Known as the domain of benevolent god Skanda held in admiration, Kataragama is common religious site considered as sacred pilgrimages frequented by Buddhists, Hindus & Muslims alike. Located 283 kilometers from the capital city of Colombo, it is also accessible from Tissamaharama, one of the ancient religious cities in old Ceylon.
Kataragama is a small town with clean, tree lined roads with rows of stalls selling garlands & platters of fruit with coconut, mango and watermelon. The city, town & the wide shady roads are developed by the late president indomitable R. A. Premadasa.
The illustrious Kataragama festival held in July to August attracts people from around the country and large number of tourists flocks to see the grandeur of the town which becomes bold, bright, busy and full of life. A night's stay at Kataragama provide the opportunity of enjoying the sight of the puja (ritual offerings) in a leisurely manner, you may also imbibe some of the town's backwater charm & laid-back rural pace. The town is separated by the River Menik Ganga with Sacred Precinct to the north, an area of beautiful parkland overrun by grey langurs.
A short walk from the car park takes us to popular river Menik Ganga. A walk across the bridge takes you to the shallow places in the river. It's a nice & easy river for a leisurely bath (village style) anytime during the day. The area around the river is very attractive with large trees on the banks providing plenty of shade. Pilgrims enjoy their ritual bath in the middle of the river. We cross the bridge to enter the main temple complex. The 300m wide avenue lined with trees leads us to the Hindu temple.
According to the legend, victorious King Dutugamunu (161-137 BC) built the original shrine following his series of long battles against the mighty forces of Dravidian invader, Elara, at Anuradhapura. The legend goes to say that God Kataragama helped King Dutugamunu's formidable Sinhalese army to cross the River Menik, which would have been an unassailable mighty river a couple of millennium ago.
To Buddhists, this forest sanctuary is where the Buddha planted a sampling of the Sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree of Anuradhapura, sanctifying the spot. To Hindus, Kataragama is the domain of the Hindu war god Skanda. Both Hindu & Buddhist communities believe that Hindu war god Kataragama (Skanda) has the power to intervene benevolently in their affairs & thousands, convinced of the deity's benign influence, journey to Kataragama for a puja (offering) at the time of embarking on a new venture.
The ritual traditionally involves a bath in the Menik Ganga (The River of Gems), the wearing of clean white clothes & then a walk of several hundred meters along the wide avenue to the temple, bearing offerings of flowers & fruit. Each supplicant light a coconut, then holding it aloft while saying a prayer, before smashing it on the stony ground, hoping for it to split into two nice halves, auspiciously open a good omen. It's considered inauspicious if the coconut fails to split on the stone. Offerings are made to the god inside the shrine.
The first building we'll encounter is the Ul-Khizr that houses the tombs of Muslim saints from Kyrgyzstan & India. It is a beautiful small mosque with colored tile work & wooden lintels. Next to the Muslim Ul- Khizar is Hindu temple of God Shiva. Continuing up the main avenue, passing a string of minor shrines, you will reach the main shrine, the Maha Devale. This consists of three main shrines built in respect of, God Kataragama, God Vishnu and God Ganesha. The main courtyard is surrounded by an impressive wall decorated with elephant heads & is entered through an ornate metal gate. The wall as well as the gate is decorated with peacocks, a symbol of the God Katargama.
Next to the Maha Devale, the modest Archeological Museum features Buddha statues, moonstones, ancient inscriptions, and large fiberglass replicas of religious sculptors from various places in the island, along with other bits of religious statuary & paraphernalia-conch shells, stone figurines.
Forty-five days prior to the beginning of annual Kataragama Festival on the Esala poya (July full moon), groups of Kataragama devotees embark on the pilgrimage called Pada Yatra to Kataragama walking the length of Sri Lanka.
Beyond the Maha Devale is a meeting hall on the north side of the square. From the east gate, a Tulip tree avenue leads 500m past further lines of stalls selling lotus flowers to the Kiri Vehera dating from 1 BC. It is a milk white large stupa with a well maintained & peaceful courtyard. Its only unusual feature being the two sets of square walls which enclose it. A modern statue of King Dutugamunu stands behind the dagoba.
While Kataragama is the domain of the benevolent god, it is believed the precise abode of the god is a mountain called Vedihitikanda (meaning mountain where the god settled in) situated 5km from the town of Kataragama.
Located 5km from Kataragama is the small town of Sella Kataragama. The tree lined, well sheltered road make the drive pleasant. Sella Kataragama is the place where god Kataragama first met his first consort Valli Amma.