimahana church during the past 65 years. “This time as I ran short of money, I pawned my jewellery to make our odyssey to Kattimahana St. Anne’s Church,” he said.

Jerome Mama (60), counted his 51st pilgrimage to Kattimahana St. Anne’s Church. ‘Chuti’, the name of his pet bull is with him for the past five years. “I had to repair my cart at a cost of Rs. 50,000. I am a fisherman by profession.

If ever I am back at home in mid July having returned from the sea after about 1 ½ months, I make it a habit to go to St. Anne’s at Kattimahana in our cart. Except for the pilgrimage I never get the bull to do heavy work. I am so fond of the animal that I call it, ‘Chuti putha’ (Little one), he said. For Lakshman from Wennappuwa, it was the first visit since he got married recently. He came along with his wife in the cart to fulfil a traditional ritual. “My parents accompanied me when I was small. We are boat people and we join the carters’ festival after a temporary sojourn from fishing at sea.”

To him, life though for a few days, is cumbersome to live in a makeshift hut. “But, it is the faith in St. Anne, that we surmount all difficulties and visit the shrine to pay homage to the Saint,” he said.

For Dilani and her family from Udubaddava, the visit to the church festival is a change from the monotony at home. They do not own a cart but come in a hired lorry with all their bags and baggage. The procession route is busy with crowds. At the entrance to the church is a massive coconut pandal illuminated with thousands of bulbs. Members from different organisations join the procession with flags.

The chariot carrying the statue of St. Anne parades the road with thousands of devotees, jockeying for a glimpse of it to pay homage.

Devotees from faraway places arrive at the church a week before the grand feast and spend the days in makeshift huts. As is the custom, the feast is held after hosting the flag-staff and the entire area takes the form of a grand festival. The roads are lined with traders, especially, haberdashers and sweets sellers who are always surrounded by inquisitive small children. Village women are fond of buying earthenware from the “palli pola”.

About 300 bulls with long horns had joined the procession this time. The mystique of these strong bison-like bulls is a pride to their owners who call these beasts by their pet names such as, Patrick Mama’s Chuti, and Marcus’ ‘Kiri’.

The carters love their pet bulls, and look after them with much care and love. Sometimes, the cart and the bull are their sole means of subsistence which help them to eke out a small living.

Some Buddhists too had come to witness the carter’s procession which is the pride of Kattimahana Church. Once the carter’s procession is over, the church authorities wind up the celebrations, pinning their hopes on the next year’s feast.

Translated by

Michael Kittampahuwa

Pix: Sudath Nishantha