Jungle shrine turned bazaar!

Effects of tourism on Kataragama

The Nation of Sunday, 5 August 2012
by Sandun Jayawardana and Sajitha Prematunge

Kataragama Jungle shrine turned  bazaar

“There are more bungalows, rest houses and hotels than houses in Kataragama now. The people have become ‘money-minded,” complained circuit bungalow keeper Dayananda Dissanayake. He maybe a government circuit bungalow keeper doing his job, but his children are being raised in a deteriorating culture. Maybe in a few years he would move his children to be educated elsewhere, but for now he can only hope that his offspring will not be led astray. “Only last year a parent had sold their child for prostitution!” exclaimed a wide-eyed Dayananda.

Two weeks of the festival period coinciding with the Esala full moon brings pilgrims and tourists to Kataragama by the thousands. This year the flag hoisting ceremony at Kataragama took place on July 19, Maha Perahera on August 1 and Water Cutting Ceremony the following day. But the toll on Kataragama due to the arrival of hordes of people is more evident than before because the purpose behind their visit here has more to do with tourism rather than making a pilgrimage. Despite its various negative aspects, the people of Kataragama, as in any other place, have embraced tourism because it’s lucrative.

Child prostitution, mentioned by Dayananda, is almost exclusively a result of tourism. Tourism entails a host of other problems such as the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol abuse and gambling. The advent of this new money making trend, which feeds on tourism, has disrupted rural culture, caused the decline in rural traditional and cultural practices, replaced traditional houses with modern buildings and undermined the presence of agriculture. Illegal and often destructive activities carried out in the name of tourism contribute to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS.

Commercialized like Colombo

According to health officials in the Kataragama area, HIV and STD is on the rise. They complain that cultural values have deteriorated so much so that the only way to coax people to attend clinic is to say that they’ll get a free packet of lunch. “There is no village atmosphere here anymore,” complained one health officer, who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s all commercialized like Colombo.”

Peradeniya University Professor of Psychology and Philosophy, Desmond Mallikarachchi said all religious rituals were marketed in a capitalist world ruled by commercialism. Even the Kandy Dalada Perahera has been marketed since the time of the British as a tourist attraction, and Kataragama was no different.

Mallikarachchi pointed out that when it comes to the Dalada Perahera, seats that offer the best vantage points of the Perahera cost as much as Rs.10000 or higher, prices which are far out of the range of locals. However, the high-priced seats are inexpensive from a Western tourist’s perspective. “Many of these tourists have no real understanding of the history, cultural value or religious significance of the Perahera, and most don’t really care. They just want to experience it and take lots of photographs and videos to show their friends back home,” he said. He pointed out that as a result of the best vantage points being given to foreigners; locals who truly appreciate the perahera aren’t able to experience it better.

Trade centre

“In this country, like others, the government’s focus is on how to increase tourist arrivals, and what better way to appeal to them (tourists) than to market such rituals? Tourism is a trade and marketing religious and cultural rituals is one of the best ways to go about it,” he explained. Mallikarachchi claimed that Kataragama is no longer a religious institution, but “a trade centre”, where even God Kataragama is a marketable commodity.

“Statues and pictures of God Kataragama are now available in shops throughout Kataragama. The place is marketed on the internet as a tourist attraction and much commercial hype is generated. There is no religious value behind any of it,” he lamented.

Referring to the ritual of bathing in the Manik Ganga while in Kataragama, Mallikarachchi pointed out that many tourists who come to Kataragama bathe in the river after getting drunk and smoking, in plain sight of everyone else present.

All in all, whatever goes on in Kandy and Kataragama during these times are no longer rituals, but have been commercialized and marketed under the capitalist system, he said.

Editor of kataragama.org and Kataragama devotee, Patrick Harrigan forewarned the dangers of commercial exploitation of culturally sensitive sites as Kataragama. He reiterated the importance of conducting studies on its ecological and cultural dimensions. He rebukes the rich and alienated ‘Colombo people’, for their unchecked meddling in Kataragama that has resulted in destructive and irreversible commercialization and so-called development activities. He terms the Kataragama environ as a ‘jungle shrine turned bazaar’. He pointed out that most decisions taken in the name of ‘development’, such as trying to rid Kataragama of the beggar ‘menace’, are often misguided.

Western development models

“Pumping money into Kataragama only serves to shroud its magic even further,” said Harrigan. “Already in 1990 irreversible changes were set in motion by politicians’ wily-nily plans to exploit Sri Lanka’s ancient (and still not properly understood) cultural and natural heritage for their own political ends by forcing Western models of ‘development’ upon the very places and institutions which governments elsewhere have the foresight and courage to protect,” said he.

Echoing Harrigan’s views Sociologist Praneeth Abeysundara explained that the same thing befell Hikkaduwa, now commercially known as ‘Hikka’. “Deviant behavior such as drug and alcohol abuse and homosexuality, observed in commercially booming areas such as Hikka, are direct results of tourism gone unchecked,” explained Abeysundara. He emphasized that Sri Lanka is in the process of being modernized and it’s not an easy ride.

Unchecked development

“Poverty is a problem which people would do anything to get out of,” opined Abeysundara. According to him another reason for the rapidly changing Kataragama culture is the development in the transport sector. Abeysundara explained that the Gam Udawa of President Premadasa regime tolled the death knell to the traditional Kataragama culture. “Although done with good intension, newly built roads under the project provided easy access to the area,” he said. Kataragama used to be the final destination of an arduous journey made by cart and foot, entered into with the utmost piety, explained Abeysundara. “This has changed with the rapid, unchecked development of transport. The pilgrimage has now turned into a picnic. However, although this is no longer the way with the Sinhala people, the Tamils still make their Pada Yatra with much devotion.

“Although pipe-borne water is available, residents vandalize pipes, collect water in buckets and sell it,” revealed Abeysundara. These money-minded people show no fear or shame of cunning, lying, steeling or corruption, he said adding, “This results in the crumbling of social control.”

God Kataragama's Headquarters

“Kataragama is like the Headquarters of God Kataragama,” said Retired Jayawardhanapura University Sociology and Anthropology professor, Tennyson Perera. “Devotees from all walks of life congregate there,” Perera said. He explained that during the earliest Kataragama culture, pilgrims visited Kataragama during three reasons – 1. to seek the protection of God, 2. to make or fulfill a vow, 3. to suppress enemy influence. “But the scenario has changed. The purpose of visiting Kataragama has changed,” explained Perera. “Local tourists come to Kataragama now in search of pleasure,” said Perera.

According to Perera this has caused the creation of a new sub culture. “This is a precarious situation,” warned Perera. “Sub cultures are always lucrative and Kataragama is a commercial town now.” This is evident by the mushrooming holiday inns and bungalows. “People who visit Kataragama and even most residents for that matter lack religious and economic discipline,” he affirmed. Perera pointed out that the same thing has already happened to Chilaw, Hikkaduwa and Anuradhapura and unless the government intervenes, Kataragama is in danger of following suit.

Comment by Kataragama.org editor Patrick Harrigan

"I applaud The Nation and thank Sandun Jayawardana and Sajitha Prematunge for drawing public attention to the unfortunate and perhaps now irreversible effects of willy-nilly 'development' of Kataragama spurned on by self-serving politicians for the past 40+ years since the rule of Mrs. Bandaranaike.

While other nations of East and West have recognized and protected their cultural and religious assets, Sri Lankans have only themselves to thank for never once pausing to consider the consequences of commercializing the once-rural shrine of Kataragama that was unique in all the world, and driving out or silencing the custodians of its hoary spiritual traditions in order to pander to commercial interest.

In my 1990 article "Kali Yuga comes to Kataragama" and ever since then, I had warned of the immeasurable loss to Sri Lanka and the world if politicians are given free run to smother Sri Lanka's spiritual and cultural heritage beneath a veritable tsunami of Government-directed schemes in order to pay homage to 'Deviyange Malli'--the monstrous urban mentality that is now devouring every corner of Sri Lanka.

Perhaps only when Kataragama's traditional spirituality is completely suffocated, Sri Lankans will realize their collective folly of placing their faith in politicians and 'dancing for dollars' to appease the insatiable appetite of the demonic urban mentality that today rules Sri Lanka. This is indeed the 'Reign of Quantity' that Rene Guenon and others warned us of long ago."

Courtesy: The Nation (Colombo) of Sunday, 5 August 2012