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
'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.
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.
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.
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