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Sunday, 19 July 2015

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Okanda jungle shrine:

Where the gods once lived


The Okanda Hindu shrines on the summit of a rock boulder

'The wild, the free, the beautiful' a fascinating pictorial book by veteran photographer, late Nihal Fernando, published more than two decades ago has impressive images of Sri Lanka's nature, history and wildlife. Growing up, his books were my all time bedtime favourites, with each perfect picture telling a story of its own. I would look at his pictures every day, sometime for hours at a time. They never got, boring, they never got old. A photograph that impressed me most and remained firm in my memory was a black and white depiction of a Hindu hermit meditating near a waterhole by a huge rock in Okanda.

'The wild, the free, the beautiful' a fascinating pictorial book by veteran photographer, late Nihal Fernando, published more than two decades ago has impressive images of Sri Lanka's nature, history and wildlife. Growing up, his books were my all time bedtime favourites, with each perfect picture telling a story of its own. I would look at his pictures every day, sometime for hours at a time. They never got, boring, they never got old. A photograph that impressed me most and remained firm in my memory was a black and white depiction of a Hindu hermit meditating near a waterhole by a huge rock in Okanda.

Being enamoured with the image, I long cherished the idea of visiting the same location from which Fernando clicked the evocative picture decades ago. And not so long ago I got the opportunity when together with a group of friends, I visited the Okanda jungle shrine - venerated by thousands of Hindu devotees - in the deep corner of Kumana, the edge of the Yala East National Park, and traced the spot where Nihal Fernando had photographed the hermit. Modified and turned into a commonplace cement structure, sadly, there is nothing here to remind one of the evocative black and white depiction.

Lost dreams are just a blimp in the mind, for it is not every day that you get the opportunity to spend a leisurely evening in a place steeped in history, art, architecture and lore.

Okanda is not more than 15 km from Panama, the last coastal village with basic facilities, before you reach the destination. The narrow sandy road from Panama to Okanda extends southwards parallel to the coast, dotted with several large and small salt water lagoons and dense forest patches, which are all part of the Kudumbigala Sanctuary.

On our way back from Kumana (Yala East National Park), my friends and I spent the night in Okanda, lulled to sleep by sounds of the temple bells and wild animals in the surrounding forest.

July feast

The Okanda shrine consists of many buildings used by pilgrims. These are deserted for most parts of the year. But come July, the atmosphere changes. It is the annual feast of the shrine, which is always held on a grand scale and attracts thousands from all parts of the country.

The Okanda jungle shrine is believed to be the location where God Skanda (God Kataragama) landed in Sri Lanka in his golden boat. The boat which turned to rock, stilled stands on the Okanda beach, known to all as the 'Ran Oru Gala' today.

The following morning we visited the Okanda shrine with the rocky boulder buffeted by the forest canopy on one side and a tranquil corner of the east coast on the other.


Wall painting of God Skanda and Valli Amma

On the summit are two small shrines believed to be dedicated to Valli Amma, and in front of one of the shrines is a beautiful natural pond that gives the place both beauty and a sense of calm.

After a while we reached the top of the rock and held our breath, not so much from exertion as from the awe inspiring view from the pinnacle of the rock, of a forest dense and green, bedecked in a lagoon and coast, giving in vibrant shades and depth.

There are legends aplenty surrounding the Okanda jungle shrine dedicated to God Skanda. One has it that God Skanda came from India with his servants in two huge canoes and landed at the Okanda beach. The two canoes turned into what is now known as 'Ran Oru Gala', found on the shores of Okanda. The other legend is that God Skanda had gone to Kataragama through the Yala forest, met Valli Amma and had brought her back to Okanda, married here and spent some times in Okanda before returning to India.

Enduring tradition

Legend, history and lore.... The Okanda jungle shrine is regarded as one of the most sacred shrines by the Hindu devotees in the entire Northern and Eastern Provinces. For many, making a journey on foot to participate in the July feast is an enduring ancient tradition. The foot pilgrimage which lasts a month and which begins in Jaffna and winds its way through the Okanda shrine and the Yala National Party to Kataragama for the annual Esala Festival, is popularly known as the 'PadaYatra'.

Usually more than 1,500 devotees from Northern and Eastern Province arrive in procession at Okanda to commence their week long walk through the thick jungle of the Yala National Park to the shrine of God Skanda in Kataragama. The devotees pray to God Skanda seeking his blessing and take part in the Feast at Okanda shrine prior to commencing the final leg, which is another week long walk through the thick jungle of Kumana and Yala block II.

The serenely peaceful Okanda shrine is a hive of activity during the month of July, with thousands of devotees arriving at the shire to participate in the many rituals in honour of God Skanda and rest their weary limbs under the huge banyan trees in the vicinity. When the feast ends, the Okanda jungle shrine reverts to its serene self, reminding one of the cycle of life, of rest and rejuvenation and rebirth.


View of the East coast from the Okanda shrine


 

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