Kataragama devotion boosts the peace process
Pilgrims brave land mines, jungle poachers, drought in ancient annual trek
Today, more than ever, the traditional Jaffna-to-Kataragama Pada Yatra remains a powerful symbol of peace and reconciliation that is hailed and understood by Sri Lankans of all religious and ethnic backgrounds. This year was the first time since 1983 that pilgrims could undertake the arduous passage from Mullaitivu to Trincomalee. The Pada Yatra included pilgrims from India, Canada and America as well as Sinhala pilgrims from Ulpotha and Maharagama, and Tamil devotees from all over the North and East.
The traditional foot pilgrimage from Jaffna to Kataragama not only serves to raise public awareness of the traditions linking North and South, but also helps to break down barriers dividing communities long separated by decades of conflict. The very sight of traditional Pada Yatra pilgrims walking from the North once again for the first time since 1983 has lifted the hearts and spirits of young and old alike - especially up and down the East Coast of the island along which wends the Pada Yatra.
This year's Kataragama Pada Yatra has helped to promote the nation's peace process according to Kataragama Devotees Trust officials. The Kataragama Pada Yatra was facilitated this year by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of the Government's wide-ranging support for the peace process.
Assembling at the Vattappalai Kannaki Amman pongal festival near Mullaitivu that this year attracted 200,000 pilgrims on Wesak Poya day, the Pada Yatra pilgrims hug the East Coast on their six-week march south to Kataragama. After attending the popular Salli Amman pongal festival at Sambalteevu, the Pada Yatra pilgrims reach Trincomalee where they worship at Tiru Koneswaram Kovil.
Their long trek takes them via Verugal and Kathiraveli to famous ancient temples at Sitthandi and Mamangam in Batticaloa District. Through Ampara district they walk via Pottuvil and Okanda through Yala National Park to reach the Kataragama Sacred City in time for the Esala Festival flag-hoisting. For many the Pada Yatra is a priceless opportunity to visit and worship ancient remote shrines in the company of veteran devotees.
Reigning unseen from behind seven curtains across His island domain, Lord Kataragama Skanda inspires the faithful to see opportunity and wisdom present behind dilemmas and adversity. At one stage of this year's pilgrimage, Lord Skanda inspired Pada Yatra pilgrims walking from Mullaitivu to Trincomalee to turn a group dilemma into an opportunity to advance the peace process.
The pilgrims had somehow to avoid the broad landmine-strewn No Man's Land separating Government and LTTE forces and came up with a novel proposal. While already en route from Vattappalai in Mullaitivu district southward, they contacted the Sri Lanka Defence Ministry by satellite link and met LTTE officials face to face, proposing to circumvent No Man's Land by boat. Since years, neither side had permitted any crossings by boat.
Happily, both sides consented and on 31 May the Pada Yatra pilgrims set out by boat and crossed from LTTE-controlled Chemmalai to Government-controlled Pulmodai. This was the first ever mutually sanctioned crossing by sea from LTTE territory to Government territory and, as such, was yet another small but firm step forward in Sri Lanka's the long march back to peace and prosperity.
The six-week Pada Yatra also serves to draw public attention to social and environmental problems that might otherwise remain unreported. Ironically, the conflict had served to keep many such problems at bay, while the return of peace has caused them to flare up. The closing of STF camps, for instance, has been widely welcomed not only by law-abiding citizens, but also by poachers and illicit logging gangs.
The extent of the problems of illicit logging and poaching was graphically revealed during this year's Pada Yatra when the pilgrims while traversing Yala East Block discovered illicit logging camps in pristine jungle. The pilgrims even inadvertently stumbled upon poaching activity being conducted by none other than local government officials themselves who later claimed that they were pursuing treasure hunters.
The pilgrims also witnessed the ravages of drought, especially in Yala National Park where every well that once provided fresh water for Pada Yatra pilgrims now contains only brackish water too salty for human consumption. Thousands of mostly elderly foot pilgrims had to trek across 18 kilometres of dry jungle from Kumuna only to find the water undrinkable at the only well in all of Yala Strict Natural Reserve, leaving them with no choice but to push on a further 18 exhausting kilometres to reach the Menik Ganga, where they were sure of finding water.
Many pilgrims were unable to complete the exhausting trek across 36 kilometres of dry jungle before dark and found themselves forced to spend a night in the jungle without food or water. Luckily no fatalities occurred, but many young and elderly pilgrims especially suffered from fever and fatigue as well as hunger and thirst.
Upon reaching the sacred Menik Ganga itself, one of their principal aims, the Pada Yatra pilgrims found it to be completely dry, thanks in no small part to the insatiable thirst of multinational corporations operating gigantic-scale agricultural operations upstream from Kataragama, even upon Kataragama Maha Devale lands.
The inconvenience was especially acute in Kataragama Sacred City itself, where pilgrims who came by the thousands to bath found only stagnant pools of soap-polluted water. Water was in such short supply for most of the festival that pilgrims had to pay extra for water when using the public toilets. Not only could this season's pilgrims scarcely discharge their religious duties, but public health was jeopardized as well.
Of course, Lord Skanda compensates His devotees for any sufferings they may undergo in His name. But it is also society's duty to ensure that standards of public health and safety are maintained.
Voicing this sentiment in his address to the press and diplomatic corps at the launch of the 2002 Kataragama Pada Yatra in April 2002, Minister of Foreign Affairs Tyronne Fernando had particularly warned that, "We must help eradicate from the Yatra what crowds sometimes bring in their wake: unruly behavior, noise, garbage and pollution."
His words were heeded only partly, as among the thousands who followed the Pada Yatra elders there were also too many who fouled the jungle thoughtlessly, suggesting that the Minister's appeal had fallen upon deaf ears. Clearly there remains the task of educating the general public how to respect Deviyange Kaele and its traditions. Not only the general public, but many corporate and governmental officials also have yet to appreciate their role in protecting the environment.
Earlier this year KDT officials had placed a proposal for corporate sponsorship of small but culturally sensitive environmental notices (example: 'Entering Kataragama Kaele. Beware of the god!'), before a highly profitable multi-national bank. The bank, one that spends millions on large hoardings to promote its business, declined to help. Fortunately the Wildlife Department stepped forward and distributed educational flyers among the foot pilgrims crossing Yala National Park.
KDT officials have expressed satisfaction and gratitude for the role played by the security forces, the Wildlife Department, the media, and especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their unstinting support that has paid off in terms of promoting the overall peace process and social reintegration as well as upholding standards of public health and sanitation.
Force for peace
Dana or the offering of food is the basis of traditional foot pilgrimage. The real unsung heroes and heroines of the Pada Yatra, therefore, may be said to be the villagers from Jaffna to Panama, the last village before Yala, who sacrifice their time, energy and hard-won resources to offer hospitality to dozens or even hundreds of Pada Yatra swamis and swami ammas. Indeed, many villagers first feed, and then join or follow, the Kataragama pilgrims.
One remarkable feature of the Kataragama Pada Yatra tradition is that, while most foot pilgrims are Tamil Hindus, among them are also Sinhala devotees and even faithful from the Muslim and Christian communities. It is not uncommon to see Sinhala Buddhist or even Muslim villagers offering dana to hundreds of mostly Tamil Hindu foot pilgrims, for all share a common heritage of offering respect and hospitality to pilgrims of whatever faith.
Even today in neighboring countries like India, religious processions and pilgrimages are sources of communal friction and even violence. But the Kataragama Pada Yatra is actually a source of consensus and communal harmony, a fact that Sri Lankans may rightly reflect upon and be grateful for. Truly, the Pada Yatra tradition remains as a significant force working for peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka to this day.
The Kataragama Pada Yatra, Sri Lanka's longest surviving tradition of foot pilgrimage, went into abeyance in 1983 with the onset of ethnic conflict. It was revived in 1988 by the Kataragama Devotees Trust, a Living Heritage of Sri Lanka affiliate, which has annually provided support and encouragement for devotees of all communities and walks of life to experience Kataragama's traditions first hand.
2002 Pada Yatra report #1: Mullaitivu to Trincomalee
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