Cows and their dung cakes everywhere. Gnarled skeletal old men squat impervious to the pre dawn chill. Their stares mysterious, and beards profound. We walk through a fog of cooking smoke filled with tasty smells. Golden kerosene lamp light from thatched shops and stalls cuts the gloom. Our group gets to the “right” stall in this maze. We feast on hoppers and curries with hot sweet milk tea. I remember the magical taste of the curries. Not what they were. This is my earliest childhood memory of Kataragama. It’s details continue to crumble with age.
What’s left is an impression of holding my father’s hand. Grumpy and groggy about getting pulled out a rest house bed while it’s still dark. Then being given a freezing bath for the early puja. The “best one” the adults keep telling me. No burning sun, smaller crowds. Something about handing over the puja watti to the kapurala so he can “take it inside”. But before all that: a pre dawn breakfast.
The pilgrimage to Katharagama is an ancient tradition in my family. Some of my ancestors originated from villages in the nearby jungle. They carved out their fortunes in paddy fields from the forests of Thissamaharama. Leaving their descendants with generational land disputes and a deep faith in the powers of Katharagama.
No major undertaking was possible without the protective blessings of Katharagama’s deities. The first major trip in a marriage. The first journey in a new reconditioned car. It was the pre requisite journey before the start of a new job, a trip abroad, any major exam. Katharagama was THE place for seeking protection from life’s unknown unknowns. Also for the added push of inexplicable fortune without which nothing is possible in Sri Lanka.
Pilgrimages came in two flavours: public and private. The ‘public’ ones were large group expeditions. The largest I remember involved the staff of an entire company. We went in a convoy of large vans. Took over the entire Katharagama rest house. I think parts of key equipment were taken as close as possible to the holiest of holies and anointed with sacred ash. On the way back, the Hambanthota rest house was overrun. After lunch I suspect the bar was restocked.
‘Private’ pilgrimages were family affairs and not as fun. It meant being stuck in a car and my father’s terrifying high speed driving. It starts with a 2am departure from Colombo. Dawn Nescafés out of a thermos by the crumbling wall of Mathara fort. Breakfast in Katharagama and a mad rush to change. The ritual sequence of going to the Kiri Vehera. Then to the devale for the morning puja. It fitted with my family’s complicated spiritual Buddhist-Hindu tango. Afterwards, a spicy lunch at Hambantota rest house. Often delayed by the late return of fishing boats. Then a slow trudge in evening traffic to Colombo on the old Galle road.
These pilgrimages are a string of mysterious rituals. Each ritual justified by “that’s how it is done”. Us kids were warned never to ask about the timing of the return trip. We got gruff warnings to leave our curiosity at home.
The suppression of curiosity in the face of mystery is the root of my fascination with anthropological writings on Sri Lanka. Because such texts were the first place where the rituals of Katharagama were ‘explained’ to me. They allowed me to see the mysteries of Sri Lankan life from outside the box of childhood – a liberating experience.
Writing this has sparked other realisations about how Katharagama. The people I got to know over there. Its place in the way people view life in Sri Lanka. But those are for other blog posts.
Do you have any Katharagama memories? Share some in the comment box.
Slideshow of Katharagama photos I too took as a child.