Kataragama, situated 18 km northeast of Tissamharama, is the most significant pilgrimage site in southern Sri Lanka, attracting devotees even from India. Kataragama is the final destination of Sri Lanka’s most famous annual pilgrimage trek, which is called Pada Yatra, just an Indian word for “pilgrimage”. The popularity of the Kataragama temple was recorded by the Buddhist Jinakalamali chronicle of the Lan-Na kingdom in northern Thailand already in the 16th century. Surprisingly, Kataragama sacred to four ethnic groups, viz Buddhists, Hindus, Veddhas, and also some Muslims.
The sacred city’s main shrine, surprisingly small, is dedicated to the god Kataragama, who is identified with the Tamil god Murugan and the Brahmanic god Skanda. Close to the temple complex is the Buddhist Kiri Vehera Buddhist stupa at a Buddha-visited place. A mosque is included even closer to the main Hindu shrine, within its temple complex, which is called Ruhuna Maha Kataragama Devalaya in Sinhala.
Kataragama is known as “Kajjaragama” in the ancient chronicles written in Pali language and as Katirkamam in Tamil. Sinhalese Buddhists believe that Kataragama is one of the island’s four main guardian deities of Buddhism.
Historians believe that Kataragama was a place of worship holy for the Veddha tribes initially, later on adopted by the island’s other precolonial religions, too. The Veddha origin is indicated by the absence of an idol. The main symbol is an aniconic diagram, a kind of Yantra or Mandala, the exact form of which is not known to the public. Other ancient Veddha places of worship don’t use statues as cultic images, either. The foundation legends connects the place to the Veddhas, too.
So the story goes: Kataragama left his wife in India, Thevanai, and travelled to Sri Lanka, where he fall in love with Walliamma, an adopted daughter of the local Veddha chieftain. But she refused marriage. Kataragama asked his brother, the elephant-headed Ganesha, for help. When Kataragama was walking with Walliamma to a well, he asked her, if she was not scared living alone in the wilderness. She answered she was afraid of nothing except elephants. Instantly Ganesha appeared in his elephant form causing Walliamma to clung to Kataragama asking him for protection. He said he would do so only if she would marry him. In the meantime, Kataragama’s Indian wife, Thevanai, was tired of being a lone and sent Kataragama's former teacher to search for him. When he found the god he asked him to return to India, but Kataragama refused to come home without Walliamma. Hearing this, Thevanai decided to settle down in Sri Lanka, too. This is why the Kataragama main shrine is surrounded by temples for two goddesses.
Tamils depict Murugan as a beautiful young man or with six heads on a peacock as his mount. But they also represent him by a spear called Vel. The annual Kataragama festival, taking place in the Sinhalese month Esala (July/August), is famous for its trance rituals. Devotees pierce their cheeks or tongues with vels and pull chariots with hooks pierced through the skin of their backs. This practice is known as Kavadi.
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