"Kataragama" Impression of Dr John Davy 1819

by Dr John Davy, F. R. S.,

Kataragama kovils in 1950
Kataragama devales as they appeared in 1950

Dr John Davy, F. R. S., of the Ceylon Medical Service (August 1816 - February 1820) was an English physician who accompanied the Governor of Ceylon, Sir Robert Brownrigg on his tour of the Central and the Uva provinces, visiting Kataragama on 5th April 1819. These impressions are contained in John Davy's "An Account of the Interior of Ceylon and of its inhabitants with travels in the island" published in 1821.

On the 5th of April 1819 we continued our excursion into Lower Ouva, and proceeded to Katragam by way of Boutle (Buttala) and Talawa, a distance of forty miles, which we accomplished in three days.

The first three or four miles from Alipoota is hilly and rugged, and covered with jungle. After this there is little descent, and the remainder of the way is through a flat country, which, with few exceptions, is covered with forest, and uninhabited.

The first night we slept at Boutle, ten miles distant from Alipoota, where there is a small military post occupied by Malays, and a considerable tract of country that was once well cultivated, and is still pretty populous.

Between Boutle and Talawa, where we slept the next night we twice forded the Parapa Oya (Menik Ganga) a sweeping stream, with banks nobly wooded. Talawa is a beautiful part of this desert country. It is a plain of many miles in extent, covered with fine grass, and ornamented with clumps of trees resembling the wildest part of a nobleman's park in England. We found shelter in some huts on a rising ground where, during the rebellion, an attempt was made to establish a post, which the extreme unhealthiness of the place rendered abortive. At sunrise the next morning, the prospect was delightful. The eye wandered over this rich plain to the long line of blue mountains of Upper Ouva, that rose in the horizon under a sky brilliantly coloured by the rising sun.

Here we expected to have seen much game, the country abounding in wild animals; but we saw traces of them only. In the soft sand of the road, which had been wetted by the heavy rain of the preceding afternoon, we could distinguish with ease the footsteps of the leopard, elephant and buffaloe, and of two or three different kinds of deer.

Two miles from our halting-place, and ten miles from Kataragam, we came to an immense mass of rock by the roadside, called Gallegay by some, and Kimegalle by others. It derives the former name, signifying rock-house, from several capacious caverns in its side, which afford good shelter to the traveller; and the latter name, signifying water-rock, it has obtained from two deep cavities in its summit, natural reservoirs that are never without water, an element that is often extremely scarce in this desert, and hardly any where else to be found.

Near Kataragam the people of the village came out to meet us, and the only present they brought was quite characteristic of the nature of the country; it consisted of good river water in large calibashes.

Katragama has been a place of considerable celebrity, on account of its dewale, which attracted pilgrims not only from every part of Ceylon, but even from remote parts of the continent of India. Aware of its reputation, -- approaching it through a desert country by a wide sandy road that seems to have been kept bare by the footsteps of its votaries, -- the expectation is raised in one's mind, of finding an edifice in magnitude and style some-what commensurate with its fame; instead of which, every thing the eye rests on only serves to give the idea of poverty and decay.

The village, situated on the left bank of the Parapa oya, consists of a number or small huts, chiefly occupied by a detachment of Malays, stationed here under the command of a native officer.

Besides the temple or the Kataragama god, there are many others, all of them small and mean buildings, within two adjoining enclosures. In the largest square are the Kataragam dewale and the dewale of his brother Ganna (Gana Deviya or Ganapati); a wihare dedicated to Boodhoo (Buddha) in a state of great neglect, and a fine bogah (Bo tree); and six very small korillas (kovils) mere empty cells, which are dedicated to the goddess Patine (Pattini), and to five demons. In the smaller square are contained a little Karandua sacred to Iswera, the Kalana-madima, a kovilla dedicated to the demon Bhyro, a rest-house for pilgrims, and some offices. Opposite the principle dewale, both in front and rear, there are two avenues of considerable length, one terminated by a small dewale, and the other by a very large dagobah of great antiquity in a ruinous state. These objects are deserving of little notice excepting as illustrating superstitious belief and feelings of the natives.

The Katragam dewale consists of two apartments, of which the outer one only is accessible. Its walls are ornamented with figures of different gods, and with historical paintings executed in the usual style. Its ceiling is a mystically painted cloth, and the floor of the inner apartment is hid by a similar cloth. On the left of the door there is a small foot-bath and basin, in which the officiating priest washes his feet and hands before he enters the sanctum. Though the idol was still in the jungle where it had been removed during the rebellion, the inner room appropriated to it was as jealously guarded as before; and as we could not enter it without giving offence, we did not make the attempt.

The only other objects that I think it necessary to notice, even in a slight manner, are the karandua of Iswera, and the Kalana Madima. The former standing on a platform in a small room is somewhat in the shape of a common oven, and contains a little image of the god, and a diminutive pair of slippers, of which we were indulged with a sight through the door. The Kalana-madima is greatly respected, and it certainly is the chief curiosity at Katragam: it is a large seat made of clay, raised on a platform with high sides and a back, like an easy chair without legs; it was covered with leopards' skins, and contained several instruments used in the performance of the temple rites; and a large fire was burning by the side of it. The room, in the middle of which it is erected, is the abode of the resident Brahmen. The Kalana madima, this Brahmen said, belonged to Kalana-nata, the first priest of the temple, who on account of great piety, passed immediately to heaven without experiencing death, and left the seat as a sacred inheritance to his successors in the priestly office; who have used it instead of a dying bed and, it is his fervent hope that, like them. He may have the happiness of occupying it once, and of breathing his last in it. He said this with an air of solemnity and enthusiasm that seemed to mark sincerity, and, combined with his peculiar appearance, was not a little impressive. He was a tall spare figure of a man, whom a painter would choose out of a thousand for such a vocation. His beard was long and white; but his large dark eyes, which animated a thin regular visage, were still full of fire, and he stood erect and firm, without any of the feebleness of old age. A yellow handkerchief girded his loins; a red robe was thrown over one shoulder; a string of large beads hung from his neck; and on his right arm he wore a bracelet of the sacred seeds that are believed to contain the figure of Lakshame.

The Katragam god is not loved, but feared; and his worship is conducted on this principle. The situation of his temple, and the time fixed for attending it, in the hot, dry, and unwholesome months of June, July, and August, were craftily chosen. A merit was made of the hazard and difficulty of the journey through a wilderness, deserted by man, and infested with wild animals; and the fever which prevails at the season was referred to the god, and supposed to be inflicted by him on those who had the misfortune to incur his displeasure.

In the adjoining country, there are a few small villages, which belong to the temple, whose inhabitants are bound to perform service for the lands which they hold. The officers of the temple, besides the Brahmen priest, are a Basnaike-rale, who has the superintendence of the temporal concerns of the establishment, under the control of the Agent of Government, and twelve Kappurales, who do duty in turns. On our arrival, they were all assembled. Their gloomy, discontented appearance, and unmannerly behaviour, corresponded well with their conduct during the rebellion, in which they took a most active part.

Before we had possession of the country, Katragam was greatly frequented. The number of pilgrims is now annually diminishing, and the buildings are going to decay. In a very few years, probably, they will be level with the ground, and the traveller will have difficulty in discovering their site. Such, we must hope, will be their fate, and the fate of every building consecrated to superstition of this very degrading and mischievous kind.

Early the next morning after our arrival, we set out from Katragam, to return to Upper Ouva, by the route of Weleway, with the design of visiting a large nitre-cave in the neighbourhood or that place.