Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 19 July 2015





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The long walk to Kataragama

On a quest to capture the essence of an ancient tradition, Sunday Observer photographer Susantha Wijegunasekara joins the Pada Yatra in Okanda and makes the four-day-trek to Kataragama, living the wayfarer life and sharing a bond that is unique among pilgrims. This is his experience in words and pictures

I began my journey on July 5, setting off from Colombo around mid morning. I was accompanied by my colleague Chatura. We reached Arugam Bay at around 3.30 p.m. Rather than cart everything from Colombo we decided to get the necessary provisions from Arugam Bay. Having packed the essentials, our next plan of action was to make our way to the Okanda Devale through Panama. This was the starting point for the walk that would take the pilgrims to Kataragama.

We were lucky to get a lift to the Okanda Devale on a rambling tractor that had the trademark Kohomba leaf decoration, indicating that was on some kind of spiritual journey. Turns out, the tractor was on its way to Okanda Devale, with a load of pilgrims from Akkaraipattu, on a mission to clean the Kataragama Devale before the Perahera commences.

Rumbling along we reached Okanda late at night. With not much else to do, we set up our tent, deciding to have a good night’s rest to prepare for the arduous days ahead.

Dawn in Okanda, as the sun makes its lazy way up, is a breathtaking experience. It was also the wakeup call for the pilgrims. Many could be seen bathing in the huge pond in front of the Okanda Devale. Many believe the water in the pond has curative powers, and that bathing in it would cure them of various ailments.

Conversation is not easy in the early hours, as all are busy, packing their meagre belonging and getting themselves spiritually psyched for the next step of the journey, the long walk to the Kataragama Devale. Many were offering Poojas, some were singing Bajans. And all too soon, we set off accompanied by the chanting of “Haro Hara” in varied tones. It was barely 6.00 in the morning.

Kumbukkan Oya

Our journey, done with varying degrees of intensity, speed and devotion brought us to Kumbukkan Oya. We had by then travelled nearly 20 kilometres. Walking with us was Sujan, who hails from Ampara. An ardent devotee of the Kataragama Deviyo, he said he was making the pilgrimage to secure the blessings of the Kataragama Deviyo for his family and relatives.

Traditionally the P?da Y?tra starts from Jaffna peninsula, usually the Nallur Kovil. Devotees take as long as two months to reach Kataragama, travelling through Kumana National Park on their way. It is an arduous journey and pilgrims depend on the hospitality of strangers, accepting alms, walking barefoot and sleeping in temples or under the open sky.

More than 2,000 pilgrims set off from the Kumana National Park on this segment of the Y?tra. The Wildlife Conservation Department provided us with cloth bags and urging us to refrain from taking polythene bags to the Park as it can cause harm to the environment. A breakfast of ‘kiri bath’ was provided by the Sri Lankan Army.

The pace was steady as we walked through Kumana National Park towards Kataragama, passing through many villages including Linthuna, Warahana and Katagamuwa, enjoying the sights and sounds that only nature can conjure.

And though it should come as a complete, heart stopping, mind stumbling surprise to come across two bears cavorting in the open, we take it in our stride, stopping to enjoy their antics. Reality strikes as the brief stop turns into a 20-minute stay, and we realize what a rare opportunity it is, to see the ferocious creatures up close and carefree.

As we continue with our walk, reality of how arduous this journey is begins to set in. Our bags that weigh nearly 40 kilograms are beginning to get heavy. Our feet begin to ache, thirst is a constant companion and the body begins to tire. Stopping is not an option, so we trudge alone.

Weary pilgrim

The army, turning out to be a true friend of the wayfarer, has set up temporary water tanks at strategic points on the dry paths of Kumana. This was indeed a god send, for thirst, it was turning out is a constant companion of the weary pilgrim.

Later, around 11.30 we called a halt to the walk, to begin preparing for lunch. We collected firewood and made a makeshift hearth, using elephant and buffalo dung as props as we could not find stones. We boiled the carrots, beans and cabbages we brought from home and ate them with a sambol we made with onions, green chillies, pepper and salt. We rested for a while after having lunch, but all too soon, we were on our way.

We started walking towards the Kudakabaliththa Devale, which was still within the confines of the Kumana Park.

It was quite disheartening that only around 200 of the 2000 pilgrims, who set off the Okanda Devale, continued on the journey with us. Others choosing to make it to Kataragama in time for the perahera, at their own pace and route of choice.

We set up camp at the Kudakabaliththa Devale and spent the night there, enjoying a soothing cup of plain tea before calling it a day.

It was indeed a long, tiring day. But the night sounds of elephants and bears in the jungle, crocodiles catching fish in the lake kept us awake well past midnight, as the mosquitoes and sundry other small insects.

Early next morning we left the Kudakabaliththa Devale and slowly made our way to Linthuna Devale, covering a distance of 26 kilometres. The path was a little dangerous as there were wild buffaloes everywhere.

From Linthuna we set off towards Katagamuwa in Yala, spending the night there before setting off towards the Kataragama Devale.

Kanda Kumaraya

Steeped in legend and lore, the walk from Okanda to Kataragama has a beautiful history. Legend has it that Kanda Kumaraya also known as God Skanda, shortly after landing on the shore of Okanda, went to Kataragama and brought Valli Amma with him when he returned. Today the place where the Kanda Kumaraya landed has a rock in the shape of a boat. Both of them are said to have walked from Kataragama to Okanda.

Today, both Valli Amma and Kanda Kumaraya are worshipped as God and Goddess not only by Hindus but by all the other religions as well. Each religion claims Kataragama as its own.

This is perhaps the appeal of Kataragama, which transcends territorial boundaries. Each worshipper considers himself privileged in his belief believing that he gets the blessings of Kanda Kumaraya and Valli Amma. All feel really good when the pilgrimage is concluded and return home, buoyed by lightness that lifts the spirits.

The Perahera begins on the first day of July and sees the Basnayaka Nilame of the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devale, joining it from the 6th day. For the first 14 days, the Perahera proceeds from the Maha Devale to the Valli Amma Devale and back along the main street to the Maha Devale again. The final Perahera on the night of July 15 proceeds from the Maha Devale to the Kiri Vehera, then back to the Valli Amma Devale and from to the Maha Devale.

Duty demanded that we forego the Perahera in Kataragama and return to Colombo. We returned, tired after the five-day trek, but in high spirits, understanding somewhat the appeal of the long, long walk that sees people from all walks of life and from all parts of the country, giving up the comfort of their homes and easy lifestyles, to rough it out for two months, to bask in the glory of being blessed.

- Written by Husna Inayathullah



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