Vel, Murugan's weaponKataragama Devotees Trust logo in English, Sinhala and Tamil
In recent years the number of Pada Yatra pilgrims has begun to return to pre-war levels. Above: Pada Yatra pilgrims in Ampara District, 2001.
Kataragama Pada Yatra map
Route of the Kataragama Pada Yatra traditionally begins in the Jaffna peninsula from where it takes nearly two months to walk to Kataragama.

Pāda Yātrā: An Introduction

Among the ancient living traditions that survive in Sri Lanka, few are as well known or as poorly understood as that of the Kataragama Pada Yatra. Starting from the island's far north and ending up to two months and several hundred kilometers later at the Kataragama shrine in the remote southeastern jungle,
Axis Mundi: Kailasa in Tibet and Kataragama in the far south are analogised to the world axis of yogic lore.
Mt. Kailasa in western Tibet and Kataragama in the far south of Sri Lanka form a near-perfect analog to the axis mundi or susumna nadi of yogic lore.
the Kataragama Pāda Yātrā tradition has played a major role in propagating and perpetuating traditions of Kataragama throughout Sri Lanka and South India.

Predating the arrival of all four of Sri Lanka's major religions, it is essentially a tradition inherited from the island's indigenous forest-dwellers, the Wanniya-laeto or Veddas, as the Kataragama shrine's Sinhalese kapurala priest-custodians themselves readily concede.

Prior to 1950 when a motorable road was extended up to Kataragama from Tissamaharama, the only way pilgrims could reach Kataragama was on foot or by bullock cart. All that has changed since then and now Kataragama is easily reachable by regular bus service from Colombo and other districts including the Eastern Province where the pada yatra tradition still flourishes. For uncounted centuries, however, pilgrims had come on foot not only from points all over the island but also from India and even occasionally from Central Asia.

Because of the sheer length of the Kataragama Pada Yatra, since ancient times those who walked the distance have tended to be swamis and bawas, dedicated religious specialists. Most of them remain anonymous, but among them have been more than a few great saints, sages and siddhas beginning, it is said, with Skanda-Murukan himself who is the first among pada yatra pilgrims according to the tradition.

The great ones who walked the Pāda Yātrā include, notably, the renowned fifteenth century Tamil psalmist Arunagirinathar, who composed at least one Tiruppukal hymn at Kirimalai (near Kankesanturai in the Jaffna peninsula), another at Tirukkonamalai (modern Trincomalee) and fourteen at Katir-kāmam, '(the place of) brilliance and passion', i.e. Kataragama. More recent well-known pilgrims have included Palkudi Bawa and Yogaswami of Nallur. The following account of Nallur Yogaswami's pilgrimage to Kataragama remains typical even today:

"Subsequently by about the middle of 1910, Swami left on a solitary sojourn by foot along the Island's coastal belt eastward, and met many ascetics on the way. He moved freely with certain Muslim Sufi saints, Buddhist monks, and Veddha chiefs. He communed with Murugan in Kathirkamam, the Holy of Holies skirted by the Manica Ganga…from 1910, he had taken solitary long distance pilgrimages to Tiruketeeswaram, and on to Vattappalai and Koneswaram at Trincomalee, and skirting the east coast by the foot path, he had spent his recluse days at Sittankudi, Batticaloa and Tirukkovil. Many a time, he had related incidents when he trekked the Vedda tracts of Moneragala and Bibile to reach the abode of Murugan at Kathirkamam, skirted by the Manica Ganga and the seven hills of Kathiramalai."

Almost no records survive written in the pilgrims' own words, although British government agents made exhaustive records of the colonial government's draconian steps taken to discourage or restrict a practice they considered to be unhealthy and unproductive. The perspective of dedicated foot pilgrims, however, was and remains radically different from that of most scholars and outside observers.

From Kailasa to Kataragama: Mystical passage via the axis mundi

Like his 'father' Siva, Skanda-Murukan is a god associated with mountains and hilltops; his Wanniyala-aeto worshippers even today know him as Kande Yaka, the hunter Spirit of the Mountain. Vedahitikanda, 'The Peak Where He Was' in Kataragama, to Tamils is Katira Malai, the 'Mountain of Light' and even to this day the Kataragama Pāda Yātrā is also known in Tamil as Katira Malai Karai Yāttirai, the 'coastal pilgrimage to the Shining Peak.' In view of its strong associations with the god's origin on Mount Kailāsa, it is also well known as Daksina Kailasa, the 'Southern Kailāsa.'

This long-standing postulation of a North-South axis anchored at Uttara Kailāsa in Tibet and Daksina Kailāsa in Sri Lanka takes on profound significance in the tradition of pilgrimage and mystical practice at Kataragama. For it is a remarkable fact that Mt. Kailāsa in the trans-Himalaya and Kataragama in the far south constitute a North-South axis not merely in yogic lore, but also in modern geographical terms as well.

Vows and the Power of True Utterances

Of course, the idea of undertaking a contract or covenant with an unseen god is not peculiar to the Indian subcontinent alone but is an honored tradition even in Semitic religions. Indeed, all over the world from remote times people individually or collectively have undertaken formal commitments or vows or covenants with unseen gods or spirits. Everywhere the practice is felt to confirm and reestablish the relationship between the human and spiritual realms by giving the force of truth to utterances and ritual acts associated with them.

In the Kataragama Pada Yatra tradition, vows play a fundamental role. The Kataragama Esala festival season officially begins forty-five days before the festival itself with the kap hitavima rite at the Kataragama Mahadevale when kapurala priests go into the god's forest where they cut two tree saplings and ritually 'plant' them in the Maha Devale. By this ritual act the kapuralas express a vow that they will perform the Esala festival starting 45 days later.

On the very day that the kapuralas are performing the kap hitavima rite, far to the north the Pada Yatra pilgrims assemble at the great Vattappalai Kannaki Amman festival near Mullaittivu. Here the pilgrims make their private pledge or promise to do something that may be hard to do or else to abstain from certain habitual activities, usually for the course of the pilgrimage. This may mean walking barefoot to Kataragama for some, or abstaining from smoking for the duration of the pilgrimage for others. Both are instances of 'self-naughting', one of the cornerstones of spiritual practice.

Following the riots of 1983, for years it was not safe for Tamils to walk openly through Sinhala areas, nor they have not been able to walk from points north of Trincomalee. But with the founding of the Kataragama Devotees Trust in 1988 with the explicit objective of reviving the Pada Yatra and other Kataragama traditions, the number of pilgrims has slowly returned to earlier levels in the eastern districts. The great majority of foot pilgrims walk from Batticaloa and Ampara districts, which are much closer to Kataragama than Trincomalee, Vavuniya or Jaffna districts where only the most ardent devotees are prepared to walk for forty days or more.

In Kaumara tradition, the Spirit's active yet covert involvement is the vital or magical ingredient that transforms pada yatra from a mere walking journey into the experience of spiritual passage through a maze of subtle dimensions that escape the attention of non-participant observers. By the power of an underlying presence that none can claim to understand, earnest pilgrims traverse through the shadowy world of outward appearances and penetrate deep into an effulgent interior realm of Katir-Kāmam or 'light and delight.' For them the spiritual journey is not an empty metaphor but intensely vivid and real. In this sense, only experienced pilgrims can appreciate what it means to cross invisible thresholds and plunge into strange realms of sacred time and sacred space. Hence, the motif of the labyrinth or passage to the innermost sanctum finds application in spiritual traditions worldwide, particularly in the context of pilgrimage in the dual sense of outward journey and inward passage to one's metaphysical source or center.

The above article is an extract from
"From Kailāsa to Kataragama: Sacred Geography in the cult of Skanda-Murukan"