Pada Yathra | Sunday Observer

Pada Yathra

9 July, 2023
Okanda Dewale
Okanda Dewale

The Pada Yathra, a pilgrimage on foot undertaken mainly by Hindu devotees takes place annually during June and July. It commences from the Nallur Kovil in Jaffna at an auspicious time after the completion of traditional, religious rites and ends at the sylvan shrine of Kataragama, the abode of God Kataragama.

It lasts for approximately two months.

The Pada Yathra is a mighty river of people which flows along cities, hamlets, woods, plains and across rivers, streams and villus. As it travels this river of humanity keeps growing as more and more as people from the elderly to the young join it along the way.

The end of the Pada Yathra coincides with the Kataragama Esala festival including the perahera.

The origins of the Pada Yathra are shrouded in the mists of time but it is believed that it is a centuries-old tradition.


Okanda is the entry point to Kumana and Yala for the Pada Yathra devotees.

The fierce sun blazes down at Okanda and the heated sand scorched the soles of barefooted pilgrims. They thronged the premises going to the devale, wandering among the many kiosks selling tea and refreshments and fancy goods among other things. Some were seated under whatever shade they could find.

All facilities were provided by the Eastern Provincial authorities. The Provincial Health Department has a major role to play and handling operations from the Okanda devale premises was Supervising Public. Health Inspector, S. Punitharajan

Kumana and Yala

The Pada Yathra has to traverse Kumana and Yala National Parks to reach Kataragama. It is not an easy trek and also there can be threats from wild animals such as elephants as well as snakes.

The sun blazes down on the arid Kumana and Yala landscape. The air shimmers in the heat and the sandy soil is interspersed here and there with dried mud. Single trees or clumps of trees and scrub jungle vegetation dotted the sandy plains as well as villus some of which were dry or partially dry. And the dense jungle too was part of this landscape.

The devotees

The Pada Yathra devotees walk on the scorching sands while the sun relentlessly blazes down on them. They chant "arohara" as they walk.

Some wear hats or caps or cover their heads with cloth. For others the bundles of goods they carry on their heads provide some protection.

They travel in groups or in twos or threes and sometimes men and women walking alone can be seen.

Young people are generally expected to cover the harsh terrain of Kumana and Yala in three days while the elderly are allowed a longer time.

Camp sites

There are several camp sites for the Pada Yathra devotees in Kumana and Yala. Bagure is the first one. It is on the sandy plain. Another one is at Kuda Kabilitta, adjacent to the devale on the banks of the Kumbukkan Oya. The devotees bathe, wash clothes and cook at these camp sites. At Kuda Kabilitta there were lines of colourful clothes flapping in the breeze. Here, Sarosa and Pandaththaram from Adalachchenai were cooking Muruthan buth, to offer at the devale. Lin thuna (the Three Wells) is another campsite. The devotees make full use of the water available here to bathe, wash clothes and cook.

Sanujan, from Chavakachcheri in the Jaffna district was on his 15th Pada Yathra. He has been doing the Pada Yathra since he was six. Back home he is a priest in a kovil. He accompanyed seven elderly persons.

Sanuja said that they had walked all the way from Jaffna but would return by bus. Niroshan (28) hails from Batticaloa and was on his first Pada Yathra. Dressed in traditional saffron robes he also carried the Vel (lance). He is the General Manager of a business called Caritas distributors.

Young participants

Kavishana from Tirrukovil was on the Pada Yathra for the second time. She is a Grade 4 student of the Tirukkovil Vidyalaya and participates in the in the Pada Yathra to get the blessings of Lord Kataragama for him and his family.

Fourteen-year-old Kavijaan hails from Thambiluvil in the Batticaloa district.

A student of the Tamil National College this was his second Pada Yathra to seek the blessings of God Kataragama for his family and education.

Good health for her and family is the blessing that fifteen-year-old Vidarshika asks God Kataragama.

She finds the sacred trek very uplifting.

Eleven-year-old R.K.M. Paveen hails from Akkaraipattu and is walking the holy trail with family and friends.

Thejaswarini walks along the Pada Yathra trail to ask Lord Kataragama’s help and blessing to pass the Grade 5 scholarship exam.

She and her family have been on the trail for many days.

A jungle medical centre

At Lin Thuna is a medical centre for the benefit of the Pada Yathra devotees. It is on a voluntary basis and the dynamic head of this operation is Dr. Alagiah Lathaharan, Consultant Community Physician, Provincial Department of Health, Eastern Province.

He established this facility with two others, Sugath and Sanjeewa many years ago. Around 15 lives have been saved over the years including that of a man who suffered a third heart attack while on the Pada Yathra.

On the evening of June 21, an SOS was brought to the medical centre that a devotee had been stung by a snake. This was at Gajaba Kalapuwa quite a distance away.

A team including Dr. Sandun and volunteer Sugath raced to the victim’s aid.

The serpent was identified as a krait and all arrangements were made to rush the victim to hospital with the help of the Navy.

The victim was rushed in the medical centre vehicle to be handed over to the Navy who would then rush him to the hospital.

However, the Kumbukkan Oya had to be forded and Sugath heroically carried the victim over his shoulder and forded the river to swiftly hand him over to the naval personnel who were waiting on the other side to rush him to hospital. Tragically, the victim breathed his last on his way to hospital.

All medical and non-medical personnel at the centre are volunteers and the doctors work in rotation. They and the volunteers are extremely dedicated and do yeoman service. Among the committed volunteers are Kajendran and Koshika who with the others work tirelessly from morning till night.

There are many legends surrounding God Kataragama and the Pada Yathra. One legend has it that when God Kataragama arrived in Okanda the people there had not recognised him and treated him well and with due respect. As a penance for this God Kataragama asked them to perform the Pada Yathra.


Another legend has it that God Kataragama came to Okanda on the Eastern coastal belt of Sri Lanka. He came in a golden boat accompanied by two rishis, Shivalingam and Nadiv. As they started walking towards their destination of Kataragama, where the Sri Lankan Goddess Valli whom God Kataragama ultimately married lived in a chena cultivated with the grain, thana haal.

The actual site of the chena was at a place known as Wedihitikanda.

As God Kataragama and his companions wended their way some people in Okanda started to fight over the golden boat. They were trying to break it and take the pieces.

When God Kataragama saw this he turned back and changed the golden boat into a boat of stone.

He then went on his way and it is said that devotees walk in his footsteps to Kataragama to commemorate the deity’s walk to Kataragama.

Pix: Sulochana Gamage / Kajendra