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Hindu Kataragama:
Interview with Purnanand Giri Swami
HH Kanchi Sankaracharya (seated at left) appointed Pūrnānand Giri Swami (center) as Mathadhipati and Vigyānānand Ashram Swami (right) as Deputy Abbot of Kataragama Teyvanai Amman Math in January 2000.
Mathadhipati Pūrnānand Giri Swami (left) and his deputy Vigyānānand Ashram Swami direct the Temple's large-scale cooking operation during the 2001 Esala festival.

Swami Purnanand Giri is interviewed by Patrick Harrigan
(Colombo: The Sunday Observer of Sunday, 10 August 2003)

In 2000 His Holiness Jagatguru Sankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, Śrī Jayendra Saraswati Mahaswamigal, appointed a distinguished North Indian Dasanami sannyasin, Purnanand Giri Swami,as Trustee and Mathadhipati (abbot) of Kataragama Teyvanai Amman Kovil and Math. The resonant voice of a gifted and vigorous new mathadhipati now fills Kataragama's kovils and matham once again to the delight of Tamil and Sinhala devotees. The Mathadhipati, who is conversant in Hindi, Sanskrit and English, agreed to be interviewed during the Esala festival. Excerpts:

Q: Swamiji, you are originally from North India where you maintain a large ashram in Haryana. You speak neither Tamil nor Sinhala, and yet the Kanchi Shankaracharya appointed you to run Kataragama Teyvanai Amman Kovil and Math. Why did His Holiness appoint a North Indian sannyasin?

Ven. Purananand: I did not come here of my own accord. His Holiness appointed me because Kataragama Teyvanai Amman Devasthanam preserves an ancient North Indian parampara (lineage). That parampara must continue. This temple was founded long ago by a North Indian Dasanami sannyasin parampara-shishya of Bhagavan Śrī Dattatreya named Swami Kalyana Giri. All my predecessors belonged to the same Dasanami order.

This ancient institution also has modern legal recognition thanks to Śrī Maharaj Kesopuri Swami. Better known as Pal Kudi Baba, the great yogi saint founded the Thevayani Amman Temple Trust shortly before his samadhi in 1898. He particularly specified in his trust deed that only Dasanami sannyasi parampara shishyas of Bhagavan Dattatreya may be appointed as Trustee.

Q: Why do you think His Holiness gave you this difficult appointment?

Ven. Purnanand: No doubt, it is a great honour to be selected by such an eminent person as His Holiness. He must be having confidence in me for some reason. To undertake such a difficult assignment as this, especially when one comes from a distant place where the language and customs and food are so different, is sure to be a great challenge. It may be a lifelong challenge. By the grace of Bhagavan Śrī Dattatreya and Lord Kataragama Skanda, I hope to be worthy of our great tradition.
Goddess Teyvanai Amman
Goddess Teyvanai Amman (Skt. Devasenā), Lord Murugan's spouse and presiding deity of Teyvanai Amman Kovil, Kathirkamam. (Temple curtain at Kathirkamam, 2001)

Q: Do any rituals of Kataragama originate from North India also?

Ven. Purnanand: Yes surely. The rituals performed at all the temples of Kataragama may be traced to the great ancient Gorakhnath Temple of the Adinath Sampradaya at Gorakhpur in North India established by the great siddha master Gorakh Nath himself. Arathi puja and the tying of the mouth shut are examples of Kataragama traditions which hail originally from North India.

Q: Who is Bhagavan Dattatreya?

Ven. Purnanand: Bhagavan Dattatreya is the avatara of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva combined into one. He is the adi sannyasin, the primordial renunciate. He is our adi guru and guardian of our sampradaya (school).

Q: How did your Dasanami Order originally become involved in Kataragama, so far from North India?

Ven. Purnanand: Centuries ago, the Kataragama God's senior spouse Tevayani Amman prompted Kalyana Giri Swami to leave North India and come South to locate her missing husband Lord Skanda and bring him home. Kalyana Giri Swami finally found Lord Skanda in Kataragama. He requested the Lord to accompany him back to India, but Valli Amma intervened and begged Kalyana Giri Swami not to take her husband away.

Kalyana Giri Swami never returned to India but remained and requested Tevayani Amman to come and settle in Kataragama also. Tevayani Amman came and since that time all three deities live together happily.

Q: Why does Teyvani Amman Matham serve annadanam to so many devotees? Ven. Purnanand: Teyvani Amman is the Lady of Lord Skanda's Kataragama residence. Whenever someone comes to His residence, Teyvani Amman will see that no one goes away hungry.

Not only Hindus but devotees of all communities, rich and poor alike, come in large numbers to enjoy the matham's tasty vegetarian meals, including wealthy urban devotees, pada yatra pilgrims, mothers with children, swamis, sadhus, and service personnel of the security forces. As a Devasthanam tradition, annadanam is prepared and offered twice daily on a mass scale for thousands of pilgrims, devotees and duty personnel of all communities during the Adi festival. All are welcome.

Q: Will visitors to Teyvani Amman Devasthanam notice any changes this year?

Ven. Purnanand: At this temple we are always looking for ways to serve Teyvani Amman and Her devotees better. Every year we find large or small ways to improve our service to the public. Discerning visitors may notice the difference.

With so many devotees coming to enjoy annadanam here daily, we were facing difficulties in how to serve everyone promptly as they arrive. From our experience in North India where there are even larger festivals, we have come up with an improved system both for cooking and for serving the public promptly and hygienically. Safe drinking water is another issue. We have completed boring a 300-foot deep well so we always have safe clean water for cooking and drinking, even when outside water is scarce.

Q: Thank you, Swamiji, for giving your precious time during this busy festival season. Do you have any advice for our readers?

Ven. Purnanand: There was a time when Kataragama was surrounded by jungle and peaceful atmosphere. This was a place for tapas and meditation. There was no way to come to Kataragama except by walking through jungle.

Kataragama's sanctity and peace should be respected and preserved. Every visitor has a responsibility to respect Kataragama's traditions. We do not bathe with soap in the sacred Menik Ganga, nor do we walk about wearing or carrying footwear. We should not play electronic music where devotees are already singing bhajana or reciting prayers. If one wishes to obtain the God's grace and is not ashamed to be a Hindu or a Buddhist, one should come attired as a devotee, not as tourist. The Kataragama God's grace is easy to obtain. So many have found it. Come with humility and you may obtain His grace also. Your life will be changed.

This article originally appeared in the online edition of The Sunday Observer in August 2003.

"Hindu Temple Worship" by HH the Kanchi Sankaracharya

For enquiries about Teyvayanai Amman Kovil and Matham, e-mail to D.M. Swaminathan

Traditions of Kataragama 2003 Interview Series
 Interview with Ven. Dr. Aluthwewa Soratha Thero of Kiri Vehera
Interview with Ruhunu Kataragama Maha Devale Basnayake Nilame Pradeep Nilanga Dhala Bandara
Interview with Śrī Purnanand Giri Swami of Teyvani Amman Devasthanam
Interview with M.H.A. Gaffar, Trustee of Kataragama Mosque & Shrine
Interview with Patrick Harrigan, Kataragama scholar devotee

Theivani Amman Devasthanam home page | Kalyanagiri and the Kalyana Mandapa
The life of Pal Kudi Bawa of Kathirkamam | Kriya Babaji and the ancient Kataragama shrine