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A journey on foot, for devotion, love and peace

"Haro Hara, Haro Hara, HARO HARA..."

The humming and chanting continues and reaches a crescendo as the yellow clad men, women and children walk in utmost piety, towards Kataragama, from Jaffna, Trincomalee and Batticaloa, entering the last phase of their journey along the Kumana National Wildlife Reserve to show their ultimate and unconditional devotion to God Skanda.

The pilgrims attending the pooja at Okanda kovil, where they take a break before they proceed on their last lap.
Pix: Dushmantha Mayadunne

Seeking health, happiness and solutions to other problems in their lives, the pilgrims have been on this journey on foot for over a month by the time they reach Okanda Kovil, at the gate of Kumana Reserve, where they rest for nearly two days, before setting afoot to cover the last phase of this sacred journey, following the footsteps of many samys, devotees and rishis centuries back.

The murai, sacred procedures followed by the pilgrims, for the Yathra dictate that the group should be led by a veteran pilgrim who has walked on the Pada Yathra for more than a few decades. One such veteran, 75 year old Sinnathambi Vijayasingham, respectfully known as 'Appachchi', 'Appasamy' or 'Appaji', said that the preparations for the Pada Yathra begin two months before they set out from Batticaloa. This year, over 1,000 devotees have accompanied Appachchi who is on his 54th journey of devotion, following murai as his guru did 54 years ago, in 1962.

Appachchi and his group had started their journey on May 22, from Mamangam Kovil in Batticaloa, where they conducted the initial rituals. Firstly, they pray over coconuts, with necklaces placed on them, and the Samy in charge, in this case Appachchi, blesses the necklaces and gives them to each pilgrim who performs the ritual of breaking the coconut, and sealing the protection blessings Appachchi had placed on the necklaces. Then they set on the journey of Haro Hara...

It was very difficult back then, when Appachchi and his team, led by their guru, had to brave the jungles paving the footpaths, carrying food, water and other necessities needed for nearly two months, and the protection necklace was deeply cherished. The journey has become less dangerous over time, but still, the pilgrims encounter wild animals which makes the journey more interesting for some, and more challenging for others, and till safe arrival at Kataragama, a blessing from God.

Many go on the pilgrimage to ask favours from God Skanda. For some, the journey has thus begun, and are continuing with it even though their prayers have already been answered. Appachchi says that his journey involves no personal requests from God. "I want peace for the country, for every individual, irrespective of their race or religion. I want to help people who seek God, in every way possible, and I worry about the younger generation being impulsive which makes them violent. I pray especially for them," he explains.

Appachchi has had most of his prayers answered, but he remembers how the journey of peace and devotion was disturbed by the tattering rattle of guns, during the war as well as the 'JVP insurgencies'. Some were shot, and some got caught to bombs.

The Haro Hara, blessed journey, has an ancient story featuring a legendary fight between Kajamuha Suran and Muruga Peruman. Kajamuha Suran, an asura, a devil, was plaguing people in Sri Lanka when devoted Samys pleaded with God Skanda, who is also called Muruga Peruman, to protect them. He descended from heaven to India, and then came to Sri Lanka, used his Divine Spear, the Vel, or Velayudha, to defeat the asura and establish peace, harmony and prosperity. In his journey in Sri Lanka, he visited temples from Jaffna along the East coast; from Sellasandi and Nallur in Jaffna, Thaandimalai in Kokadicholai, Beragalampathy in Muttur, Thirukkovil in Trincomalee and Siththandi in Batticaloa to name a few, which the pilgrims believe still carry the power of God Skanda, or Okanda Murugan or Katharagama Deviyo, or Kandan as He is known by name. To celebrate the victory of their God, the devotees make the journey through his temples annually, to attend the much awaited ceremony in Kataragama, the last temple God Skandan visited. The pilgrims celebrate the weapon of Skanda, Vel or Velayudha, during the festivities in Kataragama.

A lady performing the rituals with coconuts and necklaces, before starting the yathra

Dressed in their traditional yellow dress code, not stitched, the pilgrims refrain from consuming alcohol and follow a strict vegetarian diet throughout the journey.

Women who don't have children, students about to sit for their Advanced or Ordinary Level exams, men and women looking for partners to get married to, the sick who pray to get their illnesses cured, join the pilgrimage.

Little Ashwini is 10- months-old and her mother, Mariyam Sudharshini is taking her on the Pada Yathra to invoke blessings from God Skanda before cutting her first flock of hair. Sudharshini's husband, mother, and younger sister who is 10-years-old, have joined to support her in this journey. "Ashwini behaved well throughout the journey, and it has not been a trouble to carry her the whole time," she said.

Mariyam Thamalini, Sudharshini's younger sister, is missing school for nearly two months, the entirety of the Pada Yathra, but she doesn't seem to mind. Insisting that her legs don't ache, she is experiencing the journey on different levels, the spirituality, and the entertainment a 10 year old can have by being on an adventure with her family.

The daily journey begins around 5.00 in the morning and continues till 11.00, when they reach a shade or a temple to relax. The pilgrims rest during the harshest and warmest hours of the day and resume the journey around 3.30 in the afternoon, covering a distance of 7-10 kilometers a day.

People employed in the government sector as well as the private sector are taking part in the pilgrimage, H.D.S. Premachrandra who is heading another group of pilgrims said, he had started attending the pilgrimage when his life was threatened by the LTTE, and continued to do so every year, despite the threat diminishing.

"My life is better now. My children are well educated and are in good positions career wise and academically. So, I think I owe it to God Skanda."

Once the pilgrims start the journey after a break, the only feeling they give in to, is love for God Skanda, for protecting them throughout the journey, and for granting their wishes.

Haro Hara!

 

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