Kataragama Deviyo for all seasons | Sunday Observer

Kataragama Deviyo for all seasons

18 June, 2023
The front view of the Ruhunu Kataragama Maha Devalaya
The front view of the Ruhunu Kataragama Maha Devalaya

Pageantry, ceremony and ritual are part of everyday life in Sri Lanka. No matter where and when you travel to in any part of the country, you are bound to be caught up in some form of national festival.

The Kirivehera Dagaba in Kataragama

However, if you travel down South in the latter part of June, you will be fortunate to witness the country’s most spectacular pageant: the Kataragama Esala festival which begins on June 19 (tomorrow) this year. This pays homage to Kataragama Deviyo.

The Kataragama festival in June-July, which pays homage to the Hindu God Skanda, brings together Sri Lankans of all faiths. I took time to explore a shrine of God Skanda in Kataragama of the Southernmost corner of the island.

Kataragama is a unique place of worship. Chanting Haro Hara, Haro Hara, Hindu devotees in their thousands throng the precincts of the Kataragama Devale – the abode dedicated to God Skanda Kumara (also known as Murugan among Hindu devotees and Kataragama Deviyo among Buddhists), who is often associated with Kataragama in the deep South of Sri Lanka. In fact, many consider God Skanda as Sri Lanka’s guardian deity, having a strong sway over the Southern part of the country.

God Skanda has been described in eulogies as a God with six faces and 12 arms and is believed to be riding on a peacock. His assistance is sought for prosperity and protection by Buddhists and Hindus and vows are made daily across the country seeking the deity’s help.

If veneration takes you anywhere in Sri Lanka, then Kataragama should be your first place to visit. Frequented by thousands of devotees and pilgrims from various religious backgrounds, particularly Hindus and Buddhists, through the ages travelling here to receive blessings for a new house, a new car, children’s education, good health, and for absolutely anything, Kataragama is considered the home of true sanctity. Why? Mainly for its many temples and houses of worship.

Timeless pieces of work

The seat of Deity Kataragama is the peacock in the main shrine in Kataragama

The shrines and stupas within these temples are timeless pieces of work, dating as far back as the 6th century BC. Kirivehera Dagaba which was built by King Mahasena is one such structure. The Maha Devalaya, just beyond, houses three main shrines, with its dedication being to a principle deity, god Kataragama.

In fact, Kataragama is a unique holy city. When I was a schoolboy in the late 70s, my uncle had a van, which was actually a Bedford car bearing an ‘EN’ number converted into a van with a wooden structure in the rear. He used to take us all on an annual pilgrimage to Kataragama in his van.

We took the most adventurous coastal route along Galle Road (there was no expressway then) and our first stop was at the Kalutara Bodhi tree where an offering and a plea would be made for our safe return. Some pilgrims also stop at prominent religious places, such as, Mulkirigala, Devinuwara, Tissamaharama and Kirinda. Here too we would appeal for a safe journey to and from Kataragama. We took two days to reach Kataragama.

Today, travel times have been reduced. The trip to Kataragama takes only a few hours from Colombo. Those taking the Southern Expressway would take a very short time and from Matara all the highways leading to Kataragama afford a comfortable drive.

The sanctuary nestles on the bank of the Menik Ganga, (River of Gems), the Holy River of thousands and thousands of devotees in Sri Lanka. As soon as we arrived at the Kataragama sacred city, we looked for a resting place to stay overnight. There were many rest halls around Kataragama. Our next task was a dip in the Menik Ganga, the holy river to cleanse ourselves. Often, the water is only knee deep or even less. Following the bath, we changed into white clothes, which is considered a sign of purity.

The shops outside the Devale premises offer a range of Pooja Bhanda (articles for offerings), in particular, an assortment of fruits commonly used for the purpose. Prices differ according to the size of the basket of offerings selected. A common item seen on all was a garland of red flowers made out of polythene. Thus, carrying the offerings, we crossed the river through the narrow bridge and walked to the Maha Devale, the main shrine.


Until 1980, Kataragama was a small jungle village with a dirt track leading from the town of Tissamaharama, 19 kilometres away. Kataragama’s metamorphosis came with the construction of a motorable road and the introduction of electricity and a steady supply of water to the area to coincide with a Gam Udawa (Village Reawakening) project launched in the Kataragama during the Government of the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa in the late 80s. It is now a bustling town, teeming with pilgrims and hordes of vendors with their colourful wares. There are a number of luxurious star class hotels and rest houses for the weary travellers.

Tradition has it that deity has two wives, Thevaniamma and Valliamma. The story of how he wooed and won the heart of the latter is interesting. Valliamma was the beautiful daughter of a Veddah chief and used to watch her father’s crops. One day, the Kataragama Deviyo happened to see her and was enamoured by her.

He at once wooed her, but all his entreaties could not melt her heart. So, he sought the assistance of his brother Ganesha, the God of Wisdom, to win her. The two brothers decided to play a frightening trick on her.

Accordingly, one day, the Kataragama Deviyo began to woo her when she was watching her father’s plantation. Assuming the guise of an elephant, Ganesha appeared on the scene and trumpeted aloud. The trick worked like magic. The unapproachable Valliamma at once clung to the Kataragama Deviyo for protection and promised to yield herself to him if he would save her from the elephant.

According to the plan of the two brothers, the Kataragama Deviyo was to will that Ganesha’s elephant guise should vanish the moment Valliamma was won. But the Kataragama Deviyo forgot all about his part of the arrangement owing to the ecstasy of the moment and Ganesha is supposed to carry an elephant’s head on his shoulders to this day.

The painting of Skanda Kumara and his second consort Valli Amma in the Okanda shrine

Legend says that King Dutugemunu (161-137 BC), the national hero who unified the country was the first patron of Kataragama. He is said to have made a vow to construct a shrine in honour of Skanda if he was victorious in the war against the invaders from South India. The shrine thus dates back to the 2nd Century BC.

Today, leaving aside their religious differences, both, Hindu and Buddhist devotees linger freely in the Kataragama Devale premises, showing much camaraderie. They carry the Pooja-vatti to God Skanda which are handed over to a Kapurala coming through a long queue around the Devale premises. The Kapurala who accepts the offerings would place a little holy ash on the forehead of the devotee. A part of the offering is kept back and the balance returned in the form of holy food.

Breaking coconut is a common happening at Kataragama and is considered an act of homage to the gods or a symbol of gratitude. It is also one of the simplest ways of settling a vow. Vows are made at Kataragama to fulfil a longing or need in life, to seek redress from a problem or cure for an illness.

The Kataragama Esala perahera, set around the historic Kataragama Maha Devalaya, begins tomorrow for 15 days with much reverence. An awe-inspiring annual ritual, which has been held for centuries; the festival draws thousands of devotees from various faiths and ethnicities who unite in worship as they pay reverence to the Kataragama Deviyo.

The climax of the festival is a grand perahera which, though much smaller in scale than the ones of Kandy and Kelaniya, does not lack splendour and ceremony. Every night during the two weeks of the Esala perahera, the relic is brought out of the Maha Devale by the chief priest. God Skanda’s favours are sought by Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims alike.

The celebration itself is alive with colour, light and sound. During each day of the festival at the compound of the main shrine, devotees bearing semi-circular Kavadi decorated with peacock feathers on their shoulders dance in worship of their God, while others perform acts of penance.

A man carries Pooja Vattis to hand over to devotees at the Devalaya

One of the most famous spectacles of Kataragama is fire-walking.

Devotees, from old men and women to small children, walk over a bed of burning embers without any visible sign of discomfort or injury to the soles of their feet. Some devotees in the way of penance resort to extreme physical pain to invoke the god’s favour. Some of the devotees have quite a large number of hooks driven through the bare flesh of their shoulders.

Pada Yatra

One of the most importance aspects of the Kataragama festival is the Pada Yatra. It is a walk of faith by devotees who travel from Jaffna to the island’s Southern coast in time for the Kataragama Perahera. Generally, the procession commences from Nagadeepa in the North and thousands of pilgrims brave the walk through wild terrain amid rain and sun. Villagers along the route provide the pilgrims with alms. The Kataragama Pada Yatra is a journey of faith and of rediscovering the meaning of life through self-denial.

These acts of self-mortification are, however, confined to a minority. Most pilgrims are involved in less flamboyant religious acts such as worshipping at the temples of the many deities, fulfilling vows, giving alms to beggars, or worshipping at the Dagaba of Kirivehera. While these activities take place on a daily basis throughout the year at Kataragama, there is an added dose of pageantry at festival time.

Everywhere one sees colourful flags and lights. The constant blowing of conch shells, beating of drums, and chanting of pilgrims fill the air. The final touch is a water-cutting ceremony similar to that seen in Kandy during the Esala festivities.

This jungle shrine will continue to wield a powerful influence as long as people feel the need for, and continue to believe in the power of divine intervention in human affairs.

Devotees bathe in the holy river of Menik Ganga