The Kataragama Esala Perahera Festival is a vibrant and awe-inspiring annual event at the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya in Sri Lanka. Spanning fifteen days from June 19 to July 3 2023, this festival culminates in the final Maha Perahera on Esala Full Moon Poya Day, which falls on July 3 2023. It is a significant religious and cultural celebration that attracts thousands of devotees and tourists from all over.
The roots of the Kataragama Esala Perahera Festival can be traced back to the legend of Skanda, also known as the Kataragama God or Katharagama Deviyo. According to the legend, Skanda arrived in Sri Lanka and was deeply pleased with the offerings made by the Sinhalese people, particularly a house of leaves and a beautiful consort. The festival commemorates the romantic union of Skanda and his consort, Valli Matha, and celebrates their divine love.
The Main Temple of Kataragama
At the festival’s heart lies the main temple of Kataragama, known as the Maha Devala. This temple is dedicated to Skanda, the Hindu God of War, also revered by Buddhists as the Katharagama Deviyo. Skanda is depicted with six heads, twelve arms, and twenty names, and his devout followers ardently worship him. Alongside the Maha Devala, shrines are dedicated to other deities such as Ganesha, Vishnu, Kali, Pattini, Valli Amman, and Thevani Amman.
Rituals and Processions
Every night during the festival, a grand procession takes place, carrying the Yantra talisman in a casket to the temple of Valli Matha. The talisman symbolizes the divine connection between Skanda and Valli Matha and is briefly placed in the temple’s inner chamber. As the festival progresses, the pageantry and grandeur of the procession intensify. It features a spectacular display of caparisoned elephants, accompanied by dancers, drummers, torchbearers, devil dancers, stilt-walkers, whip-crackers, flame-dancers, incense-bearers, and elephant keepers. The vibrant sights and sounds create a mesmerizing experience for all attendees.
The Final Randoli Perahera
The pinnacle of the Kataragama Esala Perahera Festival is the final Randoli Perahera, which is scheduled to take place on July 3. The procession traditionally passes through significant locations such as the Maha Devala, Ghana Devale, Kirivehera, and Ashtapala Bodhiya before entering the streets from the main Wahalkada of the Kataragama Devale. After visiting the Walli-Amman Devale and conducting religious rites, the Perahera returns to the Kataragama Maha Devala. This grand parade captivates the onlookers with its majestic displays and reinforces the cultural and religious significance of the festival.
Conclusion of the Festival
On July 4, the Kataragama Esala Festival concludes with the water-cutting ceremony in the Menik Ganga. This sacred ceremony marks the end of the festival and is witnessed by devotees and visitors alike. It is a symbolic act that signifies the completion of the festivities and leaves a lasting impression on the attendees.
History of Kataragama Esala Perahera
Kataragama Esala Perahera has a rich historical background that dates back centuries. The bustling town of Kataragama becomes alive with activity during pujas, offerings and prayers. Devotees, carrying their offerings, ascend the temple steps barefoot, creating a vibrant atmosphere. The sound of breaking coconuts can be heard inside the temple as worshippers commence their devotions. It is said that Skanda, the son of Shiva and the god of war and wisdom, rested on the mountain at Kataragama after defeating an army of demons.
During the evening puja, the temple elephant plays a significant role. With a lotus flower held aloft in its trunk, the majestic elephant proceeds to the shrines within the temple premises. It first presents the lotus to a statue of the Buddha, then moves on to offer it to Ganesh at the second shrine. Finally, the elephant heads towards the Maha Devale, the main shrine of Kataragama.
This tranquil routine is disrupted only during the annual festival held on the Esala poya, which falls on the full moon day, usually in late July or early August. The festival engulfs Kataragama in a frenzy of activity. Elephants parade, drummers create rhythmic beats, and devotees make vows and seek favours. Some demonstrate their devotion through penance and self-mortification, such as swinging from hooks or rolling half-naked over hot sands near the temple.
One of the notable acts during the festival is the fire-walking, where participants fast, meditate and pray before walking on beds of red-hot cinders. Known as “treading the flowers,” this act symbolizes their faith and determination. The fire walkers bathe in the Menik Ganga, worship at the Maha Devale, and then courageously step onto the glowing path while the audience offers encouragement. The festival concludes the following morning with a water-cutting ceremony in the Menik Ganga, believed to bring forth rain for bountiful harvests.
The Kataragama shrine is ancient, with legends attributing its construction to King Dutugemunu in the 2nd century BC, although its origins likely predate this period. Pilgrims traditionally follow an old pilgrimage route from Jaffna, passing through Yala, to reach Kataragama. Unfortunately, this route is no longer safe to undertake due to the war. Nonetheless, devotees continue to undertake the journey to the mountain. At dusk, the lights from the shrine on the mountain are visible from the precincts of the Kataragama shrine, adding to the mystique and allure of this sacred place.
In conclusion, the Kataragama Esala Perahera Festival 2023 is a mesmerizing and culturally significant event that showcases the rich traditions of Sri Lanka. The blend of Hindu and Buddhist customs, the elaborate processions, and the unwavering devotion of the participants make it a truly captivating experience. If you want to witness this festival’s grandeur and spiritual fervour, mark your calendars and be part of this extraordinary celebration.
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Who is the Kataragama God? The Kataragama God, also known as Skanda or Katharagama Deviyo, is the Hindu God of War ardently worshipped by devotees visiting the Kataragama Maha Devala. He is depicted with six heads, twelve arms, and twenty names.
Why is Kataragama famous? Kataragama is famous for its annual Esala Perahera Festival, which attracts thousands of devotees and tourists. The festival showcases a blend of Hindu and Buddhist traditions and features grand processions, caparisoned elephants, and vibrant cultural performances.
What is the Kataragama festival? The Kataragama Festival, known as the Kataragama Esala Perahera Festival, is an annual event at the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya in Sri Lanka. It is a religious and cultural celebration that lasts for fifteen days, culminating in a grand procession on the Esala Full Moon Poya Day.
What is the reason for Kataragama Perahera? The Kataragama Perahera commemorates the romantic union of Skanda, the Kataragama God, and Valli Matha. It is a symbolic celebration of their divine love and is considered a significant event in Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
What is the famous Perahera in Sri Lanka? The Kataragama Esala Perahera Festival is one of the most famous Peraheras (processions) in Sri Lanka. It is renowned for its grandeur, cultural significance, and the participation of caparisoned elephants, dancers, drummers, and other performers.