Kataragama's Holistic Orientation:
An example of Oriental Cosmography

"It is not down on any map; true places never are." - Melville

Kataragama Divya Rajottama
Kataragama Divya Rajottama
Survey Dept map of Kataragama
Survey Department map of Kataragama. Click on map to view at full size.

The jungle shrine of Kataragama in southeastern Sri Lanka has long been a place of special interest to research scholars. For far longer, however, it has also been the object of determined scrutiny by yogis, mystics and savants of the traditional sciences who came from India and even further to practice and refine their arcane knowledge. This ongoing process has been continuing for uncounted centuries, resulting in an enormous body of esoteric lore that is only now coming to light.

During this vast span of time, Kataragama has repeatedly risen to prominence as a religious shrine and jungle deity by the same name, only to recede once again into sleepy obscurity. Even today, we are witnessing what is possibly the greatest revival in history of Kataragama both as an object of veneration and as a center of cultic practice for participants from many diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.

At the same time, there has been little modern research into Kataragama apart from narrow studies of its very recent economic and sociological transformations. This unbalanced state of research affairs has in turn left the field wide open for charlatans and pseudo-scholars to reap a rich harvest in pursuance of their own self-centered objectives. The need of the hour is for informed analysis rather than hollow piety, for objectivity rather than partisan hypocrisy.

Clearly, an urgent need exists for a fresh approach to Kataragama that concedes a mutual basis for all peoples and points of view, particularly those of longstanding connection with Kataragama over the centuries. If modern scholars can learn much from Kataragama, then it is equally true that everyone's understanding of Kataragama also stands to gain by the application of modern analytical methods to the body of traditional lore. This article is one such attempt to survey just a few of the modern techniques that have already served to shed new light on some of Kataragama's remarkable traditions, with special attention to its cosmography, the picture drawn of its place in an ordered universe of discourse.

Most of these 'modern research methods' are little more than applications of old-fashioned common sense in new ways. For example, for as long as anyone knows, the people who have come to Kataragama to learn something, whether for points in Sri Lanka or abroad, have always come in the role of supplicants, pilgrims, or devotees. Participation or experience, they learn, is still the best teacher apart from god Kataragama himself who, we are told, is the only real teacher there anyway. Such was the fear of people for god Kataragama that none would dare to make pronouncements about the nature of Kataragama without first receiving the god's permission to convey his message to others. Such fear is no longer as pervasive as before, but it is still advisable for scholars and others to exercise prudence before rushing in where even angels fear to tread.

Similarly, it is reasonable to assume that religious traditions are best studied and understood on their own terms. The leading theologians of East and west have been those who believe in that which they are also endeavoring to understand better. There is a notion persistent in certain academic quarters, however, that participation (Sanskrit: bhakti) in an oriental tradition actually somehow disqualifies participants from accurately describing the tradition they set out to understand. I believe that this is a mistaken notion that ought to be laid to rest once and for all.

In short, it is my conviction based upon years of specialized study that a holistic tradition such as that of Kataragama is best understood in equally holistic terms. By 'holistic' is meant here 'encompassing the entire field of implicit possibilities'. Above all, Kataragama is a state of grace (Tamil: arul) manifested on earth that many people have experienced in equally many ways. To encompass all this one needs an approach that is as the holistic tradition under study.

To order to achieve this ideal it is imperative that some attempt be made to integrate modern and traditional methodologies. Ironically, however, the last modern holdouts of obsolete colonial attitudes have been among modern researchers themselves, who still regard with scorn and disdain the techniques and findings of their humbler oriental counterparts who faithfully seek to preserve traditional schools of thought. I believe that a more complete understanding of Kataragama will emerge only when these two extremes are reconciled. For this a holistic approach is required, one that sees Kataragama as a vital functioning whole composed of many functional aspects.

If holistic integration is one important tool for understanding Kataragama, then synchronic analysis is another. Its opposite, diachronic analysis or the analysis of changes over the course of time, has been well-developed in the west where change has always received more attention than in the East where concern centres upon the Changeless or 'synchronic' identity underlying changeable appearances that change in the course of time.

Synchronic analysis, on the other hand, has been well developed here in the eastern world over the course of centuries. Examples are the Samkhya analytical system of classical Hindu metaphysics and the paticca samuppada or twelve-fold nexus of dependent origination postulated by Lord Gautama Buddha.

Synchronic analysis, which finds particularly effective application in literary and dramatic criticism, has only begun to find application in exploring Kataragama's convoluted 'deep structure'. It is an especially favorable tool for the study of states of pure being, something that is generally a matter of little concern in the study of various states of becoming or temporal causation that is the usual focus of most modern research. However, typically Oriental synchronic analysis may be. Its special suitability to the study of Kataragama is only to be expected.

The third modern analytical tool for the advanced study of ancient religious traditions such those of Kataragama is known as Structural analysis. Basically, structural analysis is the identification of patterns and processes of interaction between elements of a whole whereby the whole itself can be better understood. Linguistics, anthropology, and literary criticism are only three of the applications where structural analysis has proved to be especially fruitful. But anywhere patterns or structures are found analysis generally follows, and such is the case with the study of geophysics, astronomy, pure mathematics and almost every other modern science.

Because Kataragama is not only an oral story tradition that can be analyzed in literary terms but also a unique geographical setting and also a dynamic cultural phenomenon and object of great potential for in-depth anthropological study as well, the technique of structural analysis, when applied holistically, can yield extraordinary results of potential benefit to scholars and laity alike. Just how deeply the mystery that is Kataragama can be studied using structural analysis remains to be seen. But it should already be evident that significant discoveries may be expected. I should add here that any significant discoveries in Kataragama, traditionally speaking, come only with the guidance and cooperation of god Kataragama himself, who is said to be the Gurunathan or chief among all teachers.

Just briefly, a few of the findings in Kataragama that have come to light in recent years may be summarized as follows:

In terms of dramatic performance, structural evidence continues to mount suggesting the survival in Kataragama of a living tradition of initiatory mystery rites in dramatic form. The passion or mystery play of Kataragama, it would appear, structurally parallels two analogous themes of ricorso or return, namely the mystery of the sun's return to rise again in the east following its descent and disappearance each day in the west, and the even more mysterious return of the mythical solar hero person in the sun talaivan/bodhisattva familiar to peoples the whole world over.

Significantly, this magnificent paradigm of traditional holistic vision, replete with images of its ancient Gnostic sources, timeless traditional wisdom, has until now passed all but unnoticed by generations of Western-trained scholars. But it has yielded easily and naturally to the more sympathetic approach of participation. This alone should provide cause for reflection by scholars and others.

Strictly speaking, the entire mystery performance embodied in Kataragama's annual fortnight-long festivity is an invocation in word and gesture, an appeal or reminder directed to the person in the Sun for him to return and keep his primordial promise illuminate the world for the benefit of all humanity and life on earth. If so, this is truly an awesome theme and one that deserves careful consideration. Abusive praise and ironic reversal are only two of the subtle techniques still employed in this ancient dramatic tradition to convey timeless truths expressive of the entire classical rasa theory of traditional dramatic criticism. But this should not be taken to mean that there are not other techniques as well, for Kataragama is well known to be full of hidden surprises.

Similarly, in terms of linguistic analysis, Kataragama is also closely associated with an ongoing tradition of etymological exegesis, word-play including multi-lingual puns, and communication of hidden patterns of meaning through sandha bhasa, the 'twilight language' of multiple dual intentions. This tradition of double entendre, if simultaneously sacred profound and profane utterances/reference risqué connotations, is epitomized in the Sanskrit etymology of the alternative Katir-kama where the brilliance of katir of Kataragama is balanced by the dark intrigue of kama or erotic passion. It is wrong to say that Kataragama embraces one and rejects the other. The story is about both.

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to point out that whenever there is talk of scandal this god's name comes up at once immediately, for 'scandal' (literally, 'that which one cannot leap over') and Skanda ('the Leaper') both derive from the same Indo-European verbal root skand of Greek skandalon, 'snare' meaning 'to leap or spurt'. In the canonical Atharva Veda this same scandalous god is repeatedly called dhurta, which can only translate as 'rogue'.

Mention could also be made of the special study and application of mantra that is well-known to take place in Kataragama, or of the child-god's reputed superiority over even Lord Shiva himself in analyzing the mystical seed-syllable 'om'. Of greater relevance, I believe, is the fact of Kataragama's being situated on a linguistic border where misunderstandings often produce fresh insights concerning the human condition. Historically this has been a major source of inspiration over the centuries for Kataragama's ongoing artistic traditions.

For most people today, however, dramatic theory and linguistic analysis are sheer abstractions. But with modern tools like synchronic analysis researchers are also able to make surprising findings just by looking at Kataragama's geographical layout and comparing that which anyone can visit and see with the stories and legends that anyone can listen to and hear.

Indeed, Kataragama's traditional or sacred geography, as analyzed and understood using the methods just outlined, is precisely the topic and for which this discussion of the question of methodology is essential. Hence let us now turn our attention to questions of the traditional geography of Kataragama. Considering the preeminent role of cosmology in the Kataragama story, I believe it can be further shown that Kataragama even in the present day and age represents a classic example of traditional oriental cosmography, a mapping of the cosmos. The importance of holistic thinking should become clear to all who follow it.

We shall let us now consider the place, the story, and the god of Kataragama in terms of holistic integration analysis. All three of these are very elegantly represented in the abstract geometrical figure of the sadkona yantra, which is believed to be the central focus of veneration, worship, prayers and ritual at the great shrine of Kataragama. I say 'believed' because the mysterious object, whatever it may be, is never once even for a moment displayed but remains concealed within a small casket which itself is kept hidden from public view by a number of veils or screens. But even if there were nothing in it at all, this is the story as tradition preserves.

The sadkona yantra or hexagram is considered to be identical to god Skanda or Kumara Swami. Both, after all, have six faces in as many directions, as indicated by hi s ancient name Sanmukha or Arumukam (Tamil), the Six-Faced one.

Father Principle plus Mother Principle
Father Principle + Mother Principle => Divine Child

According to the oral tradition itself, still preserved here in Sri Lanka, the Sanmukha or sadkona yantra is formed or generated by the union of two simple equilateral triangles, the upward-pointing triangle representing the Shiva tattva or Father Principle and the downward-pointing triangle representing its reflection Prakrti, the Mother Principle. When these two principles of Light and Dark, Spirit and Matter, Katir-Logos and Kama-Eros are in balanced union, that life arises which is a combination of the two. This incarnation of Spirit into matter is the Holy Child, the Kumara.

In simple geometric terms, the Kumarasamhbava or genesis of the Divine Child may be represented as follows:

Furthermore, the oral tradition of Kataragama does not stop here but goes on to point out that the six-pointed star thus generated in plane geometric flat, two-dimensional space is in turn the representation of a three-dimensional cross matrix generated in solid geometric space consisting of six rays issuing in the six cardinal directions including zenith and nadir.

Labyrinth motif of passage to the sacred center from a straw mat woven in Kurunegala district.
The Labyrinth is a familiar motif in traditional Sri Lankan artistry. Above: an example of a traditional woven floor mat design preserved among women of rural Kurunegala district expressing the motif of passage to the sacred center. Two sacred animals—deer and elephant—guard the entrance.

It is worth printing out here that in this process just mentioned two simple figures of two-dimensional space are combined to suggest the introduction of additional higher dimension of the three-dimensional space that all of us actually live and breathe in. This third axis or higher dimension, furthermore, is none other than the axis mundi or vertical solar ray that shines upon the dark primordial waters or, in other words, grace descending upon matter. Hence, the Sanmukha or sadkona yantra both ideally represent the descent of grace in one direction or passage into another higher dimension of being in the other direction. Coincidentally, oral tradition to this day maintains that the entire geographical Kataragama is a magical labyrinth wherein devas, yakkas, siddhas and others move at will between various lokas or levels of existence. Certainly there are thousands today who gladly testify to the free availability in Kataragama of divine power and grace. Until now, no satisfactory hypothesis scientific explanation has yet been offered, but this is not to say that one is not possible.

In yogic terms, it is explained that the three-dimensional cross pinpoints the center or heart of the manifested world, the point from which all creative activity goes forth proceeds. This point, the oral tradition tells us, is always here and now (Tamil: ippo inke). It is found, in other words, deep within us or else nowhere non-existent at all. Most people, of course, find now-here to be nowhere.

This point situated at the center of space and time--here and now--is also said to be the seat of consciousness, the royal throne where Lord Skanda, Guha the hidden mysterious One, lies hiding as the one and only Enjoyer. It is here from this superb vantage point, of course, that he reads our every thought and witnesses every action of the cosmic drama that is his play. And he sees in all directions at once, which is to say that he sees everything. His connection with the axis mundi or world axis now begins to be more evident.

Axis Mundi: Kailasa in Tibet and Kataragama in the far south are analogised to the world axis of yogic lore.
Mt. Kailāsa in western Tibet and Kataragama in the far south of Sri Lanka form a near-perfect analog to the axis mundi or susumna nadi of yogic lore.

When we turn form the microcosmic perspective just outlined to the macrocosmic perspective that encompassing the entirety of space and time, the story is equally intriguing. For when we look at Kataragama geographically as a place on the earth's surface, we discover what every swami in Kataragama knows--that the geographical Kataragama lies upon the same North-South meridian of longitude as Mount Kailāsa far to the north in Tibet. Kailāsa, the source of four major river systems, it justifiably regarded by many of the people of Asia as being the earthly analogue of the mythological world axis, called Mount Meru by Buddhists and a host of other names.

In terms of the Kataragama legend, Mount Kailāsa represents the heavenly throne of god Kataragama's terrific Father-God Shiva When a great demon or asura appears on earth, threatening the maintenance of harmony and justice and striking with terror not only humanity but even the angelic hosts as well, the gods and sages as a group implore the Most High God Shiva to engender a warrior son who can defeat this demon and restore the rule of Dharma, Justice. To do so it is not enough for the great God to remain sunk deep in the non-dual inactivity of samādhi, but he must emerge through the arousal of kama, sexual passion, to enter into union with the Daughter of the Mountain, Parvati. The conception of the Kumara or Tender Little Prince, however, is immaculate; he appears from his heavenly father's wisdom eye as a brilliant burst of light that divides into six rays or sparks. All six together descend from heaven to earth, eventually falling to rest upon the water of saravana or stand of reeds. A burst of light, he falls upon the primordial Waters, not unlike the biblical prophet Moses, he is discovered among the reeds by six maidens, the Krttikas or Pleiades, who become his foster mothers.

To make a long story short, the prodigal child's sense of justice is pricked one day when he feels he has been cheated by his own brother with connivance of both parents and Narada, the divine minstrel and mischief-maker. He leaves off his identity as Bala Kumara and assumes the identity of Kumara Swami, the anti or itinerant beggar, and heads south from his parental mountain home on Mount Kailāsa down through India and eventually all the way to Kataragama. According to local tradition, the young god's further exploits in love and war all take place in Kataragama. What is most interesting is that this whole legendary scenario takes place not just one in historical time but over and over in principio with progressive variations. Indeed, god Kataragama is seriously reputed to be alive and well despite doubts to the contrary in less traditional quarters of Sri Lanka. For example, when Murukan comes searching for Valli in Kataragama, he finds she has already made a vow to marry only him.

Typically, a major clue to his identity is his association with the shaft that he holds in his hand. This shaft, which could be a hunter-warrior's spear, a king's scepter, a magician's wand, a religious mendicant's staff, an old man's walking cane stick or any other such accessory to the classical disguises of god Kataragama-Skanda precisely represents the vertical shaft of light from heaven that is both the world axis and the channel of divine power and grace. For he is Śaktidhāra, the dhāra or holder of śakti, a word that in Sanskrit may mean 'ability', 'power', 'feminine consort', or 'spear', depending upon the context. God Kataragama, of course, holds all of these. Here again one sees the tradition's linguistic basis.

As we have just seen, Kataragama-Skanda's abstract geometrical representation as a six-pointed star or three-dimensional cross also suggests the presence introduction of a vertical shaft or axis. This vertical axis is further understood to be analogous to the axis mundi, whether understood interpreted as the earth's North-South axis or as the mythical world axis, represented by the empty hub or center of the Dharmacakra. The apparent emptiness and inactivity of the hub or axis belie its commanding position at the center of all the activity that takes place around it. Similarly, god Skanda is said to occupy, unseen a commanding position from where he watches all and yet remains unnoticed, invisible as it were, and virtually non-existent.

Indeed, this connection of god Skanda with Dharmacakra and the spear or world axis goes still further. As war god, conqueror, and champion of Dharma, he is also the Cakravartin or world conqueror par excellence as well as the world teacher who turns the Dharmacakra. In this sense, he is the Prime Unmoved mover. Additionally there is a complicated structural web of associations connecting the romance of Skanda with that of Alexander the Great; both names, for example, are transcribed into Arabic as al-Sikandar. But this would lead too far afield and is the subject for a separate study.

In view of these observations, it should come as a surprise to no one that considerations of geography, or rather cosmography, play an essential role in any holistic study of Kataragama. Traditional or sacred geography was and remains a qualitative science as contrasted opposed to the quantitative science that passes by the same name today. For ancient geographers geographical places and directions were not all equal, but each point on the compass and each place on the earth's surface had its own peculiar qualities that could be analyzed as part of a general theory of cosmography, the mapping and description of the ordered universe. North, for example, is associated with life, magic, teachers and kings while south is associated with chaos, death, and judgement for it is the realm of Yama, the Judge of the Dead.

Ptolemy's map: detail of Kataragama
Detail of Ptolemy's map of Taprobane: Bachi Oppidum the 'Town of Bacchus' near present-day Kataragama

Ancient geographers such as Ptolemy of Alexandria were not unaware of Kataragama's special properties, either for in his remarkably accurate map of Taprobane Ptolemy informs future generations that somewhere in the close near vicinity of Kataragama today there lies a place he calls the Dionysi seu Bacchi oppidum (Latin: 'town of Bacchus or Dionysus'). For this extraordinary identification, Ptolemy or his seafaring informants must have been able to recognize some uncanny similarities between Kataragama as it was some two thousand years ago and the rituals of the cult of Dionysus, the Asian god of drama, ecstatic possession, and wild torchlit processions whose mysteries or dramatic festivals were still being celebrated annually.

On the other hand, Sri Lankan iconography and during their lifetimes oral tradition still preserves familiarity with the essential elements of classical cosmography. It is widely known in yogic circles, for example, that Kataragama the 'Southern Kailāsa' lies directly south of Mount Kailāsa at the last inhabitable place before the chaotic waters of Yama's southern realm. It has also been noted that in this God-given configuration whereby Kataragama, Mount Kailāsa, the earth's north pole and the pole star all lie neatly in line, the resulting North-South alignment is not only an analogue to the external axis mundi but also to the Susumna nadi or central internal column that is visualized in certain yogic practices.

In this classical example of holistic cosmography, the practitioner or sadhaka regards the world that is within (Tamil: ulla) and the outward world (Tamil: veli) as being reflections of each other. God Kataragama, for example, is found deep within us and he is also found there in the Kataragama jungle as well. Small wonder, then, that participants in this tradition so often swear that the best way to find Kataragama is to be in Kataragama.

In this tantric visualization, Kailāsa the indescribable heaven of non-dual self-identity, is envisioned imagined as being situated at the top of a great vertical shaft with Kataragama lying at the shaft's base on earth. Here Kataragama is analogized to the muladhāra cakra, the gateway to heaven as it were and starting point for the ascent part of the practitioner's mystical journey. There are understood to be other cakras or stations of the mystical journey form Kataragama to Kailāsa and back again. All these further illustrate the character of the vertical shaft as a unique single axis connecting the multiple cakras or lokas, levels worlds of experience.

It should therefore also not surprise anyone that the geographical place Kataragama to this day is said to be full of secret hiding places and passageways to other worlds, including the highest heaven or Kailāsa. These mysterious gateways, the oral tradition maintains, cannot only transport a person from our Kataragama to other world's parallel to Kataragama in parallel worlds', but may also serve as two-way doors for devas and other spirits of parallel worlds to gain entry into ours or to return back.

As fantastic as all of this may sound to modern ears, it nevertheless is in perfect concordance with the body of traditional knowledge that comes down to us as a living oral tradition. And what is more, it also bears remarkable similarity to parallel universe theory as it has been developed and expressed lately in terms of quantum mechanics and the search for a general unified field theory. But if there is any truth to these stories-- and Kataragama after all is a tradition of seeking out the truth--then it is entirely credible that research into sciences both modern and traditional may someday be able to tell us a great deal more about the nature make-up of the universe.

But the return to an account of Kataragama's holistic cosmographical orientation, one has finally to look just a bit closely at the configuration or disposition alignment of shrines as they actually exist in Kataragama now. Just as Kataragama devotees analogize their six-faced Lord Sanmukha to the six-faced yantra or abstract geometric figure that is brought about in procession on the back of an elephant at festival times, so likewise this seed symbol homologises itself with the surrounding features it such a way that a cosmographical field is drawn or suggested. This cosmographical field may be reckoned to center upon the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya wherein the great god Kataragama Sanmukha himself, as represented by the six-faced yantra so suggestive of the whole story, is said to rule unseen and with absolute fairness the entire kingdom or domain that is his. How he does so is a very deep mystery indeed.

In other words, the whole of geographical Kataragama is reckoned by the living oral tradition to be one vast yantra, a magical field or dramatic stage whereon god Skanda Kumara's play or circus, his vilaiyatal, is said to never end but continues to this day. This is also why events in Kataragama are not only what they seem to be—and surely are --but are something else as well, something very marvelous and mysterious to behold those who see it.

Situated at the heart of this powerful magical field, at center stage, is Murukan or Sanmukha or Kataragama himself, the śaktidhāra or holder or the magical vertical shaft, the axis mundi around which the whole show or world revolves. Here at the center the image of the image-dimensional cross presents itself in several ways, one of which is the venerated casket said to contain the sadkona yantra that is identified with the six-faced Lord himself. Another is the mandala-like construction of the Mahadevale itself, a simple single-storied structure which, according to local lore, actually consists of seven level s or multiple stories both above and below the ground level of the structure where one enters.

Yet another example of veneration toward the vertical world axis is the survival to this day of the very archaic cult of tree worship in Kataragama. Like the ritual of the Christmas of Santa Claus/Father Xmas tree that was grafted onto Christianity from older pagan sources, the ritual of the bodhi puja is far older than Buddhism itself. Prior to the introduction of Buddhism and Brahmanism to the island, Kataragama was the home of a dreaded aboriginal hill spirit, Kanda Yakka, who, according to some sources, was a yaksa or tree spirit.

As a living symbol of the vertical shaft or world axis, often also reckoned to be the divine Tree of Life, the sacred tree is not only associated with life, fruitfulness, and fertility, but also with the welling up of strength, beauty, and wisdom as well from deep down within. The Islamic tradition that associates Kataragama with al-Khadir and the Fountain of Life is another expression of this same theme.

As an analogue to vertical axis of the three-dimensional cross, one might expect the sacred tree to be found close to the Mahadevale at the heart of Kataragama's cosmographical map. And this is exactly the case, for both of the sacred pipal trees are closely situated so that the Mahadevale lies shaded by under them. The ancient origin of this form of tree worship is amply illustrated in that an integral part of the once-weekly bodhi puja is the offering of water to the tree spirit and wild game to the god of the hunt by the kapuralas and alatti ammas who perform it. In historical or diachronic terms, this could represent some of the very earliest strata of a living story that is still unfolding to this day.

Also suggestive of the vertical world axis, spiritual awakening, and shamanic flight, and indeed a whole cosmographical map vision of the universe in itself, is Kiri Vihera. This elegant three-dimensional model of the universe as traditionally understood appears as the massive stupa or symbolic reliquary situated some five hundred meters due north of the sanctum sanctorum. It is here at Kiri Vihera that veneration toward the Buddha, His Dhamma, and His Sangha community of beggars or bhikkhus focuses.

Sinhalese Buddhist tradition maintains that the historical Buddha and a large party of arahats were able to travel by mysterious means—in the twinkling of an eye—from Magadha in Northern India to this spot in Lanka. In other words, through the spoken word the Buddha transported his astute listeners to Kataragama where a just king was said to be ruling. That King was called Mahasena, the one 'Who Has a Great Army', another ancient name of the wargod Skanda, the Leaper or Attacker. Murukan regarded as bodhisattva-king Kataragama.

The Buddha, it is said, delivered a marvelous discourse about Dhamma, Justice, on this spot to a bodhisattva-king Mahasena who was himself a paragon of ideal kingship. Diachronically analyzed in terms of historical or chronological time, it all appears most unlikely or questionable at best whether all this ever really happened in the way that the Mahavamsa records it. But considering the story synchronically, the juxtaposition of characters and associations suggests that the Awakened One appeared in Kataragama in the role of an unsurpassed teacher of gods and men who proceeds to illuminate good King Mahasena and all the subjects of the storybook kingdom of Kataragama by relating parables about another storybook kingdom very much like Kataragama and leaving it to his cultured listeners to understand the parables' inner meaning for themselves.

This reflexive quality of the two a Jinas or Conquerors is illustrated the fact of in their being mirror-images of each other, different expressions of the same universal human reality. It is no accident that the tradition in Sri Lanka of the epic or vamsa   (like shara, another word meaning 'rush' or 'reed'; recall that Skanda Kumara was born and fell into a forest of these whether they are considered as plants or as living oral literary traditions) places the historical Buddha and the mythological god-king side-by-side or face-to-face, together in the same location at the same time at a spot due north of both Vedahitikanda ('The Peak where He Was', i.e. before He moved down and due north some three kilometers away on the left bank of the Menik Ganga) and the Kataragama Mahadevale. Again and again, the Dharmacakra and its turning around the vertical or polar axis are suggested in word imagery and the actual physical geography, or cosmography, of Kataragama.

The role of mirror imagery in the cosmography of Kataragama is well illustrated by the process of role inversion displayed at Kiri Vihera. To Sinhalese Buddhists, it is the place where the Blessed One exhorted King Mahasena and His subjects to live in peace and harmony with the ultimate object of liberation.

But according to Tamil oral tradition, Kiri Vihera is Curan Kottai, literally 'The Demon's Fortress'. Obviously, a great potential for misunderstanding exists here, and until now no scholarly attempt has been made to interpret this delicate paradox in terms other than conflict.

By applying the modern analytical tools just outlined, however, the paradox resolves itself so that Tamils and Sinhalese need not wage a war of words over the issue. The structure of the annual Esala Maha Perahera, the great full moon procession, shed sufficient light that these apparent contradictions dissolve into different perspectives on the same Kataragama story. For once a year the entire romance of Kataragama is retold in one evening not in words but in a series of silent gestures connected with the dramatic procession.

That the Tamil tradition is correct in depicting the bodhisattva king Mahasena as setting out with his army for a great battle is shown by the fact this is the only occasion in the year when Mahadevale drummers sound the war beat on their drums. This unambiguous message signals the start of the colorful torchlit procession setting to set out on its march due north to the imposing symbol of samyak sambodhi or supreme awakening. This annual engagement reenacting the meeting of Mahasena and the Buddha is performed by King Mahasena's prime minister or wazir, the Bas Nayake Nilame, who comes on foot to offer ritual gifts, hospitality and respect to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha as represented by the incumbent bhikkhu of Kiri Vihera.

Here at one time and place are represented two cakravartis, two world conquerors whose conquests are said to be over demons ignorance and fear, personified as Māra and Cur respectively. What is called the unshakable confidence or steadfastness of both Lords Buddha and Kataragama is nothing other than else but their irremovable possession of jñānaśakti, the 'power of wisdom' so elegantly symbolized by images suggesting the axis around which the earth turns. The stupa, the sacred Tree, the sacred Mountain, the alignment of all three towards the Pole Star (suggesting a sacred axis), and not least of all the potent symbols of the Vel, the yantra, and the Dharmacakra.

If in olden times the god was pictured as facing due south towards the Peak where he was previous to that, then this would suggest that he, like his Father Śiva, was Daksinamurti, 'Facing South' in silent aspect gesture of teaching with his back to a gigantic magical tree of stone. The magical tree, of course, is again the World Tree and axis mundi combined.

There is only one geographical spot on earth where a god or yantra could have many different aspects or faces and where, paradoxically, all of them would be dakshinamurti, 'facing south' in the aspect role of guru. That spot, of course, is the earth's North Pole itself. Interestingly, the spirit of the Christmas tree, Father Christmas, is also portrayed as living on the North Pole except for one night in the year when he makes his a magical down from his pole answer wishes journey to of the faithful. The structural similarity bordering upon identity of these mirror-image pagan pole spirits should not be overlooked.

It is significant that, in order for the axial or polar character to face any direction other than south whether this mistaken all suggest through imagery and without words the existence of an imaginary and yet real (upright) vertical ray penetrating our world and turning or ordering it in some mysterious fashion. All this would seem to imply that god-king Mahāsena or Kataragama, who is already reckoned to be a bodhisattva who has made a vow to come back again and again for the protection of Dhamma and Dhamma Dipa, may have more in common with the Buddha and the Principle of Dharma than most people, including scholars, have so far   conceded recognized.    And this is not to say that he is a Buddhist god any more or less than a Hindu one, for if he is anything originally he is a Vedda god. But somehow he lends himself to expression in terms of most any tradition equally well. For he is, after all, a god of many approaches appearances or perspectives.

So, in other words, the Surasamhara war that is understood to take place at Curan Kottai or Kiri Vihera is structurally identical to the victory of the Buddha while seated under the sacred Tree of Awakening against the demon army of Mara who, like Murukan's enemy Curapatman, is also a shapeshifter who continually changes appearances. The only weapon that can defeat this super-demon is the power of wisdom, the jñānaśakti or Vel that is represented by the vertical shaft or axis.   Both the Buddha and god Kataragama possess that super-weapon, and both use it to vanquish the forces of ignorance and terror.

If the vertical and north-south axes of Kataragama's three-dimensional cosmography are represented, then what about its east-west axis or dimension? Does it have one at all and where? In fact, the earth itself has no single East-West axis as such for it can only turn around one axis and that is the polar axis.

But it an imaginary East-West axis could be imagined as existing in Kataragama, one could reasonably expect it to pass through the Mahadevale where the seed-symbol representing the three-dimensional cross is believed to reside. And in fact, if one looks at the Mahadevale and the major shrines in its immediate vicinity, one finds them all in an intriguing East-West configuration.

Or almost, at least. For the Kataragama Mahadevale does not face due south but south and somewhat to the east, towards the residence of Valli Amma, the god's jungle sweet heart and favorite consort. In other words, he is a god who prefers earth over heaven (or he would not be in Kataragama) and a pure-hearted human devotee, Valli, over his own queen wife, goddess Devasena or Teyvāni Amman (or he would face Devasena instead of Valli).

At any rate, the god-character seated under the sacred tree, whoever he may be, probably once faced due south in reverence to and contemplation of the Peak Where he was Vedahitikanda, which is reputed to have been the center of his worship in early times. A full consideration of the Seven Sacred Hills a conspicuous feature of sacred cities the world over; Athens, Rome and Jerusalem are being only a few examples must await separate treatment. Suffice it to say that, in terms of cosmography, the central of highest hill represents the central point of the three-dimensional cross; the other six hills correspond to the six cardinal points or directions of the cross.

Valli also may have once stood due south of Swami, her Lord. But that would position her in the (i.e., bathing?) Menik Ganga, or on the right bank, the profane side in modern times, as against the left bank or sacred side where the gods are. She may indeed have crossed over, so to speak, to join the immortals. It would not have been difficult.

In the course of doing so, however, she appears to have captured the god's attention and is holding it ever since. He is no longer facing Katira Malai, the 'Shining Peak' that is due south, but has turned his attention to Valli, who now looks back at him from a discreet distance of some three hundred meters, about as far as one can spot a person in this wooded setting. They are still roughly north and south, but she having has put a twinkle in his her Lord's eye, has and come east a bit to be on the same side as her Lord.

This slight turning of god Kataragama's attention from the katir of Katir Malai to the kama of his passion for Valli was also built into the foundation of Kataragama Mahadevale so that it also faces not due south, but south and a little to the east, toward Valli Amman Kovil. This skewing of the Mahadevale's foundation has profound ramifications, for not only does it tilt the East-West axis considerably but it also tells us something more without saying a single word Kataragama's mysterious activities.

If in olden times the god was pictured as facing due south towards the Peak where he was previous to that, then this would suggest that he, like his Father Shiva, was Daksinamurti, 'Facing South' in silent aspect gesture of teaching with his back to a gigantic magical tree of stone. The magical tree, of course, is again the World Tree and axis mundi combined.

There is only one geographical spot on earth where a god or yantra could have many different aspects and where, paradoxically, all of them would be daksinamurti, 'facing south' in the role of guru. That spot, of course, is the earth's North Pole itself. Interestingly, the spirit of the Christmas tree, father Christmas, is also portrayed as living on the North Pole except for one night in the year when he makes a magical journey down from his Pole journey to answer wishes of the faithful. The structural similarity--bordering upon identity-- of these pagan pole spirits should not be overlooked.

It is significant that, in order for the axial or polar character to face any direction other than south--whether this is taken in its symbolical or strictly geographical sense--he first has to come down from his pole or mountain or samādhi to a lower latitude or elevation or level of self-awareness where distinctions between like 'east' and 'west', 'I' and 'Thou', 'he' and 'she' are meaningful and important. Skanda-Murukan, again like the biblical prophet Moses, is one who comes down from the sacred 'Peak where He was'; where 'Peak' has a number of metaphorical dimensions as well as the strict geographical sense. He starts out as a twinkle in his Father's Third Eye, descends down from heaven to earth, down from the Mount Kailāsa far North to Sri Lanka, down from Vedahitikanda to a more lushly inhabited area, and finally down from his own high divinity to flirt and make love with the low-caste hunter's adopted daughter.

This downward movement is from North to South, heaven to earth, unity to multiplicity, divinity to humanity, katir to kama, logos to eros. It maps, effectively, the descent of grace or arul that is described as a rain or even flood.

But still we have not considered the East-West axis passing through the sanctum sanctorum. We have already seen that the Mahadevale's structure and cosmographical orientation tell a great deal about the story of Kataragama. And now the configuration of adjacent shrines tells us still more.

Murugan and Ganapati
Murugan and Ganapati

At the heart of the entire mandala or yantra that is Kataragama stands the Ruhunu Kataragama Maha Devale, which houses both Swami (i.e. God Kataragama himself) and the six-cornered yantra with which he is identified. All lies neatly upon the north-south meridian connecting Kailāsa, Kiri Vihera, Katira Malai and the North Pole.

Immediately to god Skanda Kumara's right and facing in the same direction is Ganesa kovil, literally, 'the royal palace of Ganapati', the elephant-natured god who is reckoned to be god Skanda Kumara's older bother. Synchronically, that is, for in historical or diachronic terms Ganesa or Ganapati, the 'Lord of Multiplicity', is considered to be far younger than Skanda. In this fashion, the two equally playful and mischievous god characters are paired together as a topsy-turvy team, the one an inverted reflection of the other, a fact that emerges in their depiction as sibling rivals forever in a tug of love, as it were.

That the two characters work in tandem with each other is amply shown in mythological stories and legends. Certainly the relationship of these looking-glass two trickster archetypes is deep and complex. As Ganapati is associated with beginnings, he is reckoned to be the older brother and is generally always worshiped first.

As the little brother Skanda Kumara is reckoned to be playing the role of King of Kataragama in his make-believe game with Ganapati and others, his older brother naturally falls into the role of counselor and advisor, the royal court purohita. Here the elephant-god of wisdom and success is teamed up with the royal warrior bodhisattva-king Murugan or Mahasena in a classic instance of the marriage of sacred authority and temporal power that together govern the ideal kingdom.

Kataragama Maha Devale

This relationship, expressed implicitly through gesture rather than explicitly through words, is further suggested in their relative positions at Kataragama. In fact, both divine sons are kings of their respective realms of Sinhala poetic tradition in which Kanda Kumara the First Man, followed the path of elephants from Śrī Pada to Gajaragama, the 'Home of the Elephants'. Ganapati, Leader of the Elephants, Kumara Leader of Man, the divine generalissimo Skanda, the active warrior-type, stands to King Ganapati's left, less-preferred the side allocated to the military in royal court functions. To Ganapati's right, side, occupying the senior position of wazir or wise counselor, stands Lord Vishnu, who is considered to be the mama or maternal uncle in this culture, Uncle Vishnu also joins in His nephew's make-believe game, whatever it is. That is, Skanda got it from Ganapati and Ganapati got it from Vishnu. Buddha is understood to be one of Vishnu 's many avatars or guises.

Similarly, to the priestly or wazir side of Lord Skanda Kumara stands his proverbially wise Prime Minister and older brother Ganapati, who advises the mischievous Child in the cunning strategies for which he is so notorious. Together in this intriguing configuration, then, one finds the two child-like brothers and their equally mischievous uncle silently conspiring together, as it were, in a pantomime. Mirroring each other through inverted roles, they play together here on earth in ways that could not be done even there in heaven. In a sense, they actually come down to earth, in their own mysterious ways, square upon the yantra or enchanted game board that is Kataragama.


And what about god Kataragama's left side? On the King's less-preferred military side on would expect to find His army commander. And this is precisely the case, as shown by the presence on that side of a separate courtyard and residence for Teyvani Ammā, the young god's divine consort whose Sanskrit name Devasenā, ‘Army of the Gods', clearly reveals her ancient association with military duty. Skanda is Devasenādhipati, another instance of linguistic punning or dual intention. Or the same word may mean ‘General of the Divine Army' or ‘Husband of Devasenā', depending upon the context.

But some natural questions arise. Why is Teyvani Ammā standing apart from her Lord with her back to him? Shouldn't she be with him, close at his side? Of course, one could argue that she came to Kataragama only later, with Kalyanagiri Swami around the fifteenth or sixteenth century of the Christian era, and that the celebrated Swami was obliged to have her face east because theirs is a Brahmanical order of orthodox Hinduism. This is the conventional interpretation.

But the fact is, as geography clearly shows, she does not face east exactly. Rather, [in synchronic terms], she is aligned with her Lord and his other playmates, with her hack squarely turned to him so that she actually faces east but considerably towards the North. Why then with her back to her Lord? Does she feel slighted that the right, favoured side of her Lord is already occupied by someone, leaving her with the less enviable left side only on which to stand'?

Again, the whole configuration lends itself easily and naturally to synchronic analysis. For by looking the disposition of Kataragama's shrines in terms of the story that is considered to take place there, a clear pattern presents itself.

All the leading characters are in some alignment or other with the protagonist Murugan, the hero or talaivan of his own mystery play, his tiruvilaiyāttu. He faces, not surprisingly, the heroine or talaivi Valli, whose apparent movement captures his eye, drawing his attention away from contemplation of the ‘Peak Where He Was', Vedahitikanda, his very own ‘Southern Kailāsa' and down to the earthier considerations that justify the use of the term ‘passion play' to described their activities. In short, she brings him down to earth. For only here in the realm of duality, in the seething jungle of duplicity, can here exist the polar duality of Lover and Beloved, ‘I' and ‘Thou'.

This kāma or passion, the basic human urge to procreate, to preserve and transmit to others the basics of humanity and culture, is said to be the motive that drew god Skanda to Katir-kāma in the first place. And this is only one more reason why he is still considered to be a rogue after all these years.

The pivotal character of the talaivan or hero Skanda in his own drama is thus graphically illustrated in concrete geographical terms in the relative disposition of the major shrines or characters. By integrating the geographical facts with structural features of the Kataragama romance, a pattern emerges that suggests something like the following composite picture:

The solar hero, whose primordial role it is to maintain the continuity of life and the patterns that govern it, such as regular seasonal rains and human fertility, is closely associated with the constancy of the axis mundi or vertical shaft that governs cyclic repetition. Unseen but detectable, he maintains the balance of his kingdom on earth by locating himself here or there upon that axis between its poles of light and dark, unity and multiplicity, highness and lowness, heaven and earth, passion and dispassion. Because of this modus operandi of operating unseen and out of slight, the solar character, in this ease katir to kāma, logos to eros, Skanda Kumāra is justifiably considered to be predisposed toward or imputed with a propensity for stealth, military secrecy, underworld activities, secret love affairs, philandering, duplicity, amid a host of other dark insinuations and innuendos.

As a god of both promise and fulfillment, Kataragama Deviyo may assume dark and even repulsive guises to fulfill his bodhisattva's vow to bring light to the world and awaken humanity to its potential. Through the accumulation of a vast store of merit or grace, he keeps on keeping his promise time after time in surprising ways. In this dependability, absolute assurance, lion-like courage, gracefulness, and luminosity nature, he is likened to the Person in the Sun. He is found all over the world if not all over the universe, but he favors certain places, like Kataragama, to make his appearances. When at last he shows himself, he is said to shine as brightly as the sun itself; his rising is often compared to the dawn of day and to the passage from the fearful realm of darkness to that of light. He comes, literally and figuratively as a blessing in disguise.

Whenever this human-like undying divinity of Kataragama appears, he is accompanied by an entourage of closely related spirits or characters. Playing the lead role of king in disguise, he goes so together with the figure of a royal priest or minister, typically described as his playmate and older brother the elephant Ganapati. These two jungle characters, the Elephant and the Lion, jungle characters, together comprise the Gaja-Singha polarity that is the ancient symbol of just kingship.

Old Man Murugan 'saves' Valli from rogue elephant Ganapati
At that moment, Murugan invoked the help of his brother Vināyaka who appeared behind Valli in the shape of a frightening elephant. The terror-stricken girl rushed into the arms of the Saiva ascetic for protection. Painting from Tiruttani Devasthanam.

Following His extraordinary military or magical exploits, the high god falls in love with an earthling girl, Valli, whose stunning beauty and devotion conquer the great conqueror Himself. Love is the final victor. The innocent orphan girl, representing the human soul, binds her heavenly Lord and hero to the earth with bonds of love. Even his mighty queen and rightful consort Devasenā is powerless to move him, and she herself must accept the youthful god's amorous relationship with Valli. This she does turning her back to him, pretending not to notice the obvious.

The story or myth—although it is all about make-believe, pretending, and games or play—is nevertheless very real in that millions of people, today more than ever, have been intimately affected by. And what is more, growing a body of evidence now exists strongly suggesting that, in typically mysterious fashion, the entire metaphysical drama of Kataragama is somehow told in the very geographical layout of the story's setting. Properly speaking, Kataragama would appear to be a vast diagram or yantra expressive of the ancient traditional cosmography that underlies it and, as such, surely deserves further study.

In technical phraseology, the structural integrity of Kataragama's multiple parallel patterns is such that it presents itself as an elegant paradigm of subtle creative activity or kingship. Its living oral and performative traditions, previously all but ignored by modern researchers, is only now coming to light.

The importance of preserving and exploring the living, growing structure of Kataragama's diverse traditions should now be evident. Whether the mystery of Kataragama is man-made or god-given is not the issue. The fact is that something utterly foreign to modern science and modern thinking has quietly escaped notice in Kataragama despite exhaustive surveys based upon inappropriate methodology. It is now time to change gears and look at Kataragama the way the living traditions themselves do. This can happen only when the Western-educated are prepared to accept the expert authority of the swamis, bawas, and others who are the custodians of Kataragama's diverse yet integral traditions. But for this to happen to the Western-educated they will have to experience a change of heart concerning the basic issues of human existence.

In conclusion, it is imperative to issue a reminder to all that, as Sri Lankans well know, there is some deeply profound power operating in Kataragama, a sacred or divine spirit that none should treat lightly or ignore, for to do so is to risk great peril. By approaching it in a spirit of humility, however, we stand to he enriched in many unexpected ways, not least of all spiritually. The responsibility to our fellow man amid to successive generations is an awesome one, but one that we dare not shirk nevertheless.

Specifically, with in the context of the findings presented here, it is prudent to make the following suggestions:

  1. First, that the relevant governmental authorities—and especially the Urban Development Authority—refrain from demolishing or altering any shrine-like structure or approving any activity that may alter the subtle character of Kataragama without first consulting the indigenous authorities and heeding their advice.
  2. Second, that support and encouragement be made available to those who embody Kataragama's living traditions. This means trying to understand them rather than trying to reform them. It means recognizing wisdom in the most unexpected circumstances. This is a task that should be undertaken primarily by people as devotees and only secondarily by bureaucracies, whether secular or religious.
  3. Third, that researchers and scholars consider with greater sympathy the methods used and conclusions reached by students of traditional schools of thought, however strikingly different they may be. A genuine synthesis of ways Eastern and Western, traditional and modern, is perhaps the only point of entry to Kataragama for the modern educated.

Undoubtedly, much more remains to be discovered about Kataragama and the spirit or divinity that is said to inhabit it. The full consequences of this profound undertaking can scarcely as yet be imagined.

Patrick Harrigan (M.A., University of Michigan) studied sacred geography and allied subjects under the tutorship of German Swami Gauribala from 1971 until German Swami's samādhi in 1984. In 1972 he walked Pada Yatra from Jaffna to Kataragama with German Swami and since 1988 he has walked annually from Trincomalee as the Kataragama Devotees Trust's Pada Yatra field representative. Since 1989 he has been acting editor of the Kataragama Research Publications Project.

  Other publications by the author:
 Dionysus and Kataragama: Parallel Mystery Cults
Kailāsa to Kataragama: Sacred Geography in the cult of Skanda-Murukan
Kataragama's Role in Sri Lankan History or 'History Is Whose Story?'
Kataragama's Holistic Orientation: An example of Oriental Cosmography
Cosmography of Lanka Down the Ages
Islamic Traditions of Kataragama
Sri Lanka: Gateway to Other Worlds?
Did Lord Buddha visit ancient Lanka?
Sri Lanka's Indigenous Wanniya-laeto: A Case History
Murugan Devotion among Tamil Diaspora
Kataragama: The Mystery Shrine

  Related Murugan Bhakti resources:
 LankaBhumi.org map of Lanka with links to sacred sites
Kataragama.org home page
Murugan.org the Murugan Bhakti resource website
Palani.org website of Arulmigu Dandayudhapani Swami Temple, Palani
Tiruchendur.org official website of Śrī Subrahmanya Swami Temple, Tiruchendur

  Links from around the Web:
 SacredSites.com Sacred Site Pilgrimage
Links to more articles about Dionysus