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Kataragama - focal point for religious amity

by Chamath Ariyadasa

KATARAGAMA, Sunday (Reuters) - Peace means Kataragama, Sri Lanka's six-headed God of War, is busier than ever.

Drawn by Kataragama's supposed unending power to grant wishes, the devoted walked on burning embers and bathed in a holy river in a centuries-old religious festival that drew throngs of pilgrims to this small town.

Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians alike are captivated by the God of War in normal times, but the country's relative peace this year meant a larger-than-ever turnout at the annual festival.

The recent 16-day gathering to please the sometimes angry god is also helping heal wounds as Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese mingle and pray together, said those who attended. "I am visiting Kataragama after 36 years," said M.S. Mylvaganam, a 66-year-old Tamil tea plantation worker.

"My daughters were scared to travel during the war. Now we feel it's safer," said Mylvaganam, who lives in the central hill region.

Sarath Kumara, a 20-year-old Sinhalese from drought-hit southern Moneragala said his wish was for a permanent end to war. "I wish for peace as it will help us all," he said. A Norwegian-brokered ceasefire has silenced the guns since February 2002, and brought the government and the LTTE to the negotiating table after 20 years of war. Pilgrims stood quietly in a queue to walk barefoot over scorching hot sand before smashing coconuts, lighting incense and making offerings to colourfully painted idols of deities.

Children with shaven heads bathed in a holy river and babies were carried under the bellies of elephants for good luck.

Devotees believe acts of self-flagellation win favour with the God of War, and some clad in loincloths rolled in the scalding sand around the temple.

Others skewered their cheeks and tongues with tiny spears or suspended themselves by small hooks pierced into their backs.

Men, women and even children walked barefoot over a bed of burning embers to the cries of "Haro Hara" (Praise the Lord). Kataragama, sits amid dry scrubland adjoining a wildlife park.

The city has long been considered holy, but for decades was accessible only through thick jungle.Now, Sri Lankans mostly arrive in trucks or vans, sometimes extended families of up to 30 people from a single village.

Nilanga Dela, chief trustee of the Buddhist temple at Kataragama, said more than a half a million people poured into the city this year, calmed by the ceasefire that has opened up roads to the Hindu-populated and war-torn North-East.

"Kataragama brings the different communities together. That is why it is important," he said. Some still make the traditional walk to Kataragama, winding down the coast from homes in the North, a journey of up to 500 km (300 miles) that can take more than a month to cover.

"We came walking. I can still manage it," said 65-year-old Selliah, smiling and thumping his legs, while resting on a mat along with members of his village. At sunrise, many pilgrims bathe in the river before making their way to a shrine complex that includes a temple for Buddhists and a mosque for Muslims.

At night, troupes of spectacularly dressed dancers, parade around the temples to the sound of pipes, conch shells, flutes and drums, while ornately clad elephants are led by their mahouts.

Some dancers twirl burning sticks over their heads, and others carry arched frames called "kavadi" that are brought from their villages.

A few tourists mingled in the crowds. "We were advised that this was an important place to visit.

I am very impressed," said M. Shanmugarajah from Malaysia.

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