Vel, Murugan's weapon

Okanda-Kudumbigala Sacred Grove Project of
The Living Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka

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Indigenous Wanniyal-aetto at Kataragama Contents:

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Introduction
  3. The Living Heritage Trust
  4. The Traditional Village or Puranagama
  5. Heritage Reserves
  6. Heritage Reserve - Okanda-Kudumbigala
  7. Rationale - Why Okanda and Kudumbigala?
  8. The Principal Legend
  9. Protection of the Sacred Grove
  10. Panama Village and Kudumbigala
  11. Pada Yatra
  12. School for Traditional Studies
  13. Cultural Conservation
  14. Committment
  15. Programme Summary
  16. Implementation Methodology
  17. Conclusion

Executive Summary

This report is based on the findings of a privately funded initiative, which has conducted over one and half years of formal field study based on over twenty years of working experience in this sphere.

Kudumbigala is the name of an abandoned region in the jungle belonging to the villagers of Panama, situated close to the Kumbukkan Oya estuary in Yala East National Park. Nearby is Okanda Devale, a temple shrine dedicated to Skanda-Murukan, situated on a rocky outcrop along the seacoast. The Park is visited via the Eastern Province through the town of Pottuvil (Arugam Bay), the village of Panama and then along a gravel road through Helawa to Kudumbigala and Okanda.

There were once several Panama families living in Kudumbigala during the cultivation season. The escalation of the war led to the villagers as well as the Department of Wildlife Conservation fleeing the area. Except for the Special Task Force of the Sri Lanka Police who are in control of Panama, this area is now a gray area, frequented by only transient guerrillas, passing military, and food gatherers. The presence of Wildlife Department officials recommences at the Menik Ganga. In effect, the 60-km cart track from Panama to the Menik Ganga is not policed by any authority. The Sri Lanka security forces occasionally carry out operations in this area, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) are also present. Outsiders hardly visit the region in spite of its natural beauty, and visitors to the National Park now enter from the south and stop at the Menik Ganga, not daring to cross.

Pada Yatra 1999 at Panama
The Kataragama Pada Yatra passes through Panama.

The only exception is the annual Pada Yatra, or foot pilgrimage, from Jaffna to Kataragama. This pilgrimage was restored by the Kataragama Devotees Trust in 1988, and regularly attracts foreign and local pilgrims. The devout respect of all for Skanda-Murukan, the wargod of Kataragama and ruler of the region, ensures the safety of the pilgrims.

The multi cultural nature of the Kataragama region enables Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and those of any other religion to practice their faith in the safety of a sacred area.

Before the escalation of the war and the termination of the ferry service across the Palk Strait wise men and women representing many lineages came to Lanka as pilgrims from all over India. The tradition of visiting Adam's Peak and Kataragama (also called Dakshina or Southern Kailasa) has its origins in mythology.

Hills, certain old trees, rocks and sacred groves along rivers are landmarks in a culture where everything is sacred and connected with mythical exploits. The area is indeed considered 'God's land'.

Panama is the home of a culture in transition from hunter-gatherer to cultivator. It is a forest village culture of commingled Sinhala and Tamil identity. This homogeneous culture is on the verge of disappearance in Sri Lanka due to absurd claims of ethnic purity in an island context.

The Living Heritage Trust (LHT) is a private sector initiative dedicated to the preservation of Lanka's unique cultural heritage and traditional wisdom. The promoters of LHT have a unique record in the field of traditional studies and cultural preservation extending over twenty years. The Kataragama Devotees Trust, which has been operational on the East Coast since 1988, will be a partner organization in the project. The project also has the sponsorship of the Basnayake Nilame, the lay custodian, of the Okanda Shrine.

What we propose as our contribution during this, the United Nations sponsored Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence (2001-2010), is the declaration in Sri Lanka of the Okanda-Kudumbigala region as our first Heritage Conservation Zone by Act of Parliament and the recognition of this living Sacred Grove as a traditional center of learning, a School for Traditional Studies; which will help students once again realize the regional character lost since our flight from nature and culture as well as place the former in a unique position to disseminate this character elsewhere.

Kudumbigala: inhabitable cave used by meditators since pre-Christian era. Drip-ledge includes ancient inscription in Brahmi script.

The Okanda-Kudumbigala Heritage Reserve is a Sanctuary, a Sacred Grove, where traditional laws shall take precedence over modern laws. Such groves shall operate under the patronage and guidance of the villagers themselves as the custodians of the living tradition.

There is a record of where the Kudumbigala settlements were and where their owners can be found today. One of this initiative's aims, to facilitate the return of some of these villagers, has already commenced. While many of these villagers may have no wish to return, others may choose to do so, if provided with a viable option.

This project entails the re-settlement of up to fifteen families in Kudumbigala with rebuilt homes on their identifiable original sites. Potable water wells will be constructed as well as sanitary necessities. Biogas and safe energy alternatives will be utilized. Paddy fields that have gone into disuse will be re-commissioned using traditional methods. A school for the children of the villagers as well as a Traditional Therapeutic Center will be established. Emergency transport will be made available. Communications with the outside world will also be made possible. It is expected that the fifteen families will be chosen from the original residents of Kudumbigala. They will be asked if they will return to Kudumbigala and work the fields practicing traditional agriculture. The organic produce of their fields will be niche marketed locally and internationally to ensure that the highest economic value is placed upon them. This value system will include an ecological cost-benefit.

The Okanda-Kudumbigala Heritage Reserve will, through the School for Traditional Studies, permit a local and international community of students to live together, learning -- living traditional wisdom, in a living forest-village-temple environment.

The annual foot pilgrimage or Pada Yatra from Jaffna to Kataragama stops at Okanda for a few days on its journey. At present, pilgrims join the yatra from all over the East Coast. This initiative will also pave the way for Indian and other pilgrims to once again participate in this primordial tradition that has kept an oral culture alive. The Okanda shrine and the villagers of Kudumbigala will provide traditional hospitality for these pilgrims who in turn will teach us through their experience.

The Okanda shrine, which now stands half-constructed, will be completed and the surrounding garden preserved as a sacred grove, with the addition of appropriate environmentally friendly pilgrim shelters and sanitation facilities. The wells servicing the temple will also be cleaned and maintained. The traditional relationship between the village and the shrine will be re-established, whereby the villagers of Kudumbigala will once again become the shrine's principal patrons.

We have been told that traditional knowledge is disseminated by masters in accordance with rules of pupilage. All those invited to visit us will be motivated by this ideology. We will seek to re-establish the guru kula, or school of wisdom and knowledge of the orient, by revitalizing village institutions like the ambalama - the wayside halt - which was traditionally used by travelers to impart clarity of thought through stories. All our teachers shall be of authentic paramparavas, or lineages.

Six dwellings will be built as an ashram at Okanda for visiting teachers from Sri Lanka and elsewhere, invited by us to impart their knowledge in a temple environment. We have sought the support of various communities in the island, the SAARC region and the world at large to introduce us to visiting masters of the Perennial Philosophy.

We will offer field tours to students from Sri Lanka and abroad, a maximum of twenty-five at any given time. The students will be housed in village dwellings, adjacent to where the villagers will live. Students will learn traditional agriculture, conflict resolution, house building, economics, medicine and other oriental arts and sciences from native gurus while assisting in an on-going study of field biology and cultural anthropology conducted by western researchers.

Field biology will include field identification, map making, scientific report writing, behavioral observation techniques, aging techniques and population modeling.

Cultural anthropology will include census taking, charting kinship, open-ended interviewing, participant observation, collecting life histories, using personal documentation and content analysis of oral history/folklore/mythology, recording them on film, audio and video tapes.

There will be an office at Pottuvil to service the Okanda-Kudumbigala Heritage Reserve (a distance of about 32 km) and an office in Colombo will co-ordinate the field as well as maintain and store all records and data.

The distance from Pottuvil to Panama is 16 km and is motorable. A further 16 km on a jeep track brings us to Okanda. By boat the journey from Arugam Bay to Okanda takes an hour and a half.

Hardly anyone lives in the area during the year, although many thousands arrive during the time of the festival in July.

Not since Rabindaranath Tagore founded Shantiniketan in India has such a programme been undertaken, a programme designed to teach future generations the value of their own culture in the global context.

We believe that the Okanda-Kudumbigala Heritage Reserve will be a watershed in the transformation of Sri Lanka. This project can preserve both culture and environment while creating an awareness that will result in a region rife with conflict to again become a treasure trove of cultural harmony, organic produce, traditional medicinal systems, temple-based cottage crafts and Sri Lanka's indigenous lifestyle.

With growing global environmental consciousness this region can soon become a 'model theocracy' with consensus governing and a variety of rewards that can satisfy growing aspirations and needs based on cause and effect. All that is required on our part is networking, motivation, commitment, co-ordination, institutional strengthening and finally marketing.

Living Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka
Web site:


This initiative seeks to re-establish the traditional character of the 'Kataragama' initiation and pilgrimage by creating a sanctuary for the living tradition in the Okanda-Kudumbigala area, within the Yala East National Park, part of Deviyange Kaele or God's Own Forest.

Any geographical site, from a simple shrine or meditation room to a national park or an entire community, may become a sanctuary if there is a consensus among the people who use that site that it should be free from weapons, intimidation, terrorism, anger, coercion, bullying and abuse of all kinds whether verbal or physical. This is the essence of the Kataragama region's traditional atmosphere of inherent grace and mercy.

Like a plant nursery, a Sanctuary or Sacred Grove may be regarded as a sheltered environment where peaceful thoughts and acts may grow strong enough to be carried forth and transplanted into the surrounding social environment. As nurseries of consensus or training grounds for new generations of peaceful, responsible citizens, sacred groves must play an important role in the revitalization of Sri Lanka's traditional culture of peace.

Sacred groves have been an important part of Asia's and the world's cultural and spiritual heritage since early humanity first recognized the sanctity of the earth everywhere, but especially at certain sacred sites. The time has come to re-establish a traditional sanctuary, to realize a sacred grove or Heritage Conservation Zone, and the Kataragama region in terms of its cultural, religious, mythological and historical prominence is its logical home.

Until relatively recent times, there was felt to be little need for eco-cultural sanctuaries or formal codes of acceptable conduct at sacred sites or shrines. However, with the steady intrusion of secular values and with the unbridled growth of commercial activity reaching into every nook and cranny of society including sacred areas, a consensus is now emerging concerning the need to protect threatened cultural treasures - traditional communities and their practices.

As planners and facilitators, the aim of The Living Heritage Trust is to tap Sri Lanka's greatest sustainable resource - the cultural heritage of its people - and to harness it fully to achieve peace-education, non-violent conflict resolution and long-term sustainable development for the benefit of generations to come.

The Living Heritage Trust

The Living Heritage Trust (LHT) is a private sector initiative dedicated to the preservation of Lanka's unique cultural heritage and traditional wisdom.

Traditional village culture is based on Mahasammata or the Great Consensus and Asana Deka Bana, the traditional process of conflict resolution.

In the days of the Kings, people met in an ambalama, or traveler's' stop along the wayside, to discuss matters of importance. Every perspective was aired and since Dharma ruled and all things were impermanent, change became a cornerstone of knowledge. Humor and lampooning were vital elements of a culture where ritual theatre highlighted the foolhardiness of any view other than Dharma or Truth. This not the validity of texts, but the Truth as experienced and lived from day to day.

Learning from traditional lifestyles is vital for a society that is being torn apart by conflicting perspectives. However, traditional living is itself in danger of becoming extinct in the teeth of modern development.

The increasing dependence on market driven economics makes it necessary for practitioners of our traditional lifestyles to gain full economic value for their goods and services.

Sri Lanka is essentially an agrarian society. Our traditional farmers are green farmers who return to the land what they take from it. This contrasts with consumer-oriented mechanized agriculture. Traditional farming is labor intensive and the produce of traditional farms is free of petrochemicals and other poisons. Indigenous seed is used (farmers control their own seed stock) and the organic output is both untainted and nutritious. Traditional farming protects and conserves bio-diversity, yet as a result of modern agriculture this tradition is also disappearing.

As conflict threatens to spread to remote areas like Okanda and Kudumbigala in the Kataragama God's forest like in other parts of Lanka, it behooves all sections of our multi-cultural community to preserve the indigenous culture that once flourished in every district.

Sri Lanka's living heritage is our unique contribution to world culture. To enter the twenty-first century garbed in a cosmopolitan veneer would be to stand empty handed.

The Living Heritage Trust seeks to preserve the forest-village lifestyle and the ecologically sustainable conflict-free culture of village Lanka. Our villagers have much to teach us and we ignore them at our own peril.

The Traditional Village or Puranagama

To know the tradition, it is said, you must live the tradition. That is, our ancestors' traditional wisdom is not contained in books but in the memory of traditional villagers. To understand the profundity of our traditional culture, one has to participate in the experience of living in conformity with the tradition. Most modern students of culture study cultures from outside, making it for them impossible to grasp the subtleties of oral traditions.

Development patterns advocated in Third World countries are seldom based on traditional practice. Without people's participation being at the core of all activity most programs fail. Recognizing the failures in the development process, the Living Heritage Trust has designed a program of work in the Okanda-Kudumbigala area that can only succeed if villagers are made the custodians of their resources and constituents of the decision-making process. After all, it is the villagers themselves who will save their collective heritage; we only assist them.

The Sinhala colloquial term Polo Maihi Kanthawa means Virgin Earth Mother. To the Sri Lankan from a puranagama (traditional village) background, nature and culture are one. In fact, the Shorter English Dictionary on Historical Principle gives the primary definition of culture as "worship, cultivation..." and in 1510, it also came to mean "Improvement or refinement by education and training."

Surviving puranagamas in Sri Lanka still preserve this traditional perspective. Forest, water, land, agriculture, and a tree shrine to the local deity are all part of a unified whole. Ecological sustainability was achieved by maintaining the balance through submission to, respect for, and friendship with Nature. The rituals, beliefs, and cultural patterns visible in the puranagamas reflect this mentality. It is a mentality that is increasingly important to a world poised on the brink of ecological meltdown.

Here in Sri Lanka one finds all the classic ingredients of an ancient and ongoing struggle between two modalities of thought - almost separate worlds unto themselves. On the one hand, we have the civilizing mentality associated with urban life in general and modern and western ways of thinking in particular. On the other hand, a much older traditional modality based upon the rural culture currently associated with the 'Third World'. The outcome of their interaction may determine mankind's future. All the causes of that titanic struggle as well as their potential resolution can be found in microcosm here in Sri Lanka.

Surviving patterns of culture in puranagamas demonstrate how the village community or (Gam Sabha) elected its leaders on merit, resulting in Grama Raj (Village Rule) under the leadership of a Gamini or Gamarala (Village Leader), Vel Vidane (Field Custodian), Vedarala (Native Doctor) and a Kapu Mahattaya (Shaman). The balance between the spiritual authority and temporal power co-ordinated all agricultural activity.

"Co-operation is the most fundamental inter-relationship within natural systems. Without co-operation between the parts of a natural system, be it a biological organism, a family, a community or even an ecosystem, the system cannot hold together or exist as an unit of adaptive life processes - still less compete with other systems."

Heritage Reserves

By act of Parliament, the Living Heritage Trust will seek that specific areas in the country, which can still be recognized as Scared Groves, be declared Heritage Reserves (Heritage Conservation Zones). In these Reserves, the original culture of the area shall be preserved and nurtured in its pristine purity.

Reserves shall be in sanctuaries, sacred groves where traditional laws take precedence over statutory law.

A Reserve will also be a seat for the guru-shishya relationship between elders and juniors in a region where the main teaching will be 'to know the tradition, live the tradition.'

It will be a wisdom society of govi, guru, Sangha, veda, and silpi: farmers, teachers, clergy, physicians, and craftspeople.

The Heritage Reserve will be a Village University, a School for Traditional Studies where youth will learn the wisdom of an ancient lineage of sages and seers by living that tradition.

The current Minister of Justice, Constitutional Affairs, Ethnic Affairs and National Integration, Professor G. L. Pieris, as Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo in his talk, Indigenous People and the Legal Landscape stated as follows in 1993,

We must recognize there are certain things in traditional custom and law that may defy our understanding. We may not be able to understand because our experience has been wholly different and we must be reluctant to reject what we are incapable of understanding.... It is absolutely essential that customary legal systems be protected...

I think that this is a very timely initiative because much that is wrong with contemporary civilization can, I think, be rectified by injecting (in) to our culture some of the elements that were so rich in our indigenous civilizations.

This is an excerpt from the first of a series of lectures organized by Cultural Survival (a local non-governmental organization that has been the Living Heritage Trust's affiliate since inception) for the International Year of the World's Indigenous People at the Colombo Museum, which addressed different aspects of the rights of indigenous people.

We believe it is time to take the step from theory to practice.

Post-independence Lanka has allowed party politics to divide it through greed, hatred and delusion. It is essential for us to save at least a small part of Lanka where original culture is left as it is, free from conventional modernization and all its accompanying ills.

Traditional systems at work in an uncontaminated region can provide the framework and forum for resolution of Lanka's contemporary afflictions.

All of Sri Lanka's religious leaders have commented on the decline of values in our social fabric. In order to stem this regression several independent groups of mixed religious orientation have formed. The Religious Alliance for Peace that recently met with the LTTE in the jungles of the north is one such group. LHT has begun the process of obtaining the support of all such groups.

Teachers of the Perennial Philosophy from traditional societies in other parts of the world, especially the SAARC region, will be invited to visit, giving students a chance to learn from them. Participants, however, will be screened in order that the cultural traditions of the region are not dishonored.

Before the termination of the ferry service from Rameshwaram in India to Talaimannar in Sri Lanka, pilgrims came regularly to Sri Lanka to visit Adam's Peak and Kataragama. These pilgrims became the storytellers in a tradition where wisdom was transmitted through story, myth and metaphor often under a tree or beside a footpath or in a wayside ambalama or pilgrims rest.

In the context of the United Nations Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence, LHT will provide a base for traditional exponents of the major faiths in Sri Lanka, enabling them to live within the community and through example teach students their culture. This peace-building program will develop new policy and practice in an area of instability and conflict providing models and methods to analyze social and political conflicts and to integrate effective conflict handling strategies.

Heritage Reserve - Okanda-Kudumbigala

Okanda is the popular name for the Yala East National Park. It is visited via the Eastern Province through the town of Pottuvil, the village of Panama and then along a jeep track through Helawa to Okanda.

The Yala East National Park forms an interesting and most fascinating region of scenic beauty, consisting of lagoons, natural rock pools, rock outcrops, ridges, open park land, scrub jungle and forest.

The Okanda-Kudumbigala Heritage Reserve will be an ecologically sustainable community living a traditional lifestyle, with the Okanda Shrine at its center, while cultivating rare species of our traditional grains and pulses now threatened by genetic piracy and other modern agro-business practices.

Rationale - Why Okanda and Kudumbigala?

Okanda according to legend is a hierophany, a rare, divine spot at which divinity reveals itself on earth. Because of the importance of this legend to the people of nearby Panama and in fact to the entire east coast, the Okanda-Kudumbigala region has all the conditions necessary to create a model of ecologically sustainable and culturally harmonious living. Such a model would combine the twin aims of conserving our traditional heritage and protecting global genetic diversity.

This region still exhibits traces of an agrarian tradition that is many thousands of years old, composed of highly skilled and knowledgeable farmers. The region is also home to an extraordinary genetic diversity, particularly renewable forest products from perennial species and from plants of known medicinal value. Many Panama villagers still maintain the cultural knowledge associated with this region.

Some indigenous doctors in the region still transmit their knowledge orally. Their memories hold together a vast storehouse of recipes, mostly in verse, which they call a Wattoruwa.

In Panama tribal knowledge is still passed on through activity in institutions like the Kamatha or threshing floor, the pela or watch hut, and in war games such as Pora Pol and Ankeliya; performed annually. Hereditary skills are looked upon as Rajakariya or duty. Each villager specializes in a particular function, and together the whole village in consensus maintains their cultural calendar of ritual duty understood as protection of Nature's balance. Each villager has a unique importance. This cultural memory can still be realized in this region.

Modern scientific progress is founded upon the myth that we can compensate for, work around, and improve upon the balance of nature. Economic 'development' has led man to attempt conquest of nature, not life in harmony with it. Indigenous populations are looked upon as 'primitive' beings whose beliefs, attitudes and practices are 'outmoded' and 'backward'. Of late, however, there has been a growing realization that indigenous lifestyles are harmonious with and respectful of the elements that comprise this planet; and that they transmit vital and rare wisdom concerning how to exist in harmony with ecosystems which more 'developed' cultures are recklessly destroying. Destruction has gone on under the guise of 'development' and 'progress' for too long.

Thankfully, it is not too late to reverse the process. The Living Heritage Trust intends to use information technology to focus on the imperative that social and political work must go hand in hand with work in nature, for nature. Global mass media is bringing about a far-reaching ecological perception of the world. This is, in turn, creating a 'green' consciousness that insists on preserving indigenous cultures for their value as repositories of wisdom.

This wisdom is related to the natural environment that surrounds each village. It is for this reason that the Living Heritage Trust proposes a modus operandi that embodies lifestyles that conform to the laws of the cosmos. It is only by following the paths of wisdom trodden by our ancestors for millennia that we can ensure the island's continuing fertility and happiness now and for generations to come.

The foregoing is only a small insight into traditional village culture, a storehouse of vital information that has survived centuries. This is what we want to preserve and re-learn in the Okanda-Kudumbigala Living Heritage Reserve and School for Traditional Studies.

Okanda-Kudumbigala is the unrivaled choice of location for the first Heritage Reserve and School for Traditional Studies for the following reasons:

  • A primordial legend
  • A living shrine
  • The isolation of the location
  • An abundance of life illustrating fertility and bio-diversity at its best
  • An abandoned village with paddy fields and hénas uncontaminated by chemicals
  • Passing pilgrims, an annual pilgrimage and a festival
  • Participation of the original villagers

Okanda: The Legend

At Okanda beside a rocky outcrop there is a shrine dedicated to the Kataragama God Skanda or Ukantha Malai Velayudha Swami.

The site is traditionally known as one of the places where Ravana, the ten-headed Lord of Lanka and a devout worshipper of Shiva, halted for worship on his journey from Lankapuri to Koneswaram in Trincomalee.

Okanda hilltop has by tradition been declared to be one of the places where a divine ray (katir) from Lord Skanda struck. The Batticaloa Manmiam narrates the story of how Shiva's son Skanda defeated the Demon Asura by splitting the Vahura hill into two. Three splintering rays which originated thence from the ocean, were sheltered, one on the Okanda hilltop, one on a white naval tree at Tirukkovil and the third on a tillai tree at Mandur. Subsequently, all these places were reverentially observed as holy places by the Wanniya-laeto (inhabitants of the Wanni forest) also called the Veddas.

On the top of the Okanda hill the aboriginal hunter-gatherers, the Veddas, preserved the sanctity of the location with a simple shrine of sticks and leaves dedicated to the jungle goddess Valli Amma.

Depending on individual faith, people believe the whole region is impregnated with the spirit of Kande Deviyo, Kande Yakka, Kataragama God, Skanda, Murugan or al Khidr, the Green Man of the Qur'an - teacher to Moses.

The multicultural nature of the Kataragama region enables Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians to practice their faith in the safety of a sacred area.

Hills, certain old trees, rocks and points along rivers are landmarks in a culture where everything is sacred and connected with mythical exploits. The area is indeed considered 'God's land'.

The caves at Kottadamuhela, near by, were a gift to the Sangha of the four quarters of the world, past, present and yet to come by the descendants of an independent dynasty of Kshatriya who reigned over southeast Ceylon with its seat in Kataragama. The emblem of the fish, found in the caves in this region, is the insignia of these independent rulers.

This entire region, as attested to by ancient cave inscriptions, has been used for similar purposes to those of this initiative since before the time of Christ.

Protection of the Sacred Grove - Heritage Conservation Zones

Sacred groves are one of the finest instances of traditional conservation practices. Ecologists of late have come out with studies on the remarkable 'systems' of resource management realized by many traditional societies.

These societies had co-evolved with their environment, modifying nature but actively maintaining it in a diverse productive state. Sacred groves formed centers of cultural and religious life for people over much of the Old World. These groves began to be demolished in Europe and Asia and most other lands due to the arrival of modern religions and the consequent changes in man's attitude toward nature. The cosmocentric man, who lived in harmony with his ecosystem, developed into an anthropocentric creature with devastating consequences on nature. The grove is said to be at the origin of the temple, whose columns were initially trees and of the Christian Church which still evokes by the alignment of its pillars, the semi-darkness within it, and the soft colored light that diffuses through its stained glass windows.

Okanda may possibly be the last surviving Sacred Grove or Jungle Sanctuary in Sri Lanka.

However, the Okanda shrine itself is in grave danger of losing its pristine quality. Cement and concrete is replacing stone and wood. Traces of the beautiful and rustic temples of the Veddas are slowly disappearing - being replaced by ugly edifices made in the gaudy style of modern South Indian Hindu temples. The pilgrims who once came from India no longer do so - the type of pilgrim is changing and their number shrinking - and consequently the essence of the annual festival is in flux as well.

The ritual activity at Okanda, like at Kataragama, is performed by hereditary privilege. At Okanda the lay custodian is a 'Sinhalese' and the temple puja is carried out by a 'Tamil'. The first office is patrilineal and the second matrilineal.

Seven years ago there was an attempt made to transform Okanda into another urban shrine. However, this attempt was frustrated due to terrorism, and the shrine today is housed in a half-completed building. Considering that the Okanda shrine is located in a Sanctuary, LHT proposes that certain laws apply to all further construction and development activity in the region.

After consultations with the Basnayake Nilame of the Okanda Devale, Mr. Muthu Banda, it has been proposed that the Living Heritage Trust canvass the support of the Government of Sri Lanka in creating the first Heritage Conservation Zone at Okanda-Kudumbigala. This will ensure that the sacred nature of the forest shrine is not subverted into one of a frontier boomtown as has transpired in Kataragama.

Originally the entire Kataragama Kaela or forest was a sacred grove left untouched by the local population for all practical purposes.

A sacred grove is usually dedicated to a deity who is supposed to protect and preside over the grove. At Okanda the presiding deities are the Kataragama God and Valli, the Vedda princess. Sacred groves were once found all over the SAARC region but have been mostly destroyed due to modern development. These groves date back to antiquity, predating the agrarian period, when human society in our region was largely of the hunter-gathering, nomadic/semi-nomadic type. Evidence suggests that the deities of the sacred groves are pre-Vedic in origin.

"In a sacred grove the local headman or shaman performs the religious rites and conveys the dictates of the deity to the community. As the degree of sanctity varies, the degree of human presence also varies. In some even dry foliage or fruit fallen on the floor is untouched. In others dead wood may be picked, but not live trees, animals or birds. As a consequence of religious beliefs (that if any mortal disturbs or harms any part of the forest the deity will immediately mete out violent punishment) sacred groves have in rare instances remained intact, in their prehistoric condition, as secret natural sanctuaries."

The social fabric was preserved by maintaining a hierarchical order within the community - if any individual transgressed community traditions the deity had to be appeased by offering through self-immolation and animal sacrifice. With the passage of time such beliefs have been breaking down, and with them the culture associated with sacred groves are also disappearing. Economic development and modernization have indeed taken their toll.

Sacred groves also performed economic functions. For example the local medicine man was often permitted to extract herbs or medicinal plants for curing ailments.

In times of calamity, such as a fire, which may have razed the dwellings of the village completely, there was a system of sanctioning limited quantities of timber for construction. Similarly, in times of severe drought, inhabitants were permitted to consume fruits, berries, roots etc. In other words, the grove functioned as a 'measure of last resort'.

Generally sacred groves are located at the origins of fresh water springs in the catchment areas of river basins. This means that the functional relationship between the forest cover, rainfall, water percolation and soil conservation; in other words, the basic variables of hydrological cyclic sustainability, were known to these communities. Of course there are no written records, or documents, which clearly state this realization in 'current terminology'. However, the evidence from the oral and living tradition has ample evidence confirming this knowledge. More study and research will be necessary to interpret the storehouse of anecdotes associated with the deities and their sacred gardens.

Today, when the need to preserve the genetic diversity of florae and faunae has reached a critical level, it is imperative to declare Sacred Groves as Heritage Conservation Zones even if special legislative enactment is required to do so. Instead of creating new man-made-forests or wildlife sanctuaries, which are largely Euro-American concepts, it would be very wise indeed to provide legal protection to all sacred groves that can be identified today. The concept of a sacred grove is probably the single most important ecological heritage of traditional culture everywhere. If we allow these to get degraded or destroyed we will have lost a pool of genetic diversity and cultural value that is uniquely Sri Lankan.

In the sacred forests of the Kataragama God, settlers from various communities are encroaching upon a sizable extent of land around the Yala National Parks. Without any traditional organization or livelihood, they depend on environmentally destructive activities like illicit gem mining, poaching and tree-felling. But, clearly the piecemeal destruction of Deviyange Kaele (the God's own Forest) and desecration of the sacred Menik Ganga and the Kumbukkan Oya are neither in the interest of Sri Lanka nor in the long term interest of the settlers themselves. Indeed, their sorry plight is symptomatic of a larger process that threatens to destroy what remains of Kataragama's and Sri Lanka's once proud eco-cultural heritage.

This is where the Living Heritage Trust's Heritage Conservation Zone concept makes perfect sense for implementation in the Kataragama Kaela as a model showcase of the tremendous potential for culturally appropriate, environmentally sustainable, development. The Living Heritage Trust with its partner organizations have nurtured the concept and can demonstrate how a traditionally sustainable temple-based culture can survive and prosper in today's context and for centuries to come.

Declaring the Okanda-Kudumbigala Sanctuary, a Heritage Conservation Zone, involves a gradual restoration of the values and lifestyles long associated with traditional rural life in Sri Lanka.

Each of Sri Lanka's Sacred Centers encapsulates aspects of the island's cultural and spiritual inheritance. Okanda like Kataragama is exceptionally well-endowed with wisdom traditions that are as alive today as they were thousands of years ago when the Veddas or Wanniya-laeto ('inhabitants of the Wanni forest') and yakshas (arboreal spirits) alone knew the marvels of island Lanka.

Ancient traditions find natural application in the sylvan setting of the Kataragama Kaela, the home of Sri Lanka's hands-down favorite divinity, angel, bodhisattva, and prophet. The island's Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims all have their own version of the Kataragama story and pay their respects to the power which graces the forests of Kataragama or Kathir-Kamam.

Long-standing and still widely-recognized traditional guidelines to wholesome, healthy and happy life will assume forms appropriate to the sacred setting of the Kataragama Kaela and the changing face of life in Sri Lanka and anywhere in the global village. The proposed features of the Okanda-Kudumbigala Heritage Conservation Zone include:

  • Traditional laws and practices taking precedence over statutory laws;
  • A showcase of cultural diversity and preservation of distinct identities and paramparawas
  • Traditional wattle and daub community centers to coordinate development strategies
  • Promotion of private investment in pilgrim-related cottage industries
  • Eco-friendly accommodation for pilgrims and students in a forest setting
  • A School for Traditional Studies
  • Niche-marketing of all products and services
  • Promotion of indigenous health and nutrition and the judicious use of medicinal forests
  • Restriction of motor traffic
  • The banning of gem mining and rock quarrying
  • Progressive ban on electronic sound amplification
  • Promoting nonviolent conflict resolution through Asana Deka Bana
  • Restrictions on culturally-inappropriate commercial activity (e.g. lottery marketing)
  • Moratorium on construction of nontraditional buildings
  • Fair compensation for families performing Rajakariya service
  • Occupational training for village youth
  • Authentic organic incense manufacture
  • Marketing of religious pictures and literature
  • Provisions to ensure the sanctuary's integrity and continuity for generations to come
  • Provisions to recognize and legally protect indigenous intellectual property rights
  • National and international recognition of Okanda as a Sacred Grove.

Panama village and Kudumbigala

Kudumbigala Sanctuary is located in the Ampara District of the Eastern Province and is 4,403 hectares in extent. It was declared a Sanctuary on 28th September 1973.

Despite being a sanctuary, private ownership is allowed, and villagers from Panama hold land within the area. Till they were driven away by terrorism the villagers annually cultivated their fields.

There is a large lagoon called Helawa. Fishing within the lagoon is permitted - a practice that had been going on for many years before the area was declared a Sanctuary.

Toward the interior is a large complex of rock ridges and big granite boulders. Around the third to the second-century before Christ one of the earliest cave dwelling hermitages of Buddhist monks was located here.

Traces of this ancient hermitage are seen even today through Brahmi inscriptions under the drip-ledges of the caves. History reveals this ancient hermitage was second only to Sithulpahuwa in importance. Till recently the aranya (forest hermitage) here was occupied by a sect of Buddhist monks who practice meditation. This aranya was also a casualty of the strife in the region.

Nearby Okanda has one resident swami and his wife. Occasional pilgrim traffic comes and goes but during the festival time devotees from the entire East Coast descend on the Devale. Since the road from Panama to Okanda is not maintained, and the Special Task Force of the Sri Lanka Police's (active in the region) last outpost is in Panama, most villagers fear travel in this un-policed area. The Okanda Devale consequently can hardly maintain itself, as patronage is limited during the greater part of the year. If peace and normality returns to the region, Okanda could well become the foremost center of Murugan worship and be second only to Konneswaram in importance.

Panama is a village in transition from a hunter-gatherer social structure to one of settled agriculture or fishing. The large majority is of mixed parentage speaking both Sinhala and Tamil. There is no ethnic problem here as integration takes place naturally. Current tendencies however point toward a 'sinhalaisation' process, and the consequent inherent death of cultural diversity, which is unfortunate.

Muthu Banda for example, the lay custodian of the Okanda shrine, is of mixed parentage and is related to most of the people in Panama. He and his family had to flee the area and move as refugees to Pottuvil as a result of military reprisals several years ago. The people of Panama are often caught between terrorists and the military fighting over territory, which is traditionally theirs.

The Panama villagers who farmed Kudumbigala were self-sufficient and lived off the land and the adjoining forest. The center of their worship was Okanda. The monks and villagers fled the area when terrorists attacked and killed some of them in the early 1990's. The area has remained uninhabited since.

Pada Yatra or Foot Pilgrimage

Kataragama Pada Yatra 1992

Among the ancient living traditions that survive in island Sri Lanka's rich cultural environment, few are as well known or as poorly understood as that of the Kataragama Pada Yatra.

Starting from the island's far north and ending up two months and several hundred kilometers later at the shrine in the island's remote southeastern jungle, the Kataragama Pada Yatra tradition has played a major role in propagating and perpetuating traditions of Kataragama throughout Sri Lanka and the world. Predating the arrival of all four of Sri Lanka's major religions, it is essentially a tradition inherited from the island's indigenous forest-dwellers, the Wanniya-laeto or Veddas.

Because of the sheer length of the Kataragama Pada Yatra, since ancient times those who walk the distance have tended to be dedicated religious specialists. The great majority of Pada Yatra swamis and bawas remain anonymous, but among them have been more than a few great saints, sages and siddhas beginning, it is said, with Skanda-Murukan himself who is the first among pada yatra pilgrims according to the tradition. These have included, notably, the renowned fifteenth-century psalmist Arunagiri, who composed at least one Tiruppukal hymn at Kiri Malai (Jaffna district), another at Tirukkonamalai (modern Trincomalee) and fourteen at Kataragama. More recent well-known pilgrims include Palkudi Bawa and Yogaswami of Nallur.

Pada Yatra 1999 at Panama

The Skanda Purana, a puranic legend in Sanskrit, narrates the story of Skanda emanating as six rays from Siva's third eye that fall to earth where six water nymphs, the Krittika maidens, discover him in a marshy lake (saravana) in the Himalayas; a familiar birth motif found both in the stories of Moses and Osiris.

Defeating the asura with his lance the Vel, Skanda released the devas or gods from torture and was given Devasena (Indra's daughter) in marriage. According to the legends, he then falls in love with Valli Amma, a Vedda girl, and takes abode at the hilltop of Kataragama.

In the early historic period Veddas occupied many parts of the East Coast. Settlements still exist in Mutur, Mavadichenai, Perampaditivu, Vakarai, Mankerny and Kathiraveli in the Trincomalee District; Dambana and Sorobora in the Mahiyangana District; Ratugala, Danigala, Polebedde and Digamadulla in the Ampara District; and in Yakure in the Polonnaruwa district.

The annual festival both at Kataragama and Okanda is held for fourteen days concluding with the full moon day in July.

The Pada Yatra foot pilgrimage annually sees pilgrims from the eastern and northern provinces of Sri Lanka, trekking through Yala East National Park, Yala Blocks II and I, breaking journey en-route at Okanda, Bagura, Madametota, Pothana, Yala, Warahana and Katagamuwa respectively before reaching Kataragama, a trek of approximately 75 km.

Before the ferry service from India to Talaimannar was terminated due to escalating violence pilgrims from all over India joined the Pada Yatra. In the Pada Yatra tradition the older pilgrims became the teachers and an oral tradition developed and was maintained through storytelling.

The Pada Yatra from Jaffna to Kataragama pauses at Okanda for two to three days where the pilgrims stop to refresh themselves by the sea where it is believed the God landed.

The pilgrims still preserve the oral tradition, and all the holy places in the region are visited during the pilgrimage. The region conceals an ancient culture dating from about the 2nd century B.C to about the 10th Century AD.

The private voluntary body Cultural Survival and its sister organization the Kataragama Devotees Trust, who are the Living Heritage Trust's affiliates, annually give patronage to the Pada Yatra along the East Coast. This patronage takes the form of coordinating with the relevant authorities and feeding of pilgrims along their way. This is done through a network of temples and shrines. The tri-lingual magazine Bhakti is distributed free, giving Pada Yatra-related news.

School for Traditional Studies

The Okanda-Kudumbigala Heritage Reserve will conduct a series of month-long and semester-long courses for students both local and foreign, in a special ecosystem, studying indigenous culture, eco-theory and practice and traditional arts and sciences. Instruction and training will supplement regional economic systems while the benefits to the students will include the following:

  • study of traditional institutions, laws, practices, & arts
  • interaction with the authentic practitioners of the tradition
  • participation in non-violent conflict resolution
  • sharing of multi-cultural group experiences
  • gaining field research skills
  • getting first hand experience in a unique ecosystem
  • facing unique challenges
  • earning credits from accredited academic institutions.

Students will be taught the ethic of the pilgrim and will learn to see villagers as ritual specialists and the focal point of their education.

Cultural Conservation

The cultural conservation program will cover the following areas:

Lifestye: In order to maintain and enhance cultural diversity the inhabitants and students of a Heritage Reserve will be given the opportunity to restore the institutions that enable regional stability and sustainability. These institutions are:

Traditional Bissa or seed storage bin (15kb)
  • Asana Dekka Bana - Traditional technique of conflict resolution
  • Magul Uthula - Social cohesion through special events
  • Ritual - Non verbal cultural information
  • Kurullu Paluwa - Ecological balance
  • Kem Pahan - Biological control
  • Rasa Guna - Different tastes and attributes (nutrition) of seasonal natural products
  • Ira Handa - Solar and lunar cycle
  • Bija - The influence of the Solar and Lunar Cycle on seeds, plants, animals and people
  • Poya & Ritha - Periods of fertility in nature
  • Jalawakas - The rainfall patterns
  • Kem Pahan - Seasonal agricultural rituals
  • Krumi - The insect cycle
  • Buddha Bhoga - Seasonal forest harvest
  • Wagamaruwa - Cultivation calendar for soil balance
  • Irthu - Seasonal preparations and wind patterns
  • Rajakariya - Seasonal ritual duties in maintaining the balance in nature
  • Utsav - Seasonal festivals
  • Wandana - Pilgrimages
  • Nakatha - The study of irthu (season) and water management
  • Bethma - Land use dependent on the availability of water
  • Thattu Maru - Rotation of land use
  • Kaiya - Collective labour

By emphasizing quality, temple based cottage industries will once again flourish. These cottage industries are dependent on the availability of competent teachers and natural resources. Crafts also transcend language barriers. The production and sale of hand made village products, which will include pottery, weaving and home remedies will enhance rural incomes.

Water is of primarily importance to every village community. Hydraulic cultures like Sri Lanka's are based upon water. Every small well and man made lake or wewa in this watershed should be restored and interconnecting channels repaired. This will enable the rainwater to once again cascade from reservoir to reservoir, feeding numerous fields. Endemic species of fish will also be protected.

maintain and enhance the bio-diversity in the region the catchment area of each restored reservoir will be protected. The reservation along waterways and channels should also be protected. Monitoring the movement of elephants will also assist in the study of their numbers and migratory patterns.

Hills, sacred groves and existing reservations will also be protected and bare patches reforested. Home Gardens analogous to the forest (analogue forestry) will be cultivated in the restored village of Kudumbigala.

traditional village consists of a cluster of families with homes concentrated around the giant 'Seed Banks' Attuwas and Bissas. The adjoining paddy fields will be utilized for growing indigenous rice varieties traditionally and the adjoining pillaves or embankments used to cultivate high-value organic crops. High land slash and burn agriculture will be revised to provide the 'platform' for agricultural education.

Cattle and Buffaloes must be used for ploughing, threshing, transport, milk, curd, manure, oil and ghee. By strengthening the herds it will be possible to restore the energy balance, while providing nutrition and organic fertilizer. The cattle can feed in the catchment areas, in the tank beds, reservations, fallow fields and on straw.


We, The Living Heritage Trust, subscribe to the following statement made by a Lankan advocate of conservation:

"Integrated conservation for human survival means living in a state of equilibrium with our environment. This involves a proper understanding of man's place in nature, appreciation and respect for nature and the use of resources for satisfying one's needs rather than our greed.

Development is for man, but man is not an independent entity by himself. Man is part of nature. We can live and enjoy life because countless other organisms have built up and are now maintaining our life support systems. Heedless destruction of these organisms or systems will inevitably result in our own demise.

Sri Lanka is primarily an agricultural country. An essential pre-requisite for agriculture is ecological security. The latter is best provided in the humid tropics by forests in the right places and in adequate extents.

Our forefathers recognised this. They integrated forestry with agriculture, demarcated villages on a watershed basis and adopted land use systems essentially in harmony with nature.

Resource over-exploitation and large-scale deforestation began during the colonial period, and have continued since then. We now have only about a fifth of the land area under forest, and much of even that extent is degraded and not situated where it is most wanted. Extensive deforestation has resulted in severe soil degradation, large-scale disturbances in water balance and a steady decline in land productivity. With a limited land area and an increasing population we can ill afford any further misuse. Fortunately the land degradation over many areas is still not irreversible. Land use in accordance with ecological potentials and strict enforcement of integrated conservation measures could once again make Sri Lanka a paradise."

The OKANDA-KUDUMBIGALA HERITAGE RESERVE is the most ambitious project of its kind undertaken to date, hence the creation of The Living Heritage Trust (LHT), a fusion of professional managers with proven track records and social scientists with vast field experience. This program is a result of the urgent need to present a working model of the marriage between nature and culture.

In the belief 'right livelihood' can exist in any environment, an area of conflict can be an asset - it can prevent casual observers from dropping in. With the demonstrable trust the Living Heritage Trust's enjoys with traditional people in the region this Sacred Grove will succeed in the maelstrom of war.

Program Summary

The Okanda-Kudumbigala Heritage Reserve program, if implemented will:

    • Necessitate legislation being passed in Parliament declaring this watershed as a Heritage Conservation Zone.
    • Make the Department of Wildlife Conservation (the present custodians of the region) active in the area once more.
    • Utilize the knowledge of traditional lineages and strengthen traditional institutions that have maintained ecological 'balance' in the past, showing the way for politics, religion and education to follow ecologically sustainable alternatives
    • Bring to the war zone an ancient ideology that none will challenge - thus, improving the level of co-operation and increasing economic, political and social stability.
    • Network government and non-government institutions, religious and lay organizations, schools and traditional bodies as well as experts such as botanists, agronomists, ecologists, irrigation engineers and foresters operating nationally and in the region - opening a dialogue with traditional farmers.
    • Strengthen and preserve for posterity a well-proven system of ecological agriculture along with its way of life, combining insights of modern holistic science with the wisdom of traditional practices by making traditional lifestyle economically viable.
    • Encourage students, researchers and planners from Sri Lanka and abroad to study individuals, populations, traditional societies, ecology and ecosystems in the light of their role - both structural and functional - in assuring stability.
    • Bring back all the rituals and institutions associated with traditional agriculture and encourage traditional craftsman to continue their hereditary livelihoods, permitting their documentation and study.
    • Create a data bank of information pertaining to our natural and cultural heritage.
    • Create employment since organic production is labor intensive.
    • Create an 'Image and Sound Bank' with cultural data that is in danger of being lost.
    • Become an information broker that assists farmers to utilize their land and their intellectual property for maximum benefit.
    • Create markets for forest products, traditional medicine and organic food etc.
    • Promote the ethic of pilgrimage, making the project area a retreat/laboratory where natural systems can be seen to operate in their natural context.

Implementation Methodology

The Living Heritage Trust will implement the outlined program of work by:

  1. Canvassing the support of the Government of Sri Lanka in declaring a demarcated area including Okanda-Kudumbigala and its environs a Heritage Conservation Zone by a special Act of Parliament;
  2. Obtaining the co-operation of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Armed Forces and other Government and non-Government agencies operating in the region;
  3. Providing the principal patronage of the annual Pada Yatra in association with the Kataragama Devotees Trust, as well as publish and distribute Bakthi (the annual newsletter of Yatra news);
  1. Commissioning a broad-line data collection of relevant variables under the advisement of relevant specialists i.e. amuna, vatiya, wewa, water, forest, fauna, flora, herbs, paddy, highland crops, caves, et al;
  2. Conducting a census of indigenous peoples, institutions, lineages (paramparavas), sacred groves & shrines and making amenable original inhabitants of the region the executors of this program;
  3. Designing and drafting curriculum for the School of Traditional Studies, and obtaining local and international accreditation;
  4. Canvassing pilot students for the School of Traditional Studies both locally and internationally by offering high value field trips to the project area;
  5. Maintaining a field office to co-ordinate project activities;
  6. Maintaining a Colombo liaison office;
  7. Maintaining a Document Depository and Data Bank in Colombo for storing all information collected;
  8. Evolving methodology for protective dissemination of information collected while asserting intellectual property rights on behalf of indigenous communities;
  9. Developing design principles for ecologically sustainable land use within the catchment area, and Evaluation of landscape management criteria; and
  10. Completing construction of the Okanda Devale with pilgrim facilities and the re-building of the Kudumbigala village with special accommodation for students.


Clearly the translocation of communities and ideologies creates culture shock. Traditional institutions, when replaced by modern ones, do not generate the same polarizing force. They fall short of their 'civilizing' mark.

We believe that this program will be a watershed in the modernization of Sri Lanka. Preserving both nature and culture while creating an awareness that will result in a region rife with conflict becoming again a treasure trove of cultural harmony, organic produce, traditional medicinal systems, cottage crafts and lifestyles that are conducive to artistic creativity.

With growing global environmental consciousness this region can soon become a 'model valley' with a variety of rewards that can satisfy growing aspirations and needs. All that is required on the part of the Living Heritage Trust is motivation, co-ordination, institutional strengthening and finally, marketing.

For more information contact:

Living Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka
Web site:

See also:
The Living Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka official website
home page of the Kataragama Devotees Trust
Sacred sites of Lanka map home page