Vel, Murugan's weapon

Foot Pilgrimage from Tissamaharama to Kataragama in the 1940s

Foot pilgrims en route from Tissamaharama to Kataragama, mid-1940s
Foot pilgrims en route from Tissamaharama to Kataragama, mid-1940s
Courtyard of Kataragama Maha Devale, mid-1940s
Courtyard of Kataragama Maha Devale, mid-1940s
by Daya Lelwela

I would have been about ten years old when my parents, uncles and neighbours organized such a pilgrimage to Kataragama way back once in the 1940s when we were living in our ancestral village of Galwadugoda, Galle.

Up to Tissamaharama we traveled in a hired bus with what was called a ‘Nelson' body which was open on the two sides with rows of parallel seats across the bus from the front to the rear. The elements were kept at bay with a canvas tarpaulin hung from either side of the roof. The driver had to make do with gadol brakes (mechanical) and a hand operated blow horn (a bigger version of the the type carried by an ice cream man on bicycle).

On arrival at Tissamaharama, my uncle arranged three double bullock carts for that part of the journey to Kataragama which was a pilgrimage in the truest sense of the word. Beyond Tissamaharama at that time there existed only a jungle track along which only carts were used for travel during the two weeks of the festival period coinciding with the Esala full moon. There were only traces of a cart track every now and then. These carts were exclusively for passenger use and hence clean and well kept with well thatched roofs. Most carts doing this journey would travel in a convoy for mutual safety. For not only did we have to venture into the thick forest cover for the eleven miles, but keep away the wild beasts using the flaming torches that we were to carry, and making as much noise as possible on the way. If one cart was to get stuck, the other carters wouldn't move until it was helped out. Despite the relative danger, night travel over that stretch was preferred to avoid the intense heat during the day.

The carters became virtual Nade Guras (the leaders for the group) because of their experience doing this trip regularly. They were equipped for any eventuality. Lanterns, improvised flame torches to be lit on the way, a knife, a sword, an axe etc to cut and remove foliage and branches if necessary on a detour, were ready at hand. All baggage - pots, pans, mats and dry rations were secured in the underbelly of the carts which also carried straw for the bulls. The roofs of the carts were well thatched with cadjan and the sides were decorated. The bulls had a row of bells strung round their necks that would be tinkling all the way. Women and children along with the elderly men sat inside the carts. All others would walk the 11 miles. The younger men were ready with tools to clear the way ahead or to help the tired bulls to negotiate humps, protruding rocky surfaces and similar difficult spots on the way by putting their hands on the cart wheels and levering them.

We left Tissamaharama after dinner. We had a brief stop at Bogaha Pelessa, somewhere midway for hot hoppers off the fire and katta sambol topped up with a plain tea while the bulls would also be untied for a well deserved rest. We reached Kataragama late in the morning of the next day. Though an uneventful journey, we were kept in suspense all the way.

The scene at Kataragama at the time was calm and tranquil, befitting the environment of a holy religious place. Even talking to one another was in subdued tone. All pilgrims on arrival could set up camp in the vast expanse of land on the right bank of the Menik ganga in a place of their choice. The carters knew exactly what to do. They kept the three carts to form the three sides of a square with the fourth side free for access. The enclosed space was employes as best as possible for our short stay. Mother spread out the mats, pots and pans brought from home. We relaxed while the ladies got started cooking the mid day meal. The men helped with scraping coconuts etc.

Once the cooking was done, we walked down to the water's edge of Menik ganga. The river was meandering along, quiet and slow as if to pay homage to the holy abode of God Kataragama. The water looked pure and clean. The river left pools on water along its course, ideal for children and the elderly to safely take a dip and join others in washing away their sins ‘spiritually' and their dirt ‘physically', before crossing over to the sanctified atmosphere of the holy place on the opposite side of the Menik ganga. As we immersed our tired selves in the cool waters of the river, thereby also dissipating the midday heat as well, we felt as if it was the magic of the water that made us feel so refreshingly fit thereafter to spend the remaining hours of the day in the scorching heat.

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

We worshipped the Kirivehera which had been newly colour washed for the occasion to a brilliant white, walked up to the kovil of God Kataragama in time to participate in the pooja and returned to have late lunch at the improvised open air camp. We spent the night at Kataragama and resumed our journey the next morning going back to Tissamaharama through the bear infested Katagamuwa and the historic Sithulpahuwa where some twelve thousand Arahats are supposed to have lived during the time Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka, and finally to Kirinda where we met our bus to return home.

Since those early days, visitors to Kataragama could witness the gradual deterioration of the city, both spiritually and physically. With increasing numbers of pilgrims who began visiting Kataragama outside of the festival period all round the year, and more settlers who began living there, the first victim of pollution was the Manik ganga. The pure and clean water of the river that was once believed to be fit enough to wash away the ‘sins of pilgrims', began getting so polluted that it lost its purity, significance and its role. The water became so unclean that visitors would rather go without the wash for fear of disease. Unlike the pilgrims of yesteryear who would sit besides the river bank in peaceful contemplation, we see merry makers dancing baila to the raucous strains of the accompanying music.

Courtesy: The Island of Saturday February 7, 2010

The writer is a former General Manager of Sri Lanka Railways.