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'Pada Yatras' Then and Now

Modern Politics and the Subversion of Tradition

by Patrick Harrigan

Veteran foot pilgrims still know and practice the inherited traditions of Pada Yatra, but they are fewer and fewer
Veteran foot pilgrims still know and practice the inherited traditions of Pada Yatra, but they are fewer and fewer, while parties of imitators multiply, confusing novice pilgrims and obscuring Kataragama's already threatened traditions. July 2009 photo by K. Vinayagamoorthy
Pada Yatra pilgrims en route to Kataragama 2007

A well-worn Sinhala saying cautions would-be pilgrims that:

Dänagana giyot Kataragama
Nodäna giyot ataramaga

"If you know the way, you come to Kataragama.
If you don't know the way, you get completely lost."

Those who are well acquainted with Kataragama agree that it is a place of sacred power governed by an ever-youthful Spirit that defies human comprehension. Even today most Sri Lankans would agree that the baffling ‘unseen hand' of a Higher Power still prevails at the age-old jungle shrine, even behind an often crassly commercial facade. Astute politicians have also taken notice.

Recognizing what they regard as the shrine's socio-political potential, some NGOs have jumped on the bandwagon by organizing a mass march from Okanda to Kataragama, which they have styled as a pada yatra or traditional foot pilgrimage.

The ostensible purpose of the march, they say, is to honour traditions of Kataragama Pada Yatra and pass them on to younger generations.

The Pada Yatra's popularity in recent years has been mirrored by a steady decline—indeed, the virtual disappearance—of veteran swamis who had preserved Kataragama's vanishing songs, legends and age old wisdom traditions.

As recently as the 1990's, there were still a few poets, minstrels, musicians, dancers, clowns, and ecstatics in pilgrim's garb, among the barefoot faithful, often separated from each other and appearing to walk alone across the awe-inspiring landscapes of eastern Sri Lanka.

Now the old swamis have either passed away or no longer walk. Fewer and fewer pilgrims sing as they walk, fewer still go barefoot, and hardly any have any inherited wisdom to share. These swamis and swami ammas had been the very pilgrims over whom villages once vied with each other to fete with food and hospitality.

Today, the swamis of yore have been replaced by whole families with children in tow who trudge in silence, clad in ‘bata' sandals and wearing outlandish garments readymade garments that they would not even consider wearing at home. Villagers along the route may offer dana to them but once, and then hasten them to continue on their way. Indeed, most do not even walk if they can avoid it, but ride the full distance by bus or tractor up to Okanda or even into the national park itself unless prevented from doing so by park officials.


A yet more recent innovation has been Pada Yatra youth societies and NGOs with their tractors, luxury vehicles, tents, electrical generators, and all the signs of wealth that traditional pilgrims shun. Society members and employees march single-file dressed in uniform-like attire, except that each wears fashionable footgear or headwear of his or her fancy.

Ostensibly fielded as ‘service volunteers' to assist elderly pilgrims, in practice the youths seldom serve anyone except themselves. During the day they rush ahead of older pilgrims, leaving them to shoulder heavy burdens. At night they prefer to hear not wisdom songs, but loud baila music sung to the tune of drums and radios.

What many pilgrims, including this one, found most dismaying has been the unjust treatment accorded to foot pilgrims as they emerge from the jungle and encounter security check points. There the ragtag poor and elderly pilgrims are roughly ordered to halt and wait under the scorching sun, while uniformed members of well-heeled NGOs and other societies are courteously whisked through with only minimal delay. In July 2007, I sat with the poor pilgrims at Varahana bridge for hours witnessing this mockery of Pada Yatra traditions.

The decline of the Pada Yatra did not occur overnight in a social vacuum, but in the context of a national decline affecting every village and town across the island, as reflected in the general pell-mell scramble to seize land, loot and power at the expense of one's neighbors and generations yet unborn.

Great friends of Lanka's authentic traditions, such as Rene Guenon and Ananda Coomaraswamy, have warned that the forces of anti-tradition typically advance a counterfeit tradition as a substitute for the real thing in order to dislodge it before replacing it with an anti-tradition diametrically opposed to spirituality altogether.

In terms of culture and religion, the process is deadly, as evidenced by the decline of Kandyan dance from a deep mystical tradition into the shallow entertainment of ‘dancing for dollars'. The same process now threatens to subvert and ultimately to destroy the entire island's cultural and religious identity.

This larger disintegrative process is representative of an alien mentality that has taken root in the hearts and minds of people everywhere, starting from the Western-influenced urban centres and reaching down to the village level through alien institutions that regard local traditions (such as rajakariya) to be ‘obstacles to progress'.

Alien values and institutions may have swamped Lankan society, but they have not succeeded in uprooting its citizens' sense of cultural and religious identity. Nor have modern mass-media succeeded in prompting more than a fraction of the population to reject their roots in traditional village culture.

The experience of authentic pada yatra and submission to an ordering principle transcending our own personal likes and dislikes are priceless national treasures that deserve to be recognized and appreciated by more scholars and public servants as well as by rank-and-file devotees motivated enough to stand up and combat anti-traditional imitations.

Or, instead, will petty politicians and marketeers now become the new intermediaries and middlemen, mass-media priests and pilgrim contractors who will orchestrate Sri Lanka's religious and cultural life? Surely self-serving cynics abound who would seize every opportunity, wherever they find one. But what if there really is a higher power or divinity operating out of Kataragama as so many stories and legends maintain, one that makes sport of human vanity and reveals itself every so often in surprising new ways? That is also a terrifying prospect. For cynics, that is.

In either case, Sri Lankans had better re-assess their ancestral traditions if they wish to recover their authentic self-identities, and fast.

Patrick Harrigan has walked the Kataragama Pada Yatra twenty times since 1972. A founding member of the Kataragama Devotees Trust, he has published www.Kataragama.org since 1997.

Courtesy: The Sunday Times of Sunday, July 19, 2009