Kataragama temple is dedicated to Kataragama god, is also known as Skanda of Kanda Kumara or Murugan. The main Devale (temple) is dedicated to Kataragama god. Various other Deavles have been constructed on the same premises recently. They are Murugan temple, Gana Devale, Vishnu Devale and Suniyam Devale. Kataragama temple is primarily a Buddhist temple with a branch to venerate Hindu god Shiva and a mosque for Muslims. Kataragama Devala and Kirivehera are the most important places of Kataragama temple. Devala is dedicated to God Kataragama, believed to be a regional Buddhist god and Hindu god Murugan. Kirivehera is at the far end of the Kataragama temple complex believed to be one of the most sacred places on the island and it is visited by Buddhist pilgrims.
Kataragama temple is a pilgrimage site for many centuries and visited by thousands of devotees every day. Kataragama temple is the most visited religious site in Southern Sri Lanka and attracts many thousands of Hindu pilgrims too. According to the myths and legends, Katargama deviyo or Kataragama god was a Hindu god arrived from India. The god landed in Kataragama area and lived under the patronage of Sinhalese people.
There are different stories of old, connected with god Kataragama. Goddess Uma had two children. The elder one was Ganesh or Ganadevi, the younger one was Kanda Kumara or God Kataragama. Out of the two, Ganesh was intelligent, therefore he was known as God of Wisdom. One day a fruit fell from the mango tree in front Uma’s house. Both Ganesh and Skanda ran to pick it up. The father then said the person who runs around the ocean which is salty and reaches the destination first can pick up the fruit. Ganesh who was endowed with intelligence thought the coconut shell with salt water is also salty, and he ran around the coconut shell containing salt and picked up the mango first, Skanda, furious as he was the only one who ran around the ocean, can behind and gave Ganesh a thundering blow. The blow was so hard that Ganesh fell on his face and broke one of the tusks. Ganesh posses the head of an elephant. The statue of Ganesh portrays the tusks in one hand and a mango in the other hand. Thus this incident is depicted.
According to another theory, the origin of Karatagama temple goes back to 2nd century BC and closely attributed to the King Dutugemunu. The king Dutugemunu had instructed to build the Kataragama temple as a tribute to the god for his help to the king to conquer the waters of Menik Ganga or Menik river. As per the legends and myths when the heroic Sinhalese king Dutugemunu was heading to Anuradhapura from southern Sri Lanka with his army to rescue the country from south Indian king Elara, the king came across Menik river. The king and his army found it to be difficult and dangerous to cross the river due to the force of the water. Later an old man who arrived at the site had helped the king to cross the river by reducing the water level of the river.
After defeating King Elara King Dutugemunu instructed his army to build the Kataragama temple and temple was dedicated to the old man who helped him to cross the river. It is believed the person who helped the king himself was the Katagrama god.
God Kataragama is also known by the following names Karthika Kumara, Shuba, Skanda, Mahasena, Devasena, Subramanya, Kadira, Agenibhuwa, and Shanmukha. It is recorded in Mahabharatha that the father is God Shiva and mother is Uma. According to Ramayanaya father is Agni and the mother is ‘Ganga’. Literary works have amazing stories connected with the birth the birth of this God.
According to another story Kanda Kumara was born in Himalaya. It says six female Veddhas have seen this prince in a bush, and they brought up this child. This powerful prince created six faces and drank milk from each of them. This is how he possesses six faces, when describing God Kataragama it is said that he possesses six faces, twelve hands and rides a peacock.
Having subdued the Tharaka, proceeding towards “Kailashakutaya”, God Skanda met “Valliamma”, a beautiful female Veddha in an elevated area in Kataragama. He tried to win the heart of the beautiful Valliamma, as it was of no avail, he asked from Ganesh. Ganesh with the elephant’s head ran and frightened Valliamma. She then ran to Skanda for protection. This is how Valliamma became God Kataragama’s queen and resided at Kataragama.
The Kataragama procession is held during the month of August. Two important events are connected with it are fire walking and water cutting ceremonies.
The offering of Puja vatti, putting Panduru, breaking coconuts, Kavadi dance, lying on steel nails, hanging from steel nails, rolling around the devale premises, pricking the body with sharpened spikes pilgrims do these acts to fulfil their vows.
Connected with the Kataragama Devale are two other places of worship. One is Sella Kataragama and it is also as old as the main devale in Kataragama. According to folklore, it is said God Kataragama met Valliamma at this place. The distance from Kataragama to Sella Kataragama is about 5 km.
It is believed that God Kataragama resided at Vedihitikanda which is about 3 km from Kataragama. Shrine with a Bo-tree, where the God resided is located on top of a mountain. Even though the climbing is hard, it is one of the most venerated places in southern Sri Lanka.
Annual Pada Yatra to Kataragama temple
Pada Yatra is the annual event in which large numbers of Hindu devotees parade from Eastern parts of Sri Lanka to Kataragama in South-West Sri Lanka. Even though most pilgrims of Pada Yatra from Eastern part of Sri Lanka, earlier there were many participants from the most northern point of the island. The incident is an ancient tradition called Pada Yatra, in which the Hindu devotees undertake the tedious task of walking from Eastern Sri Lanka to Kataragama temple in deep south Sri Lanka. Hundreds of thousands of devotees are on foot through Panama and Yala national park every year and the journey takes several days, sometimes more than a week depending on the starting point. The distance they cover on parade from eastern Sri Lanka to Katargama temple is roughly about 350kilometres.
The journey takes place in the month of July every year parallel to the Esala ceremony. Young, old and even infants can be seen within the group. These pilgrims participate in rituals and obtain the blessings from the god before starting the holy pilgrimage. Strong young people carry the heavy items needed on the way to Kataragama. A large amount of dry rations, water, sweetmeats, tents and other essential items are carried throughout the journey. They cook rice and curry and spend the night under trees when they traverse through the uninhabited forested area. There are some instances the devotees are attacked by the wild animals; but the devotees are not discouraged with such rare incidents, as per the devotees: “It is the Gods country; devotees are going to worship God Kataragama and no animal dare to harm them.” The devotees return the home after the Esala ceremony and they are allowed to take a convenient way of travel on the return journey.
There are instances that devotees get sick and injured none of these are the reasons for stopping the holy march. Some people make the journey repeatedly every year. It is the custom that entire family to take part in the pilgrimage.
Hindus engage in this painstaking activity due to their negligence in the past, in which the God Kataragama was neglected when he arrived from South India. It was Sinhalese in the Southern Sri Lanka, who provided shelter for this south Indian God and Hindus in Sri Lanka failed to do so. Today they do many other painful activities such as “fire walking”, piercing cheek and piercing tong; they do all these to earn the forgiveness of the God Kataragama.
The most colourful event of the temple is the procession that is performed during the Esala ceremony. There are a large number of dancing troops participate the event representing Udarata, Pahtarata and Sabaragamuwa dancing forms. The groups of drummers, devotees with flags and a large number of elephants are also among the participants. The special event is participated by people from all around the island especially the Hindu devotees from North and East of the island.
There had been rapid growth in Katarama during the latter part of 1900’s due to the increasing number of devotees. Today Kataragama temple is the most visited religious site in Southern Sri Lanka with hundreds of thousands of tourist arrivals every day. Due to the large influx of travellers a large number of hotels, guest houses and rest houses popped-up in the area during the last several decades. Today Kataragama is capable of providing any kind of accommodation facility, from the luxury boutique hotels to cheap homestay accommodation. Whatever the budget you have there is a place for you in Kataragama. Most Kataragama hotels are concentrated around Kataragama temple while most other Kataragama tourist hotels are to be found in Tissamaharama, 5 km away from katargama temple.
Katargama temple is purely religious site and not given much importance as a historical site. Hence it is mostly visited by local travellers and rarely included in Sri Lanka road trips organized for foreign travellers. But Kataragama is a place of importance for Hindu devotees, therefore, it is included in many Ramayana tour packages. The travellers who book Sri Lanka trip from India come across Kataragama temple due to its religious importance.
How to travel to Kataragama
Katargama has located in south-east Sri Lanka near Yala wildlife reserve and it is around 290 km away from Colombo. The best way to reach Kataragama is by road transport while inland flight also can be used to reach Kataragama temple. The journey will take around 6 hours. Travellers can easily take Katargam bound buses from the Main bus station in Colombo. Buses available in 2 flavours, NON-AC buses and AC buses. AC buses are much more comfortable than the NON-AC buses and they demand around 1 less on the trip.
Can we travel by train to Katargama temple?
You might be wondering if it is possible to travel to Kataragama temple by train because the train is one of the most convenient yet cheapest forms of transport in Sri Lanka. The answer, unfortunately, is NO! Because the trains are not available all the way up to Kataragama from Colombo. But one can travel up to Matara (160) km by train and rest of the journey should be covered by another transport mode such as taxis or buses.
The travellers who start the journey from Kandy or Nuwara Eliya (in the mountains), can to take a Katargama bound direct bus from both cities. If the travellers start their journey from the west coast or southern Sri Lanka the best option is to take the Katargama bound buses that start the journey from Katargama.
A private taxi with a local driver is the best way to travel in the island. Even though it is bit expensive compared public transport methods such as buses and trains, the travellers can save a lot of time while having a leisurely comfortable tour in Sri Lanka. The taxis can be obtained in any part of the island. The average cost for an air-conditioned taxi is 60 LKR per kilometre.