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Kataragama temple, Kataragama, Kataragama Overview

The Kataragama temple is one of the ancient sites which are revered by Hindus, Buddhists as well as the Veddas. The temple also attracts many people from South India. The temple complex is a shrine to the Buddhist guardian deity Kataragama 'deviyo' and Hindu War God Murugan. The complex contains the Buddhist temples which are managed by Buddhists, the temples and shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva the Hindus maintain and a mosque which the Muslims govern. This unique feature of Kataragama temples makes the complex, one of the most secular sites in Sri Lanka. Many years ago, the jungle shrine was entirely inaccessible, but today it can be easily accessed by an all-weather road.

Kataragama was initially a small town which was a small village nestled between the jungle in the ancient and the medieval period, which slowly transformed into a small town which has attracted many pilgrims becoming a popular pilgrimage site. The legends and myths of the place are changing with the different deities influenced by religion, ethnicity, race and time. Also, as there is a change in devotees, the mode of worship has changed from Hindu orientation to the Buddhist style. Today the entire complex is declared as a holy site by the Sri Lankan government in the 1950s, for which many political leaders have contributed for its maintenance and upkeep.

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Architecture of Kataragama Temple

The complex consists of shrines in stone which are built in the ancient site without much decoration and ornamentation to them since the people want to preserve the original state without much tampering.The most important part of the complex is the shrine of Maha Devale or Maha Kovil. The temple has a diety of Skanda-Murugan known amongst the Sinhalese as Kataragama 'deviyo'. The memorial does not consist of a deity but a Yantra which is a religious drawing of the pure deity’s power.

In the other shrine, you will find the statue of Lord Shiva accompanied by the statue of Lord Ganesha. There is also a figure of Lord Vishnu and Gautama Buddha near it. Behind the Buddha image is the Bodhi tree which has sprung from the Bo Sapling. Going outside the temple yard is the consort of Murugan and a Kedamba tree which is sacred to the deity. Inside the mosque, one can find the tombs of many famous Muslim holy men like Jabbar Ali Shah and Meer Syed Mohamed Alisha Bawa.

History of Kataragama Temple

The first form of evidence of the temple traces back to the 15th Century, where the devotional poems of Arunagirinathar mention it. The verse reveals that the deity- Kataragama 'deviyo' in the form Khattugama, resided on the top of the mountain as a guardian deity of Sri Lankan and Buddhist deities.

The town was also an essential part during the reign of Ashoka Maurya when vital dignitaries came to receive the sacred Bo sapling somewhere in the 288 B.C.E. The medieval history of the place goes back to the 16th or 17th century upon the arrival of Kalyanagiri Swamy from North India. He reestablished the shrines and built it as a place of worship for Indian and Sri Lankan Hindu devotees. The site also attracts many local Sinhala Buddhist devotees. The temple was looked after by the Vedda people who lived in the forests.

Festival at Kataragama Temple

The annual festival at the Kataragama temple takes place from July to August to celebrate the glory of God as well as the marriage of the Vedda princess. This festival is known as Eshele Perehera in Sinhalese. About 45 days before the festival commences the priests head out to the jungle from where they search for two forked branches of the sacred tree. These branches are later immersed into the river and dedicated to the deity.

During the main festival the devotees take the deity and parade through the streets and return back with the deity to the temple after a duration of two hours. The priests conduct the rituals of the temple in a calm manner covering their mouth with a white cloth. Hundreds of devotees participate in fire walking, body piercing and ecstatic dance forms called Kavadi.

Legends of the Kataragama Temple

Hindu Legends
The main temple shrine is dedicated to Kartikeya who is also known as Murugan in Tamil texts as the chief warrior of the celestial Gods. The mention of Lord Murugan is in Sangam literature which dates to 2nd Century BCE to 6th Century BCE. The deity was known to be the protector or the guardian deity of Sri Lanka.

Buddhist Legends
One of the legends speaks about the saint Skanda-Kumara who moved to Sri Lanka to ask for refuge from the Tamils. However, they declined him this help, which resulted in punishment. The deity forced the Tamils into penance, which involved body piercing and fire walking on the annual festival.The place was also a spot for a secretly practising sorcery.

Muslim Legends
The Muslim or Islamic legends are comparatively newer than Hindu and Buddhist legends. These people settled in the vicinity where they built a mosque for their worship. The water close by was said to provide immortality to any person who took a drink from it. Today you will find tombs of historical figures like Jabbar Ali Shah (died 1872) and Meer Syed Mohamed Alisha Bawa (died 1945).

How To Reach Kataragama Temple

You can board a bus from Kandy Secretariat Bus Stop, and take it to either of the bus stations like- Kandy Clock Tower Bus Station, Torrington Bus Station, and Maligawa Bus Stop.

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