The pilgrimage town of Kataragama is situated in the south of Sri Lanka.
Kataragama is unique as it is a religious site visited by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims. Christians are also welcome.
Historically Kataragama was a shrine area deep in the jungle of down south sri lanka and very difficult to access. However today it is easily accessible by an all-weather road. The shrines and the nearby Kiri Vehera are managed by Buddhists, the shrines dedicated to Teyvāṉai and Shiva are managed by Hindus and the mosque by Muslims.
There are many guest houses for pilgrims and visitors to stay. There are small restaurants and shopping available.
The town has the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama devalaya, a shrine dedicated to Skanda-Murukan also known as Kataragamadevio. Kataragama is in the Monaragala District of Uva province, Sri Lanka.
Kataragama is situated some 230 km ESE of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. Although Kataragama was a small village in medieval times, today it is a developing area encircled by lush jungle with beautiful wildlife flowers and trees.
Kataragama houses the ancient Kiri Vehera Buddhist stupa. The town has a venerable history dating back to the first century. It was the seat of government of many Sinhalese kings during the days of Rohana kingdom.
Kataragama is sacred to all, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and the indigenous Vedda “Jungle” people of Sri Lanka.
Kataragama temple complex dates back to the 1st century and has a number of ancient inscriptions and ruins since that time. Kiri Vehera is believed to have been built or renovated around the 1st century BCE. There is an inscription, a votive offering to the Mangala Mahacetiya, the former name of Kiri Vehera on the orders of the son of king Tiritara who ruled in 447 CE.
The medieval phase of the history of the shrine began with the arrival of Kalyanagiri Swamy from North India sometimes during the 16th or 17th century. He identified the very spot of the shrines and their mythic associations with characters and events as expounded in Kanda Puranam. Following the re-establishment of the forest shrine, it again became a place of pilgrimage for Indian and Sri Lankan Hindus. The shrine also attracted local Sinhala Buddhist devotees. The caretakers of the shrines were people of the forest who were of indigenous Vedda or mixed Vedda and Sinhalese lineages. The shrines popularity increased with the veneration of the place by the kings of the Kingdom of Kandy, the last indigenous kingdom before colonial occupation of the island.
Muslims refer to Kataragama as “al-Khidr” or land of Khidr. A number of Muslim holy men migrated from India and settled down in the vicinity. The earliest known is Hayathu, whose simple residence became the first mosque in Kataragama. Karima Nabi is said to have discovered a source of water that when drunk provides immortality.
The shrine of Maha Devale or Maha Kovil is dedicated to Skanda-Murugan known amongst the Sinhalese as Kataragama deviyo. It holds a Yantra, a spiritual drawing of the deity’s power. Of all the shrines in the complex, it is the largest and the first that all pilgrims come to visit. Although it does not have a representation of the deity, kept in an adjoining room is a statue of Shiva also known amongst Sinhalese as Karanduva. Within is a clay arm chair known as Kalana Mandima that supposedly belonged to Kalyanagiri Swamy. It is covered by a leopard’s skin and on it has all the ceremonial instruments.
To the left of the main shrine lies a smaller shrine dedicated to the Hindu god Ganesha who is known as Ganapatidevio amongst Sinhalese. Tamils refer to him as the Manica Pillaiyar. It is a small rectangular building without any decoration. To the left of Ganesha shrine stands the Vishnu Devale the shrine dedicated to Vishnu within which there is also a Buddha image. Behind this is a large Bo tree that tradition believes is from a sapling of the original Bo tree in Anuradhapura.
Attached to the western wall of the shrine complex are shrines dedicated Kali, Pattini, Managara devio, Dedimunda and Suniyam.
Outside the temple yard and beyond the northern gate lies the shrine to Teyvanai, the consort of Murugan. Teyvanai shrine is managed by the Sankara Mutt from Sringeri in Karnataka, India.
A shrine dedicated to Valli, the consort of the main deity lies in front of the mosque.
Close to the Valli shrine is a Kadamba tree that is sacred to Murugan.
Within the mosque are number of tombs of Muslim holy men.
There is also a separate shrine dedicated to the tomb of Kalayangiri swamy known amongst Tamils as Mutuligaswamy kovil. It is also known as the Siva Devale.
Katargamadevio cult legends in Sri Lanka claim that Valli was a daughter of a Vedda chief from Kataragama in the south of the island. The town of Kalutara, known in some sources as Velapura, became associated with Murukan worship also. The cult of Murukan was grafted onto the worship of Skanda-Kumara that was prevalent in Sri Lanka. Amongst the Sinhalese he became known as the god of Kataragama village, thus Kataragamdevio. Shrines of Katargamadevio are found in almost all Sinhala Buddhist villages and towns. He is recognized as one of the guardian deities.
Worshipers take an arduous pilgrimage on foot through jungles to fulfill their vows to the deity. The pilgrimage includes Tamils from India and Sri Lanka as well as Sinhalese.
Some temples in the east coast of Sri Lanka became identified with Kataragama temple and synchronized their festivals based on the arrival of pilgrims all the way from the north of the island. These include temples in Verugal, Mandur, Tirukovil and Okanda. In the interior of the island temples such as Embekke were built in the 15 to 17 the century CE to propitiate the Murukan aspect of Kataragamdevio by the Sinhalese elite.
Since the 1950s the cult of Kataragama has taken a nationalistic tone amongst the Sinhalese people. People visit the shrine year long, and during the annual festival it takes on the appearance of a carnival. People get into trance and indulge in ecstatic rituals formerly associated with Hindus such as fire walking, Kavadi and even body piercing or hook swinging. These ecstatic rituals have carried through the island and are widely practiced.
Kataragama festivals and daily rituals do not adhere to standard Hindu Agamic or Buddhist rituals. Ancient Vedda traditions of worship. Since the medieval period Hindus, Buddhists and even Muslims have co-opted the temple, deity and its worship, the various rituals maintained by the native priests are still performed.
The main festival known in Sinhalese as Esela Perehera. It is celebrated during the months of July and August. About 45 days before the festival begins, the priests go into the forest and find two forked branches of a sacred tree. The branches are then immersed in the local river and kept at the shrines dedicated to Kataragama deviyo and Vali. When the main festival begins, the Yantra representing the deity is retrieved from its storage location, paraded through a street on top of an elephant, and carried to the Valli shrine. After two hours it is returned. On the last day of the festival the Yantra is left overnight at the Valli shrine and brought back to the main shrine. The priests conduct the rituals in silence, covering their mouths with white cloth. Associated with the main festival is fire walking arranged by a master of the ritual. Hundreds of devotees participate in fire walking, yet others participate in ecstatic dance forms called Kavadi and body piercing.