1940 Esala Festival in Kataragama

Kataragama Maha Devale, 1935
1935 archival photo (left to right): Ganapati Kovil, Maha Devale, Teyvani Amman Kovil gate

By M. Chandrasoma

Early in July 1940 the Chief Secretary ordered me by telegram to report within the week at Badulla. Here too I was to be Office Assistant, but OA in a provincial as opposed to a district kachcheri, which I persuaded myself was something of a lift-up. The next day I had a telegram from the Government Agent, Uva, which revealed the real reason for the sudden move.

He ordered me to go direct to Kataragama, get there by the eleventh and assume duties as Supervising Officer of the Esala festival pilgrim camp. The festival was due to start on the twelfth. I was also told that I would be relieved on the nineteenth by a more senior officer who would assume charge for the more important, largely attended final week culminating in the fire-walking and water-cutting ceremonies.

Though born in the south and knowing of the Kataragama shrine by hearsay and local legend, this was the first I had heard of the Esala festival. I had not the faintest idea what it was and, more to the point, what I was supposed to do as supervising officer. My chief at Puttalam whom I consulted had never seen Kataragama but knew there were two annual festivals there on the analogy of Munneswaram of Chilaw in our own district.

But Esala at Kataragama was as important in its own way, he said, as the Kandy perahera. The gathering of from ten to twenty thousand pilgrims in a village in the middle of the jungle that housed about two hundred people living a simple life was a far cry however from the urban spectacle of the Kandy perahera.

In sole charge

As supervising officer, he told me, I should be in sole charge of the camp and be responsible for everything that happened there. With typical British insouciance he told me, “Rather you than me, old boy.”

I had then been in service just over two and a half years of which the first two were spent as a cadet without specific responsibility. I had hardly found my feet in what was to be my life’s work to be sent to a jungle shrine, miles and hours from the centre of what then passed for civilisation to fend for myself and from ten to twenty thousand pilgrims was daunting enough. When these were single-mindedly god-seeking not to say fanatical beings with hardly a thought for mundane things and without adequate shelter, sanitation and most other needs, the prospect did not bear thinking of.

And to be sent there without one single word of briefing was the typical British way of doing things. Thrown in at the deep end, you took a deep breath and hopefully swam.

So I railed my household goods, packed a few bags and drove south in my old car with my wife, child and ayah. My wife had no intention of braving the rigours of jungle life with an infant in arms. So I left her with friends in Colombo, went to Cargills, bought some quinine and aspirin and two dozen pints of Beck’s beer before heading for Kataragama.

Foot pilgrims en route from Tissamaharama to Kataragama, mid-1940s
Foot pilgrims en route from Tissamaharama to Kataragama, mid-1940s
Nine hours later, after a dusty and tiresome drive, I was at the Tissa Rest House savouring the fresh breeze blowing from across the tank.

The rest house was a cozy island in a sea of pandemonium. Here was the end of the road. Beyond all of ten miles to the shrine was what the British called a bridle path. Every year, before the Esala festival, this rude track was roughly hacked on either side to permit a bullock cart to make its way.

In places, the gradient, the terrain, stumps, stones and declivities together with the danger of meeting wild animals made the cart journey bone-shaking and hazardous.

The resthouse keeper gave me dinner, some insight into local conditions and arranged for a bullock cart to take me and my baggage to Kataragama. Leaving my car in his care, I boarded the cart for what turned out to be a journey I can still vividly recall.

Sleepy village

Outside the resthouse hundreds of pilgrims milled around preparing for the final and most rewarding, because the most arduous, lap of their pilgrimage. At that time Kataragama was nowhere in sight of becoming the sort of religious tourist resort it now is.

It was a shrine in the middle of the jungle and prized and venerated as such. Pilgrims came there only during the two festivals: a trickle for the minor and an avalanche for the major. It was not unusual for devotees from afar to spend months on the journey. For the rest of the year, Kataragama was a sleepy, forgotten village making valiant efforts to stay alive, unvisited and unaided by the outside world.

The first of the pilgrim borders was now on the march to the major festival. Torches flared, cook fires, smoked and newcomers kept swelling the crowd. Garbed variously, they made such a multitude as I had never seen before. Most were in saffron, yellow or white, bare bodies streaked with varicolored holy ash. Kavadi bearers of both sexes danced with other-worldly eyes, drums throbbed and flutes shrilled.

The more devout had spikes and hooks driven into their cheeks or the fleshier parts of their bodies. In paradisial ecstasy, with the blood in their untended wounds miraculously stanched, they gave no sign of feeling the slightest discomfort. Indeed their predominant emotion was one of elation. Shouts of “Haro Hara” rose up on all sides.

There were some who had vowed to crawl and some to roll along the ground all of this last stretch from Tissa to Kataragama. And they set out on their grotesquely devout journeys encouraged and urged on by their well-wishers.

There was yet some thirty-six hours before the festival would begin. As we made our slow way in the bullock cart, the road was as a mass of slow moving, seething humanity in every stage of religious fervour. So passed a night in which, while I fitfully dozed in the cart, reality and dreams, one no stranger than the other, merged.

I remember that the cart stopped for half an hour on a rumour of wild elephants having attacked two villagers in a chena some distance from the road. Long before dawn we reached the banks of the Menik Ganga, in which devotees who meant to go to the pre-dawn pooja were already taking their baths.

There was then no bridge. We forded the river and struggled up the steep, deeply rutted incline of the further bank, all of us literally putting our shoulder to the wheel. And so we reached the main street of Kataragama village.

Isolated village

At that time Kataragama was an isolated village connected to other human habitations only by jungle paths. The chief ones of these were the track to Tissa and that to Buttala, the path that Duttugemunu took on his way north to fight the Tamils. It had two parallel streets, the inner main on leading to the devala and the outer skirting the further side of the village.

Courtyard of Kataragama Maha Devale, mid-1940s
Courtyard of Kataragama Maha Devale, mid-1940s

The streets were lined with the villages’ wattle and daub huts which transformed themselves into exotic bazaars during the festival. On the left of the main street, separated from the devala premises only by a path leading to the river, was one of the few brick built houses in the village. This was the office and home when he was in residence at Kataragama of the Basnayake Nilame who, at that time, happened also to be the Ratmahatmaya.

Another brick building fronting the outer street was a madama built and run by a religious body. This gave shelter and food to all comers up to the limit of its resources.

The circuit bungalow behind the devala in which I was to live was a wattle and daub whitewashed building with mud floors. The dispensary at the further end of the village was a half-walled building backed by two rooms, one the dispensary and the other the living quarters of the dispenser, while the half-walled dormitory was the single patients’ ward.

Another building at the same end of the village but on the main street was the temporary police station. Officers’ quarters located to one side of the bare land between the devala and Kirivehera had permanent cement flooring on which cadjan huts were erected for use during the festival.

Arrived at the circuit bungalow I was greeted in kindly fashion by the bungalow keeper who, however, was not sharp enough to suppress a start of surprise at my colour, for hitherto the camp had been supervised only by Britishers.

Forgotten guru

He showed me round the bungalow, proudly exhibited the English bath in the bucket-type lavatory and bathroom and offered me hot water for my bath. I asked him whether I could not bathe in the river. He said of course I could and when I got into a sarong and set out for the river with a towel across my shoulder all restraint between us vanished and we became friends.

That morning I received a thorough and imaginatively realistic briefing on the festival: its purport, the many potential difficulties and dangers, how best to avoid them and what my general duties were. This was given me by the bungalow keeper in a sensible and convincing manner.

He was prepared to answer my questions and not think them silly. No high official however knowledgeable and experienced could have been as sympathetic, perspicacious and relevant.

During those two hours I learnt more about how to be an administrator than in a whole year before or since. Apart from educating me, this man born and bred in a village saw to my every personal need without my having to raise a finger.

And though I went back on duty for three successive Esala festivals, I cannot now recall this gentleman’s name. Such is the sum of man’s gratitude to his best mentors.

Later the village headman came to see me and with him I called on the Basnayake Nilame. He, poor man, was busily donning his ceremonial dress to go and pay his respects to the newly arrived supervising officer and was visibly upset that I had ignored normal protocol.

I explained that it was my place to call on the Basnayake Nilame and in any case I was twenty-six to his fifty. He was pleased and this first meeting blossomed into a lifelong loyal friendship.

On returning to the bungalow, my friend the bungalow keeper had a pint of Beck’s ready to alleviate the thirst of the hot day. I opened the beer and one swallow convinced me that the beer was flatter than a flat tyre and about as welcome. I do not know who was at fault: Becks or Cargills or me for daring to bring a drink beer in hallowed precincts.

But I made a quick decision and asked the bungalow keeper to do what he liked with the rest of the beer and have not, to this day, partaken of intoxicating drinks even to the extent of a beer at Kataragama or on my way there.

Within the week, though, I had authentic reports from the police that illicit liquor was freely sold and consumed in the scrub jungle surrounding the village.

My day at Kataragama started with a dip in the river. Before breakfast every other day I went with the public health inspector to supervise the closing of the used trenches, which provided the lavatory facilities for the pilgrims, and the digging of fresh trenches.

These had to be measured and vouchers certified for payment to the contractor. The trenches were on the perimeter of the village away from the river. This duty rarely whetted my appetite for breakfast.

After breakfast I went to the police station, examined the books, looked at prisoners locked up in the cells who usually were petty larcenists and pickpockets, listened to anything they had to say and then to such intelligence as the inspector had to give me. Then across to the dispensary and a look at the inmates of the temporary hospital warded in the half-walled part of the building.

A chat with the dispenser if it was the Hambantota doctor’s visiting day an exhaustive evaluation of the health of the camp followed. A tour of the main pilgrim centres which were out in the open and the madama ended with a visit to the Basnayake Nilame who regaled me with a glass of orange juice.

Back to the police station and a special room which was the temporary magistrate’s court. Here I heard the cases and within the hour the work was done, verdicts given and appropriate sentences handed down to the guilty.

While the court clerk collected the fines, I became the fiscal and offenders sentenced to gaol were entrusted to fiscal’s officers to be taken and delivered to the gaol at Hambantota.

If there were no complainants or petitioners awaiting me at the circuit bungalow, my routine for the day was over.

Every third morning or evening I crossed the river and did a six mile walk and back down the path to Tissa with the village headman. I took with me two official books: a form of permit to occupy crown land and a receipt book.

I inspected every patch of land on which a stall had been erected, measured it, wrote out a permit for its occupation for a specified period with a rough plan identifying its situation, decided what rent to charge and collected the money for which I issued an official receipt. As new stalls kept coming up every day, periodical walks to the boundary between Uva and the Southern Province became obligatory.

Apart from the main devala of Lord Kataragama in which kovils to several other deities have sprung up in outbuildings, there are two other temples. On the left almost adjoining the main devala is the temple of Theivanai Amma, God Kataragama’s consort. At the further end of the village is the temple of Valli Amma, who is the god’s girl friend.

The purport of the procession, which takes place every evening of the festival, is simple. God Kataragama comes out of his abode in the evening, makes his way to his consort’s temple and disports himself there making all the noise he can to impress on his wife’s mind the fact of his presence.

When he has established a convincing alibi, he sneaks quietly down the outer street to the temple of his mistress. Then after a suitable interval, with flute, drum and fanfare, he comes jauntily down the main street and triumphantly enters his temple.

Apart from the dignitaries of the temple, the kapuralas and the people bound to render specific services such as drumming and piping, the procession is composed of devotees fulfilling vows for favours received or suppliants for future favours.

They may be persons walking sedately in contemplative mood or kavadi dancers or those interceding with or giving thanks to the god in extraordinary ways such as crawling, prostrating themselves in the dust every few yards, dragging carts with hooks driven into the meagre flesh next to their spines or in mortifying their flesh in strange ways.

There was a man who year after year hanged himself on a mobile scaffold and followed the procession to give thanks to the god for saving him from the gallows. All this made for a distinctive, colourful... after all, the god’s mount is the peacock ... and never-to-be forgotten spectacle.

Before the end of the week I had a telegram from the Government Agent. I should continue at Kataragama for the second week, wind up the camp and report at Badulla as soon as I reasonably could. There was a war on and I hoped the letter of explanation I wrote my wife would persuade her to view my predicament with sympathy and understanding.

On the Second Week

Though annoyed at the moment of receiving the telegram, I am thankful that I had the experience of that second week. The crowds grew practically to the twenty thousand mark and the fire and fervour of the pilgrims knew no bounds. There was magic in the Kataragama air and those who have not felt it cannot imagine it.

Worship atop Katiramalai, 1940s
Worship atop Katiramalai, 1940s
Devotees climbing Vedahitikanda, mid-1940s
Devotees climbing Vedahitikanda, mid-1940s

This second week gave us time to make trips to Sella Kataragama a few miles upstream, the romantic spot where the god met his young and pretty mistress for the first time, and to Vedahitikanda, the most hallowed of the seven peaks of the Kataragama range. Bathing at Sella Kataragama in the swift-flowing clear and cool boulder-strewn river followed by a picnic lunch was an exhilarating as breakfasting on thosey and sambal on Vedahitikanda at dawn after an invigorating climb in the dark with torches to light our way up.

Fortunately no disaster struck the camp and responsibilities lay easy on my inexperienced shoulders. Day succeeded eventful and exciting day and we approached the climax of the festival: the fire-walking ceremony in the early hours of the last night which was also the night of the full moon.

The high spot of staying the second week was the opportunity of seeing the fire-walking. This was something I had heard about but never seen. I listened avidly to what everyone had to say about it and gathered all the information I could. But on the day itself it exceeded all our expectations because of a most unusual, unscheduled event that has remained inexplicable to this day.

But let me tell the story as it happened. By three o’clock in the morning we had taken the station allotted to us by the Basnayake Nilame. This was a high stand to the left of the devala as we looked towards the entrance. On this three chairs had been placed for us: the doctor, the superintendent of police and me. Other officials were grouped round us.

We could see everything above the heads of the calmly and patiently seated crowd of massed pilgrims who were in two half circles on either side of the fire-walking pit. This was about twenty feet long by six wide. At the time we took our seats, flaming logs were lying higgledy piggledy covering the whole of the pit.

It was explained to us that those who had the call to walk the fire, and these included women and children, would already have reported to the fire-walker-in-chief. This position was held for a number of years by a man who had been chosen by the god who came to him in a dream. Apart from him the others were ordinary people who had no experience of fire-walking.

Led by the chief they would in a short time go in procession to the river for a ritual bath. They would return in their wet garments, make their obeisances to the god at the gate, walk to the edge of the pit, salute the glowing coals and walk the length of the pit to the entrance of the devala. While they bathed the now flaming logs would be reduced to lumps of burning embers and evenly spread full to the brim of the pit.

Unresolved mystery

The procession of fire-walkers had formed themselves and had just left for the river. A hush of expectancy fell on the crowd. And then it happened.

The logs were still flaming, some of the tongues of flame sporadically rising as high as a man’s waist in the moonlight and the soft early morning breeze. A man standing among those at the entrance to the devala suddenly broke away from his fellows, walked purposefully to the pit and without hesitation walked over the length of it towards the gate. I saw him clearly as did all the others beside me.

He was a dark, somewhat gross man, bare-bodied and I could see the folds of flesh in his underbelly just above the verti he wore. Sweat glistened on his brow and chest as he stepped on the flaming logs. I actually heard the crunch of the crackling, burning wood as the logs took his weight. In a moment he was across.

Calmly he turned right, walked unhurriedly to the first row of pilgrims seated on the side away from us and sat down. We jumped out of our chairs immediately we overcame our momentary stupefaction and pushed across to where all of us clearly saw the man sit down. But no such man was there. Only a lean, grey haired pilgrim who said he had been sitting there for the best part of an hour.

The fire-walking that year had to await the subsidence of the considerable hubbub this unusual event created. Various opinions were expressed but the mystery remained unresolved. To this day I have heard no feasible explanation of what I undoubtedly saw.

After that the fire-walking, at least to me, was something of an anti-climax. All the elect, men, women and children, walked over the smouldering fire with resolution and without mishap. The doctor examined the soles of those who walked the fire and saw only bare feet with not a vestige of singeing.

We talked to some of them and found them simple folk starry-eyed with the wonder of what they had done in humility and faith.

What remained of the festival up to the water-cutting ceremony later that morning which brought to an end that year’s Esala festival was done with due decorum.

I stayed behind a couple of days in a fast emptying camp until the last of the trenches was filled and Kataragama reverted to something like its drowsy normality.

Then giving thanks to god Kataragama for helping me face my responsibilities without mishap and resolving to return next year, I crossed the river and got into my bullock cart.


From Vignettes of the Ceylon Civil Service 1938-1957
This article also appeared in The Daily News (Colombo) of Wednesday, 16 August 1995