Kataragama Pada Yatra in Yala 2015
Vel, Murugan's weapon Kataragama Devotees Trust logo in English, Sinhala and Tamil

Pada Yatra 2003: From Mullaittivu to Kataragama

Kataragama Pada Yatra map
Route of the Kataragama Pada Yatra traditionally begins in the Jaffna peninsula from where it takes nearly two months to walk to Kataragama.

Conflict-free Peaceful Co-existence

COLOMBO: Kataragama Devotees Trust spokesman Manik Sandrasagra today announced that the annual pada yatra or foot pilgrimage to Kataragama would this year commence from Mullaittivu as according to the tradition. On 8 June, pilgrims will assemble at Vattappalai Kannaki Amman Kovil, recite their vows and proceed south walking nearly seven weeks to reach Kataragama in the far South of the island. Some pilgrims will start their walk from as far as Jaffna in the far North.

The age-old tradition fell into abeyance with the 1983 civil disturbances but was revived in 1988 under Kataragama Devotees Trust patronage. The number of pilgrims has grown steadily ever since, with up to 10,000 pilgrims walking the last 100-kilometre stretch through the Yala East National Park in recent years.

Mr. Sandrasagra noted that it was last in 1988 that a few hardy pilgrims gathered at Selva Sannidhi Murugan Kovil in Jaffna District and proceeded to Mullaitivu to attend the grand Kannaki Amman festival at Vattappalai. At Trincomalee among distinguished observers were the then British High Commissioner David Gladstone, General Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Admiral Clancey Fernando who participated in pujas conducted at Tirukoneswaram Temple.

Hardships and Danger

Since 1988 the KDT has annually coordinated the yatra on its 45-day odyssey by notifying devotees and temples all up and down the East Coast. It also helps to facilitate dana, the ritual sharing of food and hospitality, which remains essential to the pilgrimage even in times of peace, since most pilgrims are poor and none can carry food for 45 days.

One foreign scholar-devotee who has walked the Pada Yatra 16 times since 1972, Patrick Harrigan, recalls that for years the pilgrims would routinely walk even as fierce fighting was in progress around them, including joint land, sea and air operations. Dozens of swamis and swami ammas, some of whom count decades of yatra experience, braved hardships and danger to fulfill their vows to attend the fortnight-long Kataragama Esala festival the traditional way – on foot all the way.

In recent years Sri Lankan and even foreign media, like The Discovery Channel, have highlighted the Kataragama foot pilgrimage as one of the island's oldest surviving traditions. This year for the first time ever a video team will accompany the pilgrims all the way from Jaffna to Kataragama.

First Pilgrim

"Tradition tells us that the first Kataragama pilgrim was God Kataragama himself," notes Harrigan. "The original Kataragama pilgrims were the prehistoric Wanniya-laeto (‘Vedda') folk who came to attend the Kataragama wedding of their Princess Valli Amma to the God himself. Kataragama Pada Yatra and Esala festival are ritual re-enactments of those prehistoric events."

This year with a return to peace, the Trust anticipates a bigger turnout than ever.

"Pada Yatra should not be misunderstood to be a peace march," observes Mano Chanmugam, an ex-nuclear engineer and one of the KDT's founding Trustees. "And yet the symbolism of this year's walk of the faithful from Jaffna in the North to Kataragama in the far South is very compelling and obvious to everyone, villager and city dweller alike."

Mr. Sandrasagra observed that pada yatra is Sri Lanka's oldest and best example of conflict-free peaceful co-existence where every pilgrim is welcomed and respected, regardless of his or her background. Each year the pilgrims — leaving politics and worldly concerns behind them on their long march — receive dana from villagers, the military and the LTTE alike. "People from all communities trust the Kataragama God, who is above politics," said Sandrasagra.

The Trust also develops a website for the Ruhunu Kataragama Maha Devale, www.Kataragama.org, whose popularity continues to grow along with the website. The 200+ page site includes numerous detailed maps and research articles about Kataragama's Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and indigenous traditions as well as a gallery of photos by acclaimed Sri Lankan photographer Dominic Sansoni. Even the Pada Yatra now has its own website www.PadaYatra.org.

"We are a network of devotees from all over the world," says Sandrasagra, noting that the popular website also plays a role in attracting foreign devotees and international media, including The Discovery Channel in 2000.

"We have been privileged to keep the lamp burning through all these long dark years," says Sandrasagra, adding "Now we are holding it up for all to see."

This article first appeared in The Sunday Observer of Sunday, 8 June 2003

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