Kataragama Devalaya & Kiri Vehera (කතරගම දේවාලය හා කිරි වෙහෙර)

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Kataragama is one of the few places in Sri Lanka which is worshipped by most of the popular religious people in Sri Lanka. According to the Buddhists, Kataragama is one of the 16 places visited by Buddha (solos maha stana) during his 3 visits to Sri Lanka.

Origin and History

The history of Kataragama goes back to pre-Christian era and both Buddhist and Hindu literature have identified this place in various ways. According to chronicles some of the people who accompanied Vijaya from India in 543 BC established a village called Kajara-Gama which is thought to be the current Kataragama.

According to popular legends, Elara the Indian invader who captured the capital of Anuradhapura sent a spy called Kadira to the south (Rohana) to spy on the Sinhalese Royals. He established himself in Kataragama and brought his Indian wife Thevani with him. Later he fell in love with a beautiful 16 year old local girl called Valli and married her with the consent of his previous wife.

Kadira is said to have operated 6 spy rings again subdivided into 12 groups. It was these groups that later were transformed into six heads and 12 arms of the Kataragama Deviyo. When the Elara was finally defeated by King Dutugamunu (161-131 BC), Kadira the spymaster became a respected citizen in the area of Kataragama.

Kataragama Devalaya & Kiri Vehera
Kiri Vehera as it was in 1950s

He especially helped the Sinhalese people who accepted him as a benefactor. He was so respected that when he died the Sinhalese people elevated him to a deity and built a shrine (devale) for him. But the Tamils in Kataragama never accepted him as a deity and ignored him. Kadira was known as the “Kadira Deviyo” who later became Kataragama Deviyo. Those Tamils who worshipped at the shrine introduced their own god Skanda Kumar as the reigning deity of this shrine.

Some legends consider the Katragama Deviyo (deity) as the powerful regional warrior king Mahasena who ruled the area when the Buddha made his 3rd visit to Sri Lanka in the 8th year of his enlightenment ( 580 BCE) . This warrior king took to Buddhism after meeting the Buddha and was elevated to a deity by the community after his death.

Kataragama Devalaya & Kiri Vehera
Statue of King Mahasena
from www.kataragama.org

Kiri Vehera in Kataragama, Hambantota district is the last holy place that has been hallowed by Buddha in the Solosmasthana.

Some believe that the Kiri Vehera was built by the Ksastriyas who accompanied King Vijaya ( the first descendent of the Sinhalese race) or by Prince Aggabodhi, King Devanpiyathissa’s (250-210 BC) younger brother’s son who ruled Magama during 3rd century BC.

It is said that the rulers in this area were present at the ceremonial planting of the Sri Maha Bodhi sapling at Anuradhapura at the invitation of King Devanmpiyathissa (250-210 BC). Later one of the first eight saplings of this tree was planted in Kataragama which is worshipped up to date by all Buddhists.

According to Hindu beliefs god Skanda is also known as Murugan, Arumugam, Kandasami (Skanda Swami), Subrahmanya, etc. According to Hindu legends, God Skanda came to Sri Lanka after a row with his wife Thevani and landed in the southern part of the island. He made Vedihiti Kanda near Kataragama his adobe. One day he saw a beautiful 16 year old local girl called Valli who was adopted by the veddha chieftain of the tribe who lived in the area.

Kataragama Devalaya & Kiri Vehera
God Murugan
from www.kataragama.org

Skanda unable to win her love consulted his brother god Ganesh to help him. Finding out that Valli feared elephants, a plan was devised for Ganesh to appear as an Elephant and Skanda to come to her rescue. Before turning into the elephant, Ganesh gave a pot of water to Skanda and asked him to pore the water onto him after the planned attack so he would turn back to the Human form. When Skanda approached Valli in the form of an old man she was choking on some food and in the eagerness to help her, he dropped all the water. At the same time, Ganesh appears in the form of an elephant and scares her. Skanda offered her to help with the condition of marrying him. Valli having no choice consents to marry him and then he appears in his true form. Unfortunately, Ganesh has to stay with an elephant head since Skanda has dropped the water.

For Islamists, Kataragama is associated with Al-Khidr meaning ‘The Green (one)’, though Muslim commentators do not agree on who he exactly was. Some say he is a prophet while others say he is a wali meaning one who is close to God or a saint.

The Veddas (aka Wannniye Aetto) call him the Kande Yaka (The spirit of the mountain) and claim to have been visiting Kataragama for the last thousands of years. They are believed to be the indigenous people of the country who walked to the island thousands of years ago from the Indian sub-continent when Sri Lanka was connected to India over the Adams Bridge.

 Present Kataragama

Current Kataragama Devale is thought to have been built by King Dutuganumu (161-131 BC) after defeating Elara, the Tamil invader. Under the foreign occupation, the devale was much neglected and author of Account of the Interior of Ceylon (1821) John Devy quotes :

…. Katragam 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. ………. Before we had possession of the country, Katragam was greatly frequented. The number of pilgrims is now annually diminishing, and the the buildings are going to decay. In a very few years, probably, they will be level with the ground, and the traveler 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………

Despite these hopes, Katragama Devale survived this period and today the main building is a plain house void of any decorations. There are no figures of gods or idols in the building. The only thing the people can see is a curtain with a painting of the god Kataragama with his two consorts Valli Amma and Thevani Amma on his official vehicle, the peacock. Behind this curtain is the holiest object which is said to be a Yanthra in a relic container. Only the two highest priests can access it, the maha-kapurala and the devini-kapurala. What it looks like and what kind of yantra itself is totally unknown by the others. Some say this is supposed to be a gold leaf and the yantra represents a six-pointed star which is the symbol of the god Kataragama.

On the left of the Maha Devalue (main Kataragama Devalue) is the Sri Teyvanai Amman Temple. The Main Devalue holds 3 services daily. Around 5 am at dawn, 11 am just before midday, and about 7 pm at nightfall. All services are equally crowded. The Kiri Vehera is a little away and the access is through the Devalue premises. This Stupa is thought to have been built in the 6th century BC on the ground where Buddha meditated. The Bo Tree behind the Devalue is one of the saplings that the first eight fruits of Sri Maha Bodhi yielded (collectively called ‘Ashta Phala Ruhu Bodhi‘). This tree was planted in the time of King Devanampiya Tissa in the 3rd century BC.

Katragama Esala Maha Perahera is one of the main events of the Kataragama Calendar. This ritualistic possession is held on the Esala Full moon Poya Day which falls on July – August. This is Perahera is unique in the way it is held and the possession itself. One interesting fact is that the Perahera festival officially begins by the the flag hoisting ceremony at the Islamic mosque in Kataragama.

The festival is coloured by fire walking ceremonies, Kavadi Dances, and self-mutilating sacrifices by devotees. These devotees perform certain penances by piercing their tongues, cheeks, and others attaching iron hooks to their backs and pulling heavy loads. Although Kataragama Pilgrimage season reaches its peak on this annual perahera, it is a place where people go any time of the year.

Also See

Map of  Kataragama.

Please click on the button below to load the Dynamic Google Map (ගූගල් සිතියම් පහලින්)
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The map above also shows other places of interest within a approximately 20 km radius of the current site. Click on any of the markers and the info box to take you to information of these sites

Zoom out the map to see more surrounding locations using the mouse scroll wheel or map controls.

Travel Directions to Kataragama

Route from Colombo to Kataragama Route from Colombo to Kataragama
Through : Awissawella – Ratnapura – Palmadulla – Udawalawe – Tanamalwila – Lunugamvehera
distance :235 km
Travel time : 5.00 – 6.00 hours.
Driving directions : see on google map
Through : Southern Expressway – Galle – Matara – Hambanthota
distance :290 km
Travel time : 5.00 – 6.00 hours.
Driving directions : see on google map

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