The Commercialization of Kataragama
Colombo: The Sunday Island, 24th March, 1991
What catches the eye of any visitor to Kataragama today is the complete transformation this southern dry zone jungle shrine has undergone during the past five years through the Government's Gam Udawa movement.
A network of roads beautifully illuminated, rows and rows of tamarind trees on either side of the roads to enhance the landscape, houses for villagers, pipe-borne water from the Kirinda Ela project and imposing commercial and state buildings are some of the visible innovations.
The beautification notwithstanding, Kataragama has lost is pristine charm and serenity. The cacophonic music from portable radios and stereo equipment emanating from air-conditioned vehicles, vans, mini-buses and tourist vehicles parked close to large buildings, hotels, restaurants, motels and wayside eating places, that have cropped up in this sanctuary, has polluted the sanctity of this abode of the Kataragama deity, Śrī Skanda.
This is particularly so at weekends, poya days and public holidays. Some picnickers even enjoy liquor seated on the rocks over which the Menik Ganga flows, and the empties are heaped up along the river bank.
Milton must have seen a similar desecration of something held sacred when he exclaimed: 'O Tempore, O Mores'.
Long before modernization encroached this sylvan shrine, a pilgrimage to Kataragama, hallowed by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, was considered a formidable undertaking and fulfilling a life time's mission. Those were the days when the beggar and the wealthy, the Brahmin and the Harijan, the professional and the estate coolie were equal, sharing food and refreshments and seeking one another's protection when trekking through the elephant-infested jungle from Tissamaharama to Kataragama.
Far from being a weekend picnic, presenting little difficulty like today, a pilgrimage to Kataragama took months of preparation including fasting and prayers in temples and avoiding the consumption of meat, fish and even maldive fish for nearly a week prior to departure to seek the goodwill and protection of Śrī Skanda and Ganapati, the latter being identified in Hindu mythology with Śrī Skanda's brother.
This writer still recollects memories of several pilgrimages to this shrine a few decades ago. One route used then was Matara by train to be whisked off to Tissamaharama, nearly 65 miles from Matara, in vehicles owned by bus magnates of the south. These were the times when elephants roamed Hambantota even in daytime.
Another route used by pilgrims, especially from the hill country plantations was a train journey to Haputale and bussing it to Wellawaya to trek to Kataragama along the banks of the Menik Ganga from Buttala.
Whichever route was used Tissamaharama and beyond was No Man's Land. After a rest and meals or refreshments in madams or resting places provided by Hindu philanthropists in Tissamaharama, devotees leave for the shrine in bands in the early hours of the morning burdened with luggage, which usually comprised a change of clothes. camphor, joss sticks and other items for offering to God Sri Skanda, besides pots and pans.
The leader of the party carried a hurricane lantern or a torch considered a luxury then. The young and able-bodied devotees in the group helped children by carrying them on their shoulders while others helped the old and infirm. The nine-odd mile stretch to the shrine was covered in about three hours through paths to the shouts of 'Haro Hara' reverberating through the jungle silence.
Herds of elephants crossing the pilgrims' path were common. Seeing these herds the leader stops and shouts 'Haro Hara' in unison with the rest. Astonishingly the herds disappear into the jungle.
The lights of the giant oil lamps on the summit of Wedihitikanda is the first sign to the devotees that they are nearing the shrine. More shouts of 'Haro Hara' come from the jubilant but tired devotees. Fifteen minutes later they reach the Menik Ganga.
This river had to be crossed to reach the holy shrine. There were no bridges to cross the river then. Pilgrims had to wade it on foot laden with luggage and children. Once the devotees set foot on the sacred soil, they knelt down and touched the ground with their foreheads to give thanks to God for having brought them safely. This done they break a coconut at the temple gates once more in thanksgiving.
Fatigued by the journey they seek shelter in 'madams' within the temple area. Early next day after a dip in the river, and clad in clean clothes they set about making their offerings. Some fulfill their vows by offering silver and gold ornaments, silk or money depending on the nature of the vow. Some do penance by rolling on the ground around the shrine thrice. Others undertake various forms of mortification, sometimes gruesome to watch like hanging on a hook on the back or pricking the whole body with tiny needle-like spears.
A trek to Sella Kataragama
Kataragama, another six miles through the jungle, and is a must to complete the pilgrimage. Here they bathe in the upper reaches of the Menik Ganga offer milk rice or sweet rice to Ganapati besides distributing alms to the poor and needy.
During this pilgrimage one should not make silly mistakes in speech. No fish or meat is consumed. Neither is alcohol to be taken. Treating the pilgrimage as a joke, with sing-song and romancing was taboo. Every person is addressed as 'swami'. Hindus believe that God Kataragama could sometimes manifest himself in the form of a human being.
What a contrast Kataragama is today! Attractive village belles in cloth and jacket seated in 'Aappa kades' put up in the town area use their charms to inveigle young men to sell hoppers. The right 'connections' could even produce liquor at anytime of the day or night in this holy sanctuary. It would not be surprising if a range of drugs was also available.
Some vendors direct pilgrims to places where they could obtain a mal vattiya. This is also a 'must' at the Devale, along with a pandura of not less than Rs. 20. Hindus and Muslims of course do not offer the mal vattiya. They enter the temple to pray in their own manners. Such devotees are not given much consideration by the temple authorities.
Development is welcome, but not commercialisation of religion, specifically at a shrine held sacrosanct by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims alike.
But that is the tragedy of Kataragama today.