With a strong essence of divinity and devotion floating in the air, Kataragama is one of the chief pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka, alongside Adam’s Peak (aka Sri Pada). Located about 19 km away from Tissa, the small town is considered holy by Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Veddah people alike.
People from all around the globe travel to Kataragama in the quest for divinity and to embrace their spiritual side. The town’s most popular shrine is devoted to God Kataragama – a Hindu-cum-Buddhist lord who is said to call this place home. Legend says that King Dutugemunu built this shrine for Kataragama Deviyo in second century BC, but there are also others who believe that the religious relevance of the town dates further back.
The ancient town is also popular for the Kataragama festival, held in July – August. The festival draws thousands of pilgrims who pay their respect through various interesting forms of self penance – some walk across burning coal in the hope that their God will protect them, while many express their devotion by crawling from the local river to the main shrine. As per Sinhalese folklore, when Kartikeya (the Hindu God of war and victory) moved to Sri Lanka, his request for refuge was rejected by the Tamils. Even though he went on to settle down with the Sinhalese in Kataragama, he penalised the Tamils for their refusal, by forcing them to engage in extreme penance during his festival – body piercing, fire walking and the like.
To experience the festival in all its mighty tradition, join the Pada Yatra (foot pilgrimage) as it moves from Jaffna in the north, through the Yala jungles to reach the Kataragama temple.
On any other day of the year, the peaceful streets of the town are a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of urban Sri Lankan life. Besides the Katagarama temple, the holy town is also home to other attractions such as the Kirivehara Buddhist Stupa, Bodhi Tree, Ul-Khizr Mosque and the Kataragama Museum. Contrasting to the overall calm environment, Kataragama undergoes a dreamlike transformation during the evening pooja. Hundreds of devotees assemble on the Sacred Precinct as well-lit stalls selling colourful garlands, fruit platters and delectable gelatinous oil cake mark the adjacent streets.
The best way to get to the holy town is to take a day-trip from Tissa. It is ideal for you to find accommodation in Kataragama so you can make the best of the evening pooja without exerting yourself. Soak in the town’s laid back pace and divine charm as you spend a night or two at a beautiful villa property like Yoho Manikpuragama.