Kataragama Festival

Kataragama Festival

When:Jul 2006 (annual)

This annual festival in Sri Lanka’s southern jungle celebrates the variously named Kataragama God in true style. The two-week event culminates in a spectacular performance of devotees walking over burning coals, with only the light of the full moon to cool them down.
Kataragama is one of the 16 principal places of Buddhist pilgrimage, and is also an important shrine for other religions – the Kataragama God pre-dates the Buddha of 2500 years ago, and was originally inherited (in some form) from the indigenous Vedda forest dwellers. To confuse things further, there’s a Muslim shrine tucked amongst the foliage, and the Tamil Hindus revere the site as the home of their own warrior God, Skandha. The Kataragama Trust website is brilliant for information on all of this.

Festival time in July each year is when things really hot up, and the jungle transforms under the weight of serious religious frenzy. The festivities begin on the first night with a flag-hoisting ceremony. Each following night, after the ritual puja, white-clad Kapurala shaman-priests perform a complex, carefully choreographed ritual in which the Kataragama God is depicted as emerging from his Maha Devale residence. He then rides in a grand torchlit procession upon a beautifully-decorated elephant to visit his sweetheart, the jungle princess Valli, and returns without being seen.

Meanwhile, during this performance, hundreds of devotees, dressed in their dhotis and ceremonial markings, turn up with huge earthenware vessels on their heads. Constant shouts of Horo Hara remind everyone of their presence. The holy ash and camphor inside these pots is carefully emptied out onto the floor outside the temples, for them to roll around in (and to be washed off later).

Things get even more colourful on the last night of the festival – the night of the full moon. This starts with the water-cutting ceremony, which is enacted after the ritual puja. A holy casket (believed to contain the secret of God’s birth) is dipped in the Manica Ganga sacred river, followed by thousands of pilgrims who submerge themselves – with their arms raised and to the shouts of Hora Hara.

At about 4am when the river ablutions are complete, the area in front of the main temple is cleared and laboriously covered in a layer of burning tamarind firewood (about 2O feet square). Hundreds of cleansed pilgrims slowly make their way, barefoot, across the burning ash. No one is burned.

If you’re planning to attend this awesome festival, it’s best to plan well in advance, do plenty of research, and to liase with local authorities. Recent political unrest in the country has made travelling unwise at times, so it’s best to make sure that things are calm.
Where:Kataragama Shrine

Source: http://www.istc.org

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