Traditions and Legends of Kataragama

Pages 2 - 5 from Kataragama the Holiest Place in Ceylon by Paul Wirz, originally published in German in 1954, English translation 1966 by Doris Pralle

The Satkona yantra, cut into black stone with the diagram of the Kataragama deity. Representation of flames along the periphery, the Tamil OM in the centre. In the Museum für Völkerkunde, Basel. Reproduced from Wirz (1954)

Many strange traditions are connected with Kataragama. Hinduism and Buddhism both take part in it; and even Islam is associated with the holy place. However, it is difficult to decide today, which of all the traditions are based on historical facts and which are free inventions and poetic license. So hazy and sometimes contradictory are the records about the origin of the sanctuary, that today it is hardly possible any more to separate historical facts from legendary stories.

Buddhism found its way into Ceylon towards the end of the 4th century BC. This was very much later than Vijaya, who, coming from Western India, landed in Ceylon with a 600-man retinue and thus laid the foundations of Sinhalese rule. At that time the sanctuary of Kataragama must have already existed though not in its present form. It can therefore, be called pre-Buddhistic without doubt, and the claim to Kataragama brought up again and again by the Ceylonese Buddhists as if this sanctuary were in fact of Buddhist origin, becomes quite unfounded.

The legend connected with Kataragama has been laid down in the epic heroic poem, Skanda Purana (purana-legend), originally in Sanskrit. It goes back, as one would imagine, to the fifth century before Christ, while the Tamil version is supposed to have originated in the eighth century. The centre of this legend is Skanda or Subrahmanya, but generally called by Sinhalese, Kanda Kumara or Kataragama Deviyo, God of Kataragama. As the second son of the highest God Siva, he was destined to play a much greater part in the world of men than any other deity.

There are still more names associated with this God. As with most Gods, he, too, has many names which are used in different regions according to the occasion and type of ceremony. Generally in Ceylon and particularly in Kataragama there is the familiar description, Muruga, which implies youth, tenderness and beauty. But peculiarly enough, this name is not to be written, but only spoken. Why this is so I was not able to find out.[1] Guha, Netra Suta, which means ‘Son born from the eyes’, Kārttikeya, ‘The one coming from the Pleiades”, Gāngēya, ‘Born out of the Ganges’, Agni-bhu, 'The Fire-born’, Shanmukha, ‘The one with six faces’, are his other names which all point out the origin of the deity.

His birth was supernatural and happened according to legend it. Follows:

For a long time the devas (Gods) and asuras (Titans) fought each other and there was a time when the Gods were defeated by the latter. Under the guidance of Indra they deliberated on how to shake off the yoke. They gathered around Siva and asked him for assistance. He listened to their complaint. He had five faces end each of them had three eyes which now flashed angrily. A sixth face with a further three eyes developed and simultaneously a spark shot forth from each middle eye so that the beings of the three worlds, the Gods, the Titans and the Humans trembled with fear.

Indra caught these six sparks and handed them to Agni, the god of fire, so that he could use them as weapons against the asuras. These were too hot for him, so that he was not able to hold them. He therefore flung them in to the Ganges from where they came to Lake Saravana. Here the six virgins, the Krittika (Pleiades) lived. They kept the sparks with them and they developed into lovely children in their care.

One day Siva came with his spouse Uma to the Saravana Lake where they caught sight of the six children. “Whose children are these?” Uma asked her hus­band. “They are our own,” Siva replied. While speaking these words Uma went towards them and gathered all six into her arms and they became a single being with six faces. Thus Skanda, the God of war, was born.

He grew up and became an unusually beautiful, strong young man whom the Gods chose as their leader. He chose a thousand warriors from among them, who henceforth formed his retinue. Each was provided with a lance with a flaming blade. He then went out with his army to defeat the Titans. In this way the lance became the symbol of the God with which he is always represented or which is venerated in his name. In gratitude of the victory over the asuras, Indra gave his daughter Deva Sena to him as his wife after which both of them went to Kanda Velpu and lived there to­gether happily for a long time.

So much for the legend of Skanda‘s birth and his victory over the asura.

There is still another version of this legend relating the supernatural birth of Skanda.

This legend is included in the Siva-Purana. It is told, that after mortifying himself and doing penance, the asura Taraka urged Brahma to do him a favour. Brahma consented: Only one of Siva’s sons should be able to kill him. This was at a time when Siva had no wife. His wife Sati had burnt herself in Daksha’s fire of sacrifice. Taraka knew that Siva was leading a strictly ascetic life and doubted that he would marry again.

After receiving the favour from Brahma he became so presumptive that Indra had to hand over his white horse Ochchaisrava to him. Kubera gave a thousand sea-horses to him; the seven Sages were compelled to give the cow Kamadhenu, which was able to fulfill all wishes; the sun lost its radiance through Taraka’s actions, the moon always remained full and even the wind obeyed his orders.

The Gods assembled and decided to slay Taraka. This could only happen if Siva begot a son. Therefore, Siva had first to get married again. Sati was born again as Uma, daughter of Himalaya. She was persuaded to go to Siva and to beg his affection. But Siva was still sunk in meditation and took no notice of the girl.

In desperation Indra applied to Kama, the God of Love and implored him to go to Mount Kailasa to stir Siva’s passion. Kama followed this advice. His wife Rati (Passion) and his friend Vasantam (Spring) accompanied him. They came to Mount Kailasa and to Siva who was still absorbed in meditation. He sat on a tiger skin and his eyes were closed. He stayed completely motionless. All nature too was quiet and motionless; it seemed absorbed in devotion to the highest God. Then Uma came near him with flowers she had picked for Siva, in her hands.

At the moment when she was about to put the flowers into Siva’s hands Kama released his arrow. He hit Siva, who woke from his meditation. He looked for the cause of the pain inflicted on him and just managed to see Kama making off with his bow. He then opened his third eye and Kama was burnt to ashes by the radiated glow. But the arrow that had been dispatched had ensured that passion had been kindled in Siva.

He saw Uma next to him in full youth and grace offering him the flowers in her hands. At that moment he desired her as his wife. However, many years passed before he married her. But the marriage remained childless. Then the Gods turned to Agni, the God of fire for help. Now Agni, on his part, went to Mount Kailasa just after Siva and Uma had cohabited. Agni transformed himself into a dove. He managed to catch a little of Siva‘s seed which he wanted to hand over to Indra. On his way he dropped it into the reeds growing along the bank of the Ganges. Immediately a boy arose from it who was as glorious and beautiful as the moon and who radiated a light like the sun. He was called Agnibhuva, Skanda and Kārttikeya. A further name was Sara Janma, which means ‘The one born in the reeds’.

It so happened that at the place where the boy came into being, six princesses used to bathe. These six girls were the Pleiades. They saw the boy in the reeds and each girl wanted him for herself. Each offered her breast to him. Thus the child got six faces. Follow­ing this tradition he was also called Shashtimatriya, which means ‘He who has six mothers’. In reality the child had no mother at all. He arose alone from the seed of Siva.

In this manner, the Gods’ wish was fulfilled. Now Siva had a son, whose task it was to fight the asura Taraka and to make him harmless for good. This task he fulfilled excellently and his only weapon was a lance (vel). Thus the lance became the true symbol of the God. In songs of praise too, the lance is mentioned. ‘Vel, Vel, veti Vel!’ This means “Lance, lance, victorious lance!” Thus sing the children taking part in the procession in Kataragama. We shall return to the deeper meaning of the lance later on.

This episode, the fight between the deity and the asura, is often performed dramatically during the temple festivals. It happens similarly during the yearly festival in Jaffna. On this occasion, two huge figures are constructed who represent the Kataragama ­God and the asura. The two figures run towards each other and in this way the fight is re-enacted.

[1] The name is not permitted to be written, as it is far too holy. In this connection it is best to quote from Goethe: “Because it was a solemn word, because it was a spoken word.”

See also Wirz's chapter on "The Yantra of the Kataragama Deity"