Kataragama: shared heritage of Buddhists and Hindus
Kataragama, Kacaragama in Pali, is first mentioned in the Mahavamsa
in relation to the festivities connected with the planting of the
sapling of the Bodhi Tree at Anuradhapura during the reign of
Devanampiya Tissa (250-210 BC). The chronicle states that the Kshatriyas
or the local chieftains of Kataragama also participated in the ceremony.
It is interesting to note that the text contains the fact that, of the
eight saplings which sprouted out of the original Bo sapling, one was
planted at Kataragama. This reference indicates that a Buddhist ritual
centre had developed at Kataragama from pre-Christian times although it
cannot be located with any degree of certainty.
When the Cholas occupied Rajarata from 1017 to 1070 AD, Kataragama
became the seat of a chieftain named Lokesvara who held authority over
some parts of Ruhuna. Thereafter Kataragama was occupied by an Army
Commander named Kesadhatu Kashyapa, who mobilized forces against the
Cholas. Although the Cholas made inroads in to Ruhuna their forces were
repulsed by Kesadhatu Kashyapa and his army.
Many legends trace the history of Skandha or Kataragama god, known to
Tamils as Murukan or Katirkamapperumal; his junior consort Valli, the
offspring of a Veddah chieftain; his elder brother elephant-faced god
Ganesha to time immemorial. But textual references and archaeological
evidence which are authentic tools of a historian’s craft indicate that
the cult of Skandha or god Murukan gained popularity in South India only
in 13 AD. It was almost at the same time or in the 14th century that the
cult had spread to Sri Lanka.
Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya
With the advent of the cult of Skandha and its spread in Sri Lanka,
Skandha or Kataragama god entered popular Buddhism as one of the four
guardian deities of the island during this time.
The other four guardian deities are Upulvan, Saman and Vibhisana. The
Nikayasangrahaya states that Nissanka Alagakkonara who built the
fortress at Kotte in mid 14th century constructed four devalas on top of
the ramparts facing the four directions and dedicated them to the
guardian deities Kihireli-Upulvan, Saman Boksal, Vibhisana and
Skandhakumara. The names of these four guardian deities are also
mentioned in a 14th century inscription in Lankatilaka.
The assimilation of influences of Hinduism and associated cultic
practices into Sinhala Buddhist culture is clearly manifested in some of
the constructions of the period such as the Lankatilaka and Gadaladeniya
Today the Kataragama shrine can be described as the most venerated
and one of the oldest sacred precincts dedicated to god Skandha in Sri
Lanka. It can be safely concluded that it had come in to existence by
15AD. The Siamese Pali Buddhist text Jinakalamali written in the 15th
century contains the earliest reference to a Skandha shrine at
Kataragama. The hymns of Arunakirinatar found in the South Indian Tamil
text Tiruppukal are the oldest extant devotional hymns to god Kataragama
that can be traced to the 15th century.
These hymns also reveal that South Indian Saivite devotees went to
Kataragama on pilgrimage.
When the Portuguese occupied the coastal areas of the island,
particularly after 1597, they destroyed most of the Buddhist, Hindu and
Islamic shrines in those areas and plundered their wealth. Among many of
them were the Kelaniya temple, Kandevihara at Alutgama, Munnesvaram
Kovil at Chilaw and Konesvaram Kovil at Trincomalee.
Having heard of the abundance with which devotees made offerings at
the holy place, in 1642 the Portuguese attempted to destroy the shrine
at Kataragama and plunder its wealth. But they could not even locate the
place of the shrine.
The Portuguese writer Rebeiro, who was in a group of 150 Portuguese
soldiers and 2,000 Laskarins, under the command of Gaspar Figuere de
Cerpe that went to locate, plunder and destroy the shrine, had stated
that they heard about the offerings of gold, jewels and precious stones
kept at the shrine.
He states “…we had several times made inquiries about it in our
desire to obtain this wealth… When we came near the spot where they said
the pagoda stood, we captured a native residing close to the spot, and
our commander inquired from him if he knew where the pagoda was. He
replied that he did, and that it was close by, he acted as our guide and
led us through a hill covered with forest which was the only one in that
district, and this we wandered round and round and re-crossed many
"It was certain that the pagoda was at the top of it but do not know
what magic it possessed, for out of the five guides whom we took
(later), the first three were put to death because we thought that they
were deceiving us, for they acted as they were mad and spoke all kinds
of nonsense, each one in his turn, without the one knowing the others.
The last two deceived and did exactly the same, and we were forced to
turn back the way we had come without effecting anything and without
even seeing the pagoda which is called Categao”.
Offerings and pilgrimages
In his 1681 writings Robert Knox had stated that those who fetched
salt from the salterns (in Hambantota) had given offerings to the god
who dwelt at Kataragama. Writing in the early 19th century John Davy
specifically referred to the Kataragama devale dedicated to god
Kartikeya which attracted pilgrims.
According to the Manual of Uva, written by Herbert White and
published in 1893, the annual festival of Kataragama lasted a fortnight
during which period pilgrims from all districts of Ceylon as well as
from South India travelled there.
The British never patronized these sacred places. It was only after
independence that some development came about in the sacred precincts.
Notwithstanding the development work, the two simple apartments that
consisted of the original Kataragama Devalaya have not been subjected to
any major structural alterations.
The legends, myths, beliefs and rituals associated with the
Kataragama god represent a convergence of cultural traditions of Hindu
Tamils, Sinhala Buddhists and Veddahs transcending ethnic, sectarian and
even class barriers, thereby making it a sacred place flocked to by an
exodus of believers of different faiths.