July 2010


Pada Yatra: the foot pilgrimage
July 2010




Pottuvil: Pilgrims of all ages, mostly simple villagers from the North and East, walk from as far as Jaffna. Pilgrim parties may grow in size to a hundred or more as villagers join along the route.

Words and photography: Patrick Harrigan

Among Sri Lanka's living traditions, few are as well-known or as poorly understood as the Kataragama Pāda Yātra or foot pilgrimage. Starting from the island's far North and arriving nearly two months later at the Kataragama shrine in the island's remote southeastern jungle, the Pāda Yātra has played a major role in propagating and perpetuating Kataragama's spiritual traditions throughout Sri Lanka and South India. Predating the arrival of all four of Sri Lanka's major religions, the tradition began with the island's indigenous forest-dwellers, the Wanniya-laeto or ‘Veddas', as the Kataragama shrine's kapurala priest-custodians themselves readily admit.

Traditional foot pilgrimage or Pāda Yātra is not a peace or protest march, but a ritual tradition from hoary antiquity that reenacts legendary episodes. Its participants are ordinary folks, who say they are answering a ‘call'.

Because of the sheer length of the Kataragama Pāda Yātra, since ancient times the pilgrims tended to be dedicated religious specialists. The great majority of Pāda Yātra swamis remain anonymous, but among them have been more than a few great saints, sages and siddhas including - it is said - god Skanda-Murugan himself.

Almost no records survive written in the pilgrims' own words, although British government agents kept exhaustive records of the colonial government's efforts to discourage a practice considered to be unhealthy and unproductive. They often complained of the pilgrims' tendency to die en route or during the Esala festival, and played this argument to mandate ‘tickets' issued to a tiny quota of legal pilgrims in the late 19th Century.

Earlier in the 16th Century, so many bawas (islamic recluses) used to cross from India via Jaffna to Kataragama that the Portuguese colonial authorities feared an invasion. The old Jaffna pilgrimage route, ordered to be sealed off, fell into relative disuse thereafter. Yet many of their Sufi descendants still carry on the tradition of pilgrimage to Kataragama.

Prior to 1950 when a motorable road was extended up to Kataragama from Tissamaharama, the only way pilgrims could reach Kataragama was on foot or by bullock cart. All that has changed and today Kataragama is easily reached by regular bus service directly from Colombo and other districts including the Eastern Province, where the Pāda Yātra tradition flourishes in an air of revival.

Power of Vows

The Kataragama festival season officially begins 45 days before the festival with the kap hitavima rite at the Kataragama Mahadevale, when kapurala priests ritually ‘plant' two tree saplings in the Mahadevale. By this act the kapuralas vow that they will perform the Esala festival starting 45 days later.

On that very day of the kap ceremony, far to the North the Pāda Yātra pilgrims assemble at the great Vattappalai festival near Mullaittivu. Here the pilgrims make their private vows to perform difficult deeds, or to abstain from certain habitual activities, usually for the course of the pilgrimage. This may mean walking barefoot to Kataragama for some, or abstaining from smoking for others.

Longest pilgrimage
A long trek lies before those who start from the far North. Nearly two months before the great Esala festival in Kataragama, pilgrims gather at sacred sites like Nagadeepa, Nallur or Selva Sannithi. Then with a loud chorus of Haro Hara! they proceed as onlookers pause to cheer. Generally a swami among them bears with dignity the god's Vel or lance emblem.

Leaving everything behind but a bundle of essentials, they experience the homeless life of a beggar or religious recluse. Deep lessons about the paradoxes of life are driven into them in a sustained act of self-denial. Sleeping and living outside, under trees and in shrines and temples; seldom knowing from where their next meal will come; braving death from animal attacks or disease: these are the elements that make Pāda Yātra an unforgettable experience.

Attired as mendicant-beggars, the pilgrims walk, eat and worship together in small bands. At night pilgrims camp out much as gypsies do or, for that matter, much as tradition says god Kataragama would walk and camp from one sacred site to another. Many still perform pindapāda - door-to-door ritual begging for paddy or coins, not for mere sustenance but consciously with a view to bless the donor families.

As late as the 1970s the rank of pilgrims walking southwards would swell to nearly 2,000 singing devotees. People residing along Pāda Yātra routes would anticipate the pilgrims' arrival, and whole villages would turn out to fête them with food and entertainment offered to the gods and their pilgrim ‘messengers'.

Pilgrims represent the full spectrum of society; there are no lords or masters on the pilgrimage. Poets, singers, musicians, dancers, and ecstatically ‘mad' pilgrims are spread like a leaven through the concourse, as it moves in groups, often appearing to walk alone, along the island's ever-changing and awe-inspiring landscapes. At night there is the glow of campfires, shared food, continuous chants of praise from the pilgrim groups, and of course the wisdom teachings being recited by the elders.

Walking five or six miles per day, the pilgrims halt at 73 traditional places of worship, where they accept dāna (hospitality and alms) from waiting villagers. The route carries them down the east coast as far as Pottuvil, where it turns inland to cross the 60 miles of jungle to reach Kataragama.
The final stretch of the Yātra take the intrepid pilgrims through wild jungle teeming with elephants, deer, sambur, and boars. Typically the jungle claims the life of one or more pilgrims who succumb to fever, wild animals or simply get lost. Those who have passed through, however, bring home stories and memories of nights by the campfire under an open sky that will last a lifetime.

Nowadays the great majority of foot pilgrims walk from Batticaloa and Ampara districts, which are much closer to Kataragama than Trincomalee, Vavuniya or Jaffna districts, where only the most fervent devotees are prepared to walk for 40 days or more. Significantly, the Kataragama Pāda Yātra attracts a few foreign pilgrims each year as well as Sri Lankan devotees, despite the hazards and hardships.

With the conclusion of the July festival the foot pilgrims return home, like everyone else. But no one who has experienced the pilgrimage is ever quite the same again.

By age-old tradition, the Kataragama God's stealthy involvement is the magical ingredient that transforms Pāda Yātra from a mere walking exercise into the experience of spiritual passage subtle dimensions that escape the attention of non-participants. By the power of a mysterious presence, earnest pilgrims cross through the shadowy world of outward appearances to penetrate deep into an effulgent interior realm of ‘light and delight.' For them the spiritual journey is not an empty metaphor but intensely vivid and real.

In traditions the world over, ‘pilgrimage' essentially refers to the passage or transformation of the soul that turns away from the periphery of the outward world and turns inward through progressively deeper levels of awareness to arrive at the Sacred Center. In the Kataragama tradition, this passage is also understood as the return to one's original childlike nature of wonder, innocence and simplicity, in Tamil termed summa iruttal, meaning ‘being still,' ‘remaining simple,' or ‘just being.'

With the conclusion of the July festival the foot pilgrims return home, like everyone else. But no one who has experienced the pilgrimage is ever quite the same again.

Portrayed in poetry and legends as an ever-youthful master of magic, strategy and surprise, Kataragama Skanda has inspired uncounted generations of storytellers and minstrels. Small wonder that the great spirit of Kataragama still enthralls the hearts of millions even in our 21st Century.

Patrick Harrigan has walked the Kataragama Pāda Yātra twenty times
since 1972.

Despite the shroud of secrecy surrounding the ancient Kataragama god's cult, there are certain injunctions or guidelines based upon longstanding tradition which are common knowledge to veteran pilgrims. To summarise:
• Be alert to the Spirit's inner and outer messages. If the ‘call' comes, heed it.
• Do not announce your destination or starting time. Upsets may occur.
• Maintain a low profile. Learn from those who know more than you know.
• Increase the faith all around for oneself and others, or else remain at home.
• Keep your promises few and simple, but keep them.
• Sleep out of doors at night or in temples, but not in private homes. Taste the homeless life fully and enjoy it.
• Accept whatever happens. Blessings may appear in disguise.
• Share whatever comes; accept the alms, friendship and wisdom of others.
• Do not unload your personal grievances upon others. Deliver all complaints personally to Kataragama.
• Trust in the Spirit and make it your constant guide. Beware of imitations.

 

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    The Pāda Yātra route

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    Verugal: Crocodile-infested rivers are only one of the hazards that pilgrims face.

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    Pilgrims setting out from Okanda Murugan Kovil must carry all their dry rations for the six day trek to Kataragama through Yala National Park

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    Foot pilgrimage is an opportunity for villagers to have the darshan of local spiritual leaders, like these pilgrims visiting the ashram of Swami Vishwanatha of Mullaitivu

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    Yala: foot pilgrims trek through wild jungle teeming with elephants, deer, sambur, and boars

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    The Kataragama Pāda Yātra attracts foreign pilgrims as well as Sri Lankan devotees. A veteran British pilgrim pauses to assist a senior swāmi.

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    Pāda Yātra camp in Yala East: At night there is the glow of campfires, shared food, continuous chants of praise from the pilgrim groups, and of course the wisdom teachings being recited by the elders

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    Trincomalee District: Attired as mendicant-beggars, pilgrims walk, eat and worship together in small bands

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    Generally a swami among them bears with dignity the god’s Vel or lance emblem. A Pāda Yātra party arrives to Tirukkovil, Ampara District

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    Mutur: Whole villages turn out to fête the Pāda Yātra pilgrims with food and entertainment offered to the gods and their pilgrim ‘messengers’

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    Their long trek at an end, foot pilgrims worship in awe as they arrive at their final destination: Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devale

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