Pada Yatra pilgrims promote peace
Thousands of foot pilgrims approach Kataragama
(Pottuvil, 19 July 2003) Yala National Park, which normally echoes with the songs of peacocks and jungle fowl, this week resounded with the songs of Pada Yatra pilgrims vowing to reach Kataragama for the July 28 flag-hoisting ceremony. Wildlife Department officials have been bracing for the largest ever flow of foot pilgrims following the traditional route through Yala National Park.
Even before reaching Pottuvil from as far as Jaffna, some Pada Yatra parties had already had in excess of 400 pilgrims, a sight that has not been witnessed in Sri Lanka for at least two decades. Despite the considerable expense and effort, villagers including Tamils, Sinhalese and even Muslims said they were pleased to see more pilgrims than ever, to whom they could make traditional offerings of meals, refreshments and hospitality.
According to Kataragama Devotees Trust spokesman Manik Sandrasagra, more villagers than ever have been joining the traditional swamis and swami ammas this year. "Villagers who earlier were uncertain are now fairly confident that the peace process will hold, so they feel that now they can also walk safely," notes Sandrasagra.
"The rains throughout the island have also had an impact. Walking conditions are not as harsh as in past years of conflict and drought. And villagers now have plenty of surplus grain which they are grateful to offer as dana to God Kataragama and His devotees."
Wildlife Department officials, expecting an even bigger turnout than last year, have been monitoring the flow of pilgrims who walk from Pottuvil via Okanda and Kumuna, through the Strict Natural Reserve to the banks of the Menik Ganga and thence to Kataragama. KDT officials also, some on foot and others in support vehicles, annually monitor environmental and health conditions inside the park during the height of the Pada Yatra season.
According to KDT spokesman Sandrasagra, the rush of inexperienced pilgrims through Yala brings with it environmental and health hazards. "This year as last, we are cooperating with the Wildlife Department to minimize the fire hazard, reduce littering in the park, and maintain public health especially by monitoring sources of drinking water."
"The Wildlife Department has been making admirable efforts to protect the park while also trying to meet the pilgrims' needs, especially for safe drinking water. But with thousands of pilgrims crossing at once, it is no easy task."
"Just as at Kataragama, nowadays at Okanda Devale also the sight and sound of plastic shopping bags fluttering in the wind is all one sees and hears when the festival is over. We aim to put a halt to certain practices like these that threaten the sanctity of jungle shrines and sacred groves. Government and temple officials as well as the general public must be involved if we are to preserve the sanctity of our sacred places, including Kataragama," says Sandrasagra.
On 21 July the Okanda Devale, situated just outside the East Block of Yala National Park, hosted a public function honoring the Pada Yatra swamis and swami ammas as well as KDT volunteers who have provided support and encouragement to the pilgrims annually since 1988. The function, hosted by East Coast community leaders, also served as an opportunity to remind new pilgrims to extinguish all fires, use firewood and water sparingly, and avoid carrying litter into the park.
The Pada Yatra pilgrims walk from as far as Jaffna and Mullaittivu districts, taking as long as two months to reach the sylvan shrine. All along the way, villagers wait for their chance to offer annadanam to the growing bands of swamis and swami ammas, who are mostly in their 50's, 60's and 70's—some even in their 90's.
The Pada Yatra swamis and swami ammas have also been involved in promoting peace, justice and prosperity for present and future generations. The Committee for a National Vision, a joint Government and private sector body, has engaged senior Pada Yatra pilgrims to solicit the opinions and suggestions of villagers all along the route of the Pada Yatra throughout the remote North and East from Mullaittivu to Kataragama.
The National Vision aims to lay out a roadmap to a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka that is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, and plural society, where cultural diversity is recognized as a source of national wealth and strength. Like a compass, a balanced National Vision is essential to avoid unjust, short-sighted or politically motivated policies that hurt the long-term national interest.
This year traditional Kataragama Pada Yatra foot pilgrims on their long march from Mullaittivu to Kataragama have been collecting villagers' own understanding of their village's problems and ideal solutions. The project aims to stimulate open discussions, collect villagers' insights, and forward results to the Committee for incorporation into the National Vision.
According to National Vision Committee Chairman Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, villagers in the North and East with the help of Pada Yatra pilgrims have been reporting their local development issues along with their own suggestions on how to build a better future for present and future generations.
"The Committee will give consideration to the villagers' suggestions during its deliberations," he says, adding "without the villagers' input the National Vision would not be truly representative of national sentiment. We are doing our level best to incorporate village-level needs and perceptions."
The pilot project, called ‘Let the Villagers be Heard', has already submitted field reports from Mullaittivu, Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts, and has just completed conducting interviews in Ampara District.
The Kataragama Pada Yatra went into abeyance with the onset of ethnic conflict in 1983 until 1988 when the Kataragama Devotees Trust was established to revive and support ancient traditions of Kataragama, including the Pada Yatra. This year is the sixteenth consecutive Pada Yatra sponsored by the Kataragama Devotees Trust with the support of villagers and officials at the national, district and local levels.
This article first appeared in The Ceylon Daily News of Monday 4 August 2003.
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