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DateLine Sunday, 13 January 2008

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Blessed Kataragama

Kataragama, Kacharagama or Kadiragama... whatever name you may call it, it's a place of worship for all. People from all religions gather here to pray to the Kataragama Deiyo or God Skanda in the belief that their wishes would be granted.

Kataragama has a great history linked with many myths and beliefs. So, we spoke to the Chief Priest of Kataragama Abhinavarama Temple, Saranathissa Thera, to learn about the history of Kataragama.


Kiri Vehera


The bo tree


Kataragama Devala

There are a large number of stories which are believed by people as the true history of Kataragama, but these are mainly legends. According to Saranathissa Thera, Kataragama has a history dating back to the time of the Buddha's third visit to Sri Lanka, in the sixth century BC, during the reign of the Provincial King Mahasen.

The Buddha is said to have visited Kataragama with 500 other Arahat Theras. The present Kiri Vehera is said to have been built at the spot where the Buddha had sat. The location had been Mahasen's garden of Kihir trees. The Buddha had given the King a hair relic and the King had built a chetiya at the place, enshrining the relic. Since the chetiya was built in a forest of Kihir trees, it was known as Kihir Vehera. Later, for easy pronunciation, it had been changed to Kiri Vehera.

The chetiya built by the Provincial King Mahasen had not been that big; it had later been renovated and expanded to its present size by several other kings including Dutugemunu. It is believed that King Dutugemunu made a vow at the bo tree, to renovate the place and build a devala, before he left to fight the war with Elara.

Some of the Kshatriya nobles who accompanied Vijaya to Sri Lanka in 543 BC settled down at Kataragama and ruled the area. These nobles were among those who were invited by King Devanam Piyatissa to grace the occasion of the planting of the sacred bo sapling, which was brought down from Gaya, India by Theri Sangamitta, at Maha Mega Uyana.

The bo tree at the Kataragama Devala premises, which is worshipped by Buddhists, is one of the shoots that sprang from the eight fruits yielded by the sacred bo tree at Anuradhapura.

There are two stories about the origin of the Kataragama Devala. One is that King Mahasen, who helped the villagers in a big way, was worshipped as a god after his death. It is said that the Kataragama Devala was dedicated to him by the villagers.

The second story says a person who came from India was worshipped as a god by the villagers due to his super-normal qualities. Valli, an indigenous woman, was known to be the wife of Lord Skanda, so it could always be argued that to marry a human woman, Lord Skanda should have been a human being.

It is said that the Sinhalese in the village built a devala in honour of him, and that these people who built the devala during the Dutugemunu era became the inherited officials or Kapuralas of the temple. Even now, the Kapuralas continue to inherit that position.

It is said that the Tamils at Kataragama did not worship Kadira Deva at the time. The Hindus worshipping at the shrine later introduced Skanda Kumar, son of Siva or Iswara of the Hindu Pantheon (a god of wars), as the reigning deity of the shrine.

To be continued...

(Special thanks to Chief Kapurala, Somapala Rathnayake, W.P Amarasena and Sugath Karunarathne.)

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