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Kali Yuga Comes to Kataragama: Heavy earth moving equipment to build Kataragama's bus stand in 1987
Earth-mover leveling ground for the Kataragama bus station in 1987. Government schemes seldom consider the long-term impact of urbanization upon Sri Lanka's sacred sites and surrounding environment.

'Development' of Kataragama: Wisdom or Folly?

This article by Patrick Harrigan first appeared in Bhakti journal of Kataragama Devotees, Vol. 2 No. 1 of July 1991

Those who know Kataragama well—the swamis, bawas, and others who fear to speak any untruth—unanimously declare that Kataragama is no ordinary place. It is, they say, a very special enchanted forest where divine mysteries are revealed to the pure in heart. Uncounted pilgrims of all faiths can testify to this even today.

As recently as the nineteenth century, Sri Lankan Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists all regarded the living spirit of Kataragama with dread and fear. No one ventured to go to Kataragama without first receiving a summons in the heart to do so. And no pilgrim ever dared to treat Kataragama like an ordinary place.

Times have changed, but Kataragama's character has not. Hundreds of thousands annually come to Kataragama by motor vehicle, have a jolly time and return home, often without feeling the slightest hint of a spiritual experience. This, they say, is because Kataragama is no longer the place it once was. They say the spirit has left Kataragama and that is why it has became the way it is today.

For thousands of years previously, the people of Sri Lanka respected and feared the powerful spiritual presence said to be operating quietly and unseen in Kataragama. Sages and saints have described the place differently, but all agree that some great intelligence or spirit operates beneath its simple but mysterious surface. Even today, some devotees have gone deep into the spiritual or magical Kataragama that others have only heard of. But unlike in the past, their warnings and advice are no longer heeded or taken seriously.

This change in people's thinking has also changed the face of Kataragama as well. First came small business with pilgrims and now comes Big Business. As ancient wisdom traditions seem to fade, commerce and politics begin to dominate people's lives. Ambition, greed, and ignorance of tradition lead to youth unrest, crime, corruption, alcohol and drug abuse, political violence and all the modem urban diseases that are being introduced to Kataragama. And every time a correction is promised the situation only seems to grow worse.

Recently a decision was made to extend the broad-gauge railway from Matara up to Kataragama New Town. No environmental study was undertaken, nor was anyone in Kataragama consulted about the idea. In America in the last century similarly, big businessmen and politicians rushed to build railways that later helped imported European culture to crush native American Indian resistance to ‘progress' and ‘development'. Are Sri Lankans themselves now willingly repeating this process?

The Kataragama Devotees Trust, aiming to serve as a bridge of communication and understanding between the custodians of Kataragama's ancient traditions and the community of pilgrims and believers at large, asks: Is it wisdom or is it folly to try to ‘develop' or ‘improve' the sacred premises without first pondering the possible consequences? After all, well-informed sources caution against reckless actions in Deviyange Kaele—God's Own Forest.

The new railway, we are told, is needed to make pilgrimage easier. But real pilgrimage is never easy for anyone who does it properly and with ‘right intention'. Already anyone can travel to Kataragama in relative comfort by motor vehicle. Are commercial and political motives are being kept out of sight and out of discussion, yet not out of mind?

No public discussion or debate preceeded the weighty decision. Who will now accept the responsibility if things go wrong? Do foreign engineers understand more about Kataragama than anyone else? Can they straighten things out when strange problems begin to surface? Or, for that matter, can anyone at all?

In an encouraging turn of affairs after centuries of official neglect and hostility toward Kataragama, in 1991 the British High Commissioner Mr. David Gladstone came to Kataragama as a pilgrim to offer respects, perform worship, and inquire as to what services Her Majesty's Government could offer to the area. To Mr. Gladstone's offer, the incumbent abbot of Kiri Vihera, Rev. Revata, replied, "Above all, life needs water. Restore the old village tank system that your people once helped to destroy. That is how you and your Queen's Government may help."

On Mr. Gladstone's recommendation, the British High Commission's aid agency proposed to fund a scheme to bring water once again via an old ‘gal amuna' stone-lined channel to Kataragama's sacred left bank. But somehow other interested parties became involved and diverted the scheme so that water would be brought to the New Town side on the right bank instead, turning upside-down the British High Commissioner's well-intended and historic vow-fulfillment.

Again traditional faith may be seen pitted against vested commercial interests. In the name of political wisdom, the folly grows.

Meanwhile, the plunder of Kataragama continues unabated under the very noses of public guardians of every political color. Each year deforestation claims more of Deviange Kaele and now the cancer is even attacking the refuge of Kataragama's seven sacred hills. The custodians of Kataragama's timeless wisdom traditions live mostly in conditions of abject poverty, and yet barrels of money can be found to carve a railroad into a magical setting that no one truly understands.

The Tamil siddhas or ‘graduates' have a saying that, they say, comes from God: summa iru. Translated, it may mean be still, relax, be yourself, or just let things be. Kataragama is already very well developed, whether anyone realizes it, or not. The same sound advice from thousands of years ago is still the best advice for people today.

The Alternative: Restoring God's Kingdom

Criticism alone is not sufficient, for without a viable alternative disappointment only turns to despair. The civil authorities need an informed and integrated scheme that makes full allowance for Kataragama's virtually unlimited possibilities as a small corner of paradise on earth. Why sell Kataragama short when it is such a rare and magical place? A great spiritual inheritance has been entrusted to us; it would be folly indeed to squander it and go on suffering needless privation.

Accordingly, and with all due respects, the Kataragama Devotees Trust urges the civil authorities to help to implement the following nine recommendations:

  1. Declare Kataragama and vicinity a Strict Cultural and Environmental Reserve for the study and protection of the delicate balance of heaven on earth here in Sri Lanka.

  2. Establish a Board of Custodians, provisionally headed by the Basnayake Nilame, that will represent and safeguard the integrity and sanctity of Kataragama's ancient living traditions.

  3. Declare and enforce a moratorium on tree-felling and the construction of roads and permanent structures in Kataragama. Place a freeze on new settlement and on the granting of commercial licenses there also.

  4. Undertake an in-depth study of the cultural and environmental impact of railway and other construction in the South. Authorized railway construction beyond Tissamaharama only with the consent of the Board of Custodians.

  5. Consider the possibilities of expanding and revitalizing Kataragama's surviving system of rajakariya or ‘Royal Service'. Let traditional local social systems survive as an alternative to the domination of commercial forces.

  6. Restore Kataragama's ancient village tank system and encourage villagers to assume the responsibility of maintaining it. Help them to defend Deviange Kaele against economic predators.

  7. Re-establish Kataragama's traditional system of education, from primary education up to post-graduate level. Appoint distinguished swamis, khalifas, veda mahattayas, sastrakarayas, and other pundits both men and women to provide guidance and instruction at institutes of traditional studies based in Kataragama.

  8. Establish a marketing cooperative for the production and sale of locally-made rosaries, incense and other traditional articles. Find ways for the tradition of hospitality to replace commerce as the life-blood of the community.

  9. Promote Kataragama abroad as a unique living monument where people of all religions worship together happily and harmoniously. Encourage among people a deep respect for the living spiritual presence that is known to manifest itself in Kataragama.

Patrick Harrigan (M.A., University of Michigan) has been acting editor of the Kataragama Research Publications Project since 1989.