PLACE OF CONVERGENCE

Located in Monaragala district, the second largest district in the country with the highest level of poverty, is a famous and popular pilgrimage site of Sri Lanka. Kathirgamam in Tamil and Kataragama in Sinhala, the unique place is  a site where people from several religious faiths converge. The annual festival in July is a particularly interesting time to visit.

My first visit to Kathirgamam was during the festival time and the place was packed. Our group had to park several blocks away and walk quite some distance through colourfully lit roads lined with street vendors. There was a carnival atmosphere. ‘Kavadi’ dance and music filled the paths leading to the temple where some pilgrims even went to extremes of fire-walking or piercing their cheeks or backs as a penance or for making or having a special request fulfilled. As we came closer, the crowds increased and there were long queues going across the narrow bridge leading to the temple complex. Most pilgrims chose to wade through the river beneath, taking a dip before they entered the temple premises. While my memories of the visit that night during the festival seems to be filled with lots of colour and noise, I have much more clear memories of Kathirgamam during later visits at less crowded times on non-festival days.

Driving in from Tissamaharama in Hambantota district on the south coast of Sri Lanka, we passed lush green fields and beautiful ponds of water lilies.

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Crossing over to Kataragama, one comes across a bridge built over Manik Ganga river, where during the day you can actually buy some fish food from the fish food seller nearby and feed the fish or you could choose to have a dip in the water as the pilgrims do.

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Crossing the bridge on foot, one comes across a compound with assorted modest structures from a mosque to a Hindu ‘koyil’ and a Buddhist ‘pansala’. Despite its modest appearance, the place is steeped in history and legends and is mentioned in 15th century Tamil devotional poems as well as the 16th century Pali chronicle ‘Jinakamali’.

According to the Muslim faith, they associate the site with Hazarat Khizr and believe that the current name comes from the older version Khizr-gama. Hazarat Khizr or the Green One is supposed to have drunk the water of life and gained immortality and eternal youth. Some believe that the secret spring is in this region and come in search of it. An old prayer house is reputed to be the spiritual station of al-Khizr. The main temple complex has a mosque and a Sufi shrine at the entrance where the flag is first raised during the festival season each year.

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Kathirgamam is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka for Hindus and many make special pilgrimages to visit the temple at least once in their lives. Hindus believe that Kathirgamam symbolizes the protection, wisdom and youth of Kathirgamar or Skanda (the many names of Lord Murugan). Right beside the mosque is a temple for God Shiva and along the path to the main temple for Murugan are other Hindu shrines and temples. The annual festival starts on the new moon day in ‘Adi’ (Tamil month of July) and ends with the ‘theertham’ (a special devotional offering involving water) on the full moon day. The casket with the mystic diagram which is preserved in the inner shrine of the Murugan temple is taken out during the festival season by pulling back the seven veils that hang before it in the temple representing the obstacles that one has to pass through to reach the truth. The casket is taken on an elephant to the Valli Amman temple and, after prayers are held there, brought back to its abode at the main temple.

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There is a special practice that some pilgrims take. This is the ‘pada yatra(i)’ or foot pilgrimage, which starts a couple of months before the annual festival in July. The longest route is the one from the north which makes its way to the east coast of Sri Lanka and down to the south east. This foot pilgrimage, according to the indigenous Veddah community of Sri Lanka, is a reenactment of the path that the “wise” person who shared knowledge and teachings took before establishing himself in Kataragama which they consider to be a very special place. Currently, the pilgrimage is undertaken by anyone who is interested in doing so, irrespective of their ethnicity. I used to see long lines of pilgrims setting off barefoot, dressed in yellow and carrying cloth shoulder bags, when I worked in Batticaloa on the east coast of Sri Lanka. I was surprised to hear that they walk all the way to Kathirgamam, a journey that took them a month or two to complete and which they timed so as to arrive at the temple complex in time for the festival.

God Skanda/ Murugan is also considered a Buddhist deity in Sri Lanka and is referred to in the Maha Samaya Sutta as the Sanat Kumara or the perpetual youth. Beyond the main shrine for God Skanda is a Buddhist shrine and a Bo tree.

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In Kataragama, there is also a much revered dagoba (Buddhist stupa), the Kirivehera. There are different accounts as to who was responsible for its construction. Many believe it to have been built by King Mahasena around 500 BC while others believe it to have been built by King Dutugamunu around 160 BC, after the defeat of the northern King Ellalan in Anuradhapura.

There are a few other pilgrimage sites around Kataragama, which the devout might be interested in visiting such as Kathiramalai or Vadihitikanda, a hill around 5 kms away from the main temple complex, which both Buddhists and Hindus believe is the original site of the temple. However, the climb is quite difficult and not adviced for people with mobility issues. Another pilgrimage place in the vicinity is Sella Kathirgama(m) which is also associated with God Skanda.

What I find most intriguing is that the site is a place where three religions converge and essentially merge in their belief that Kathirgamam/ Kataragama/ Khizrgama is the abode of the one with eternal youth and wisdom. Called by different names, the belief transcends barriers and enables the believers to merge spiritually and the annual theertham/Esala Perahera/festival merges the rituals of all three.

With the flag hoisted on July 5th this year, the annual festival is now underway. Check out my friend, Nancy Yang’s photo series on her experience of this annual festival this year.

Have you experienced the festival at Kataragama? Do visit Kataragama/ Kathirgamam during your travels around Sri Lanka!

[I am linking this post to:

*Wanderful Wednesday, hosted by Snow in Tromso, Lauren on Location, The Sunny Side of Thisand What a Wonderful World
**Monday Escapes #39, hosted by My Travel Monkey and Packing My Suitcase
***The Weekly Postcard, hosted by Travel Notes & BeyondA Hole in My Shoe, As We Saw It, Eff it, I’m On HolidaySelim Family Raasta]
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Shaman Stone Soup

A couple of months ago, I came across Shaman Elizabeth Herrera‘s book ‘Shaman Stone Soup’ in an Amazon Kindle store promotion. Something drew me to download the book but I did not get around to reading it until a few weeks ago.

Shaman Stone soupThe book is a self-published collection of twenty personal stories by the author on her shamanic healing experiences and each story concludes with a lovely spirit message. I began reading the stories, one at a time, during a time when I was feeling quite depressed. As I concluded each story, I felt myself open to moving out of my negative frame of mind. It provided me the space to re-open my mind to spiritual reading and I was able to watch the documentary on the life of Buddha.

I wish to share in this post two of the messages in the book that drew me the most:

“We all have our own road to follow. We do not want to be led or pushed. Rather, we want to find the truth at our own pace. He comes with an open mind that has not yet been ready to accept the things you say. So be it. Each lifetime is filled with the lessons we need to learn. Nothing more, nothing less.” – Spirit message in the first healing story in the book, Different perspectives.

“Pain exists only in the mind. Whether an event is real or not doesn’t matter, only that the mind believes it is. Suffering can be suspended by achieving new beliefs and perspectives. We see what we want to see, and feel what we want to feel. Never doubt that the life you lead is the life you want.” – Spirit message in the healing story, Karmic Ties.

Whether or not one believes in a spiritual force, the healing stories in this book each have a message that reach out to the reader.

Book details:

  • Title – Shaman Stone Soup
  • Author – Shaman Elizabeth Herrera
  • Published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2010)
  • Paperback 148 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1456360368

 

A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

A couple of months ago, a friend gifted me this book – A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. While I was interested, it had been some years since I had made a conscious decision not to read any spiritual texts. It was not that I had lost faith simply that I was not ready to resume any spiritually inclined reading. After watching the documentary on Buddha’s life, something shifted within me and I have slightly re-opened the window.

51j40nv1iHLIn a better frame of mind, I have been reading the book over this past week. This translated version by Stephen Batchelor is easy to read and contemplate over.

Chap5. Guarding alertness:
48
Whenever there is attachment in my mind
And whenever there is the desire to be angry,
I should not do anything,
But remain like a piece of wood.
49
Whenever I have distracted thoughts, the wish to verbally belittle others,
Feelings of self-importance or self-satisfaction;
When I have the intention to describe the faults of others,
Pretension and the thought to deceive other;
50
Whenever I am eager for praise
Or have the desire to blame others;
Whenever I have the wish to speak harshly and cause disputes;
At (all) such times I should remain like a piece of wood.

The book is a translation of a work by an 8th century Buddhist monk called Shantideva who wrote and published two books sharing his views and understanding of how a seeker of spiritual knowledge should comport himself. I say ‘himself’ and not ‘herself or himself’ as Shantideva seems to have had a very strong view that women were lesser beings incapable of understanding the dharma (Chap 5. Guarding alertness: 89 – “Nor to a woman unaccompanied by a man. The vast and profound should not be taught to lesser beings,”). I was initially annoyed with this verse before I recollected that the writer lived in the 8th century where women were probably considered lesser beings.

Apart from that verse and other verses with similar sentiments, I found the book for most parts encouraging a lot of contemplation. The book is divided into 10 parts that invite reflection: The benefits of the awakening mind, Disclosure of wrongdoing, Full acceptance of the awakening mind, Conscientiousness, Guarding alertness, Patience, Enthusiasm, Meditation, Wisdom and Dedication.

For those interested in one of the perspectives into Buddhist philosophy, this translated version of Shantideva’s writings is recommended reading. I wrap up this post with another excerpt from the book.

Chap 2: Disclosure of wrongdoing
35
My foes will become nothing.
My friends will become nothing.
I, too, will become nothing.
Likewise, all will become nothing.
36
Just like a dream experience,
Whatever things I enjoy
Will become a memory.
Whatever has passed will not be seen again.

Book details:

  • Title – A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life
  • Author: Shantideva
  • Translator: Stephen Batchelor
  • Published by Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala
  • Published 1979
  • ISBN 10: 81-85102-59-7