Reaping peace dividends :
Devotees throng Kataragama
Devotees praying at the Okanda Devale
Colourful birds of all shapes and sizes were not the only
breathtaking scene during this time of the year at the Kumana National
Park. Thousands of devotees throng Kataragama for the season. Pada
Yathra, the foot pilgrimage seeking the blessings of God Skanda is one
of the oldest religions traditions.
For centuries thousands of pilgrims following the traditions of their
predecessors make the 'pada yathra' to Kataragama or Katirgamam every
year. The 'Pada Yathra' or the foot pilgrimage is believed to have
originated from Jaffna following the poojas at Selva Sannithy Kovil for
God Skanda located on the sand banks of Thondamannar Aru.
Pushpawathi with her son
Devotees entering the Kumana National Park
Devotees camping near the Okanda Devale
Pix: Thusitha Chandrakumara-Economic Development Ministry
Today, the Thondamannar barrage is built next to the temple.
Traditionally the pilgrims spend around two months for their journey
starting from Jaffna. Later with the increase of LTTE hostilities in the
North the devotees started this pilgrimage from Kannaki Amman Kovil in
Vattapallai - on the banks of the Nanthi Kadal lagoon in Mullaitivu.
Passing Kannkerny, Kumulamunai, Chemmalai, Kokkuttuduwai,
Karnattukerni, Kokilai, Pulmudai, Tiriyaya, Kuchweli, Kumburupitti,
Gopalapuram, Nilaweli, Okanda, Weheragama, Bangura and Madamethota
pilgrims then cross Kumbukkan Oya and finally entre the Yala National
Entering Yala, the pilgrims rest at Poththana, then reach Katagamuwa
and cross the Menik Ganga (river) at Warahana and arrive at Kataragama.
Some start their pilgrimage from Vilundri Kandaswami Kovil in
The Guardian of the Weheragama Sri Murugan Kovil, Naidihami
Varunaranga (51) was busy performing poojas for the devotees. Hailing
from Panama, Naidihami is dedicated to closely follow the traditions of
his ancestors. Two 'nades' (pilgrim groups) were behind the kovil having
their breakfast. "Normally I open the Kovil on Fridays but because of
the Pada Yathra I keep it opened daily," Naidahami said. He has only few
minutes to rest. The next group of devotees wait for the religious
rituals to be performed. Sivayogarajah, a bank manager was resting with
his 'nade', after reaching Weheragama by bus. "The pilgrimage is
organised by our pilgrims' society and this time we are offering food to
the pilgrims. Our families will proceed further by bus but I will walk
with the rest of the pilgrims," he said.
Shanmugarajah, the Bank Manager
Basnayake Nilame of the Okanda Devale
Sivasambu, the chief of the other 'nade' at Weheragama, has started
the pilgrimage from Akkaraipattu with 20 devotees. "We set out on July 9
from Akkaraipattu. I've been on this pilgrimage for eight years," said
Sivasambu. For their 'nade' it took three days to reach Okanda from
Akkraipattu. Normally, devotees avoid telling their destination for the
day as they believe it will be a bad omen!
The foot pilgrimage is to learn and enjoy the 'walk'. The golden rule
is to accept whatever happens as they are assured of the blessings of
God Skanda. Sharing whatever the meagre comforts available, the devotees
to treat friendship, alms and wisdom as god given.
Basnayake Nilame of the Okanda Kataragama Devale Punchi Mahattaya
Muthubanda had served 25 years. The number of pilgrims has increased. "I
belong the fifth generation and I'm extremely happy that there is a
conducive environment for my sons to continue family traditions,"
Basnayake Nilame Muthubanda said. It is the responsibility of the
Basnayake Nilame with the District Secretary (GA) and local government
officials to provide facilities to pilgrims.
Over 2,000 pilgrims were at Okanda Kataragama Devale.
Water and sanitary facilities are vital needs at the devale. The
Government has taken steps to provide facilities to devotees. Drinking
water is provided at every resting place. Water is supplied regularly in
bowsers. The Special Task Force (STF) provides water and ensures
security to the camping area.
Pushpawathi has put up a shop in the Okanda Devale premises. "We were
doing this shop for nine years and this time number of devotees has
increased," Pushpawathi said. Pushpawathi recalls the dreadful days of
the terrorists. "Now it is over," she said with great relief.
Pilgrims reach Bangura, a paradise for birds. A few hundred meters
away lies the deep blue ocean and on the other side is the thick green
Madamethota that lies on the banks of Kumbukkan Oya, is the next
resting place for pilgrims.At Madamethota a medical camp was set up by
doctors from the Panama area. Garbage remains a major problem.
"We tried to remove the garbage using tractors but it failed due to
the large number of devotees," said Park Warden Ajith Wasantha. The Park
Warden allowed Environment Society of Panampattuwa to clear the garbage.
"We collect all the garbage from the camp" Ananda added.
"We educate the pilgrims on protecting the environment during this
season. We have to safeguard the devotees from animal attacks" said
E.A.D. Chandrasiri a wild life officer. Following the emergence of peace
the number of pilgrims to Kataragama is on the rise. According to the
Wild Life officials around 30,000 devotees are expected for this year's
By July 12 over 2000 devotees joined the 'pada yathra' at Okanda.
Within two weeks over 15, 400 devotees entered the Kumana National Park.