Following Pilgrims’ footsteps | Daily News


Following Pilgrims’ footsteps

Juliet Coombe goes on a pilgrimage in search of the star gate and learns the real pathway to enlightenment is to cross the country barefoot and face the raw challenges of life that Mother Nature throws at you.

The puja shops on arrival at Kataragama are full of village women from the area, peeling back the lotus petals, with little girls and boys selling baskets of sweet smelling Jasmine flowers ready for you to give them in prayers to the mighty God Skanda. I also buy coconut oil in a recycled bottle and put a prayer cloth made from twinkly sari material on top of my temple gifts before heading into the inner sanctum with all my offerings, oils and joss sticks. Once through the arch I join other pilgrims breaking off the stems of the flowers and then putting them down one by one, as it is a sin to worship with stems still on them, and then I pour some of my bottle of oil into the eternally lit temple lantern called `Dolos mahe pahana’. Jayasooriya explains while the light never stops burning there is hope for all of us.

I keep a little bit of oil for the Skanda devale and join another line of pilgrims with my puja to be blessed by the temple holy men, the line is long, as Saturdays are very busy, but not as busy as festival times, which I am thankful for in this hot sun. In the end I go to a smaller temple a couple of minutes away where the holy men ‘kapu mahaththaya’ take all the pilgrims’ pujas behind a silk curtain. While they say prayers blessing us the curtain moves and the holy men take half the tray of goodies for the temple community, while other holy men chant in sacred Sanskrit over what remains. I bow my hands cross over my head and the pujas are returned so that I can celebrate my prayers by breaking fast with the half that remains. Eating the food full of blessings, together with other pilgrims in the temple grounds is something very special and I can honestly say I have never tasted sweeter fruit. I then go to the Thrishzulaya ‘three pronged triton’ and decide to tie my blessed coin onto Shiva’s weapon next to it, as it also symbolises femininity and strength. As I tie each knot with it blends in and becomes part of a totem pole of many special wishes, a bird flies overhead symbolising good luck for the year ahead. As I turned the piece of material for the final knot, the wind blew and another bird screamed overhead like an omen as I fell silent, bowing my head in more of a salute, thinking only the future could decide what will happen next.

Before leaving the complex I light three incense sticks as a final offering to the god and take part in the `mottuwa’, where the priest anoints the pilgrim with turmeric powder and sandalwood to cleanse each one of us through the third eye on the forehead. This blessing is for the year ahead, and the red dot is added from the Hindu culture, reminding us we must all find a way to get along and respect each other.

Kataragama, Sri Lanka’s most sacred site whatever time of year you go is an amazing experience, dedicated to the mysterious and mystical six-faced, 12 armed God, Skanda, it is situated in an ancient jungle shrine. A pace that Buddhists, Hindus and Muslim, will go to any lengths to make a pilgrimage to during the months of July and August, even crossing the country barefoot in some cases from Jaffna through game parks and impossible terrain with many obstacles along the way to face.

The truly superstitious believe that doing this will prepare you for Sri Lankans ‘holy of holies’, a centre of black magic, and a place where, locals claim, aliens are trying to locate the “Vishva Yathura” (Key to the Universe). A lost ‘Star Gate’, that if activated would allow time travel to other universes if you believe the stories of the village elders and is the reason none of Skanda’s relics are ever shown in public. Kataragama has also had earthly attempts to steal its sacred powers, including one made five hundred years ago, by Kalyanagiri, an Indian, who came to Kataragama with a magical device to capture the war god Kataragama-Skanda.

Luckily he failed and the site continues to be visited by pilgrims of all faiths. At this time the usually quiet temple comes to life as thousands of pilgrims, stringing together brilliant red garlands in honour of Skanda, flock to pay homage, and the small town quadruples in size. At the auspicious hour, just before dawn after a full moon there is a spectacular spiritual ‘water-cutting’ ceremony. All the religious elders come together, followed by drummers announcing the time is near, and devotees follow in colourful saris and sarongs, dipping sacred caskets in the `Manik Ganga’ amidst shouts of “Haro Hara”. Thousands of pilgrims fully clothed wearing every colour of the rainbow go down on their knees and pray to their gods, uttering mystical mantras before immersing themselves in the consecrated waters fully, as the holy trident itself is covered in water from a sacred bowl of water being poured over it. The whole place erupts into a giant water fight as this sacred spot is enveloped in laughter and happiness for another year in which everyone prays that the island will regain its unique and special image on the world stage. I am reminded that life is never simple from the writing on the back of one young pilgrims t-shirt “Man is a creature who walks in two worlds and traces upon the walls of his cave the wonders and the terrors of his spiritual pilgrimage”.

After the water cutting everyone returned to the temple and laid out food from their village for everyone to share and enjoy. I bought lunch packs from a passing cart and fruit to share with the growing crowd around me. The place turns into a wonderful carnival atmosphere and an opportunity to share ideas and ideals over delicious curries, spicy snacks washed down with coconut water.

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