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Kiri Vehera

Focal point of pilgrimage to the South:

Around 200 miles from Colombo in the humid zone of Kataragama, Southern province, nestles one of the main shrines of the island. Kiri Vehara is recognized as one of the most important 16 pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka (Solosmastana as described in the ancient gathas).Though the temple is the main attraction a pilgrimage is hardly complete without visiting Maha Bodiya, Kataragama Devale, Sella Kataragama and Vedihitikanda.


Kiri Vehera

As in most historical tales, there are many stories in connection with the origin of the stupa. The popular belief is that the original version of the stupa was one of the greatest creations built during third Century B.C. by King Parakramabahu The Great of Polonnaruwa at the request of Queen Subadra.

Another tale relates that the shrine was built by a local king called Mahasena after discovering that the site was visited by the Buddha.

As ancient scriptures relate the Buddha was believed to have visited Kataragama during his third visit to Sri Lanka. Both the Samanthapasadika and Pujavaliya mention that he had resided at a place called ‘Kihiriuanan’ during his stay in Kataragama (previously titled Kajaragama), the very place on which the Kataragama Ceitya stands today.


God Kataragama

Devotees believe that a lock of hair of the Buddha along with the sword with which Prince Siddhartha cut off his hair during the Great Renunciation are enshrined within the walls of the temple. The Ceitya had been known as ‘Rupavathi Stupa’ during that period and some even claim that it had been named ‘Magul Maha Seya’.

A story related to the historic roots would not be complete without mythology. Villagers do not fail to relate that God Skanda (alias Kataragama or Kanda Kumara), the Hindu god of War, shot an arrow from the peak of the Vedihitikanda.

He vowed that wherever the arrow lands, a temple should accommodate the spot. Many also believe that God Kataraga is the next in line as the Bodhisatva (one aspiring to be a Buddha) and holds the ingredients to save man from suffering and destruction in years to come. Standing majestically at 95 feet and 250 feet in circumference the Kiri Vehera possesses a charm of its own to contribute to the tales interwoven into its folds of bricks, mortar and coats of milky white paint. The stupa took the shape of a bell (Ghantakara) when it was first constructed but later it took the form of a bubble (Bubbulakara).

Visitors need to cross the Menik Ganga before entering the compound in which the stupa stands.

It is an age old custom that the pilgrims take a cool, refreshing bath in the sacred waters of the river before offering flowers, fruits and incense at the shrine.

Another notable fact about the Vehera is that the bricks used in the construction bear Brahmin inscriptions which point to King Mahanaga’s reign during third Century BC.


Entrance to the Kataragama Devale. Pictures by Saman Sri Wedage

Within range of the Kiri Vehara there are a number of restored smaller stupas, each which claims to be a burial chamber of a high priest.

After the Kandyan Perehara had walked the streets, next up is the journey to Kataragama. Not only is it one of the most sacred places of worship for Buddhists but it is also a destination which links the religious communities of the island together for Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Christians, indigenous Veddas as well as some South Indians embark on pilgrimages to this rapidly developing southern coastal area surrounded by thick jungles. Apart from offering Pooja Vatti (offering baskets laden with fruits and flowers) lying on needles, hanging from steel nails, rolling round the devala grounds, piercing the body with sharp spikes are some of the acts of self mortification which the Hindu devotees practise on behalf of the deity, Lord Muruga. Indeed some of the rituals conducted during the period like the Kavadi dances and fire walkers possess a novelty which identifies itself only with Kataragama.

The main devale is dedicated to God Kataragama but a notable amount of small devales: the Gana Devale, Vishnu Devale and Suniyam Devale too are part of the premises. Portraits depict the god riding a peacock and possessing six faces with 12 hands are a popular sight within the walls of the shrines.

Every year in August more and more pilgrims make their way in the arduous heat and dusty roads, either along the coast or through Ratnapura, to experience the serenity and spiritual bliss of the sacred city of Kataragama.

It is the time of year when the Kataragama procession takes to the streets with its fire walking and water cutting ceremonies which never fail to draw curious stares from locals as well as foreigners.

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