Kataragama Esala Perahera, Venerating the God of War

Rituals performed at Kataragama Esala perahera 

The annual perahera is held in honor of the god residing in the shrine at Kataragama. This commences in July and lasts for two weeks and culminates on the Nikini poya day. The entire perahera procession is an intriguing fusion of cultures, religions and legends. Also it is a fine example of how religions and cultures coexisted in harmony in Sri Lanka for more than two millennia.  

As per traditions, the perahera rituals commences with the Kap situweema ceremony. This is performed forty five days prior to the main perahera. Once the main perahera is over, the ‘kap’ that was kept inside Walli amma’s shrine, is taken back, cut into two pieces and is buried at the port where the water cutting ceremony is performed. Devotees believe that burying the ‘kap’ in the shores will result in heavy rains. 

Once the kap situweema is over, there is a pirith ceremony at the Kiri vehera followed by offerings to the monks. The first tusker carries the Buddha’s relics in a well adorned casket, followed by the second tusker carrying the deva-abharana (God’s jewelry). After walking through the devala vidi, the perahera arrives at the kiri vehera premises, and there will be offerings to the monks. Therefore, this is the only Devala perahera which has Buddhist rituals at the beginning and at the end.

It is said that earlier there were altogether twenty-five peraheras, yet today there are only nineteen peraheras. The entire perahera rests at fourteen places and performs rituals. It is believed that two officials who walk next to the basnayake nilame represent KingDutugamunu’s and Saddhatissa’s chief ministers. At the Walli amma devale veddas perform rituals using their bow and arrows. Once the perahera arrives at the main devale, the casket is taken inside. Then the aalaththi amma women pay their tribute and this ritual is called as aalaththi baama. On the sixth day of the perahera, King Dutugamunu’s tusker’s tusks, which are kept inside the devale is taken out for public display. Three days before the last perahera, the most exciting event, fire walking is performed. The last perahera starts from Maha devale and walks towards Kiri vehera. Once the alms giving and water cutting ceremony is performed, the perahera officially ends. 

Fire walking – 

Fire walking is a ritual performed at devalas which literally means ‘walking on fire’. The walking path is a bed of burning logs or hot charcoal or in some cases, hot stones. This is a religious and cultural ritual performed in many parts of the world, prevailing since ancient times. 

What is expected from this ritual is to test the faith, character, and righteousness of a person. It is believed that a righteous person can walk through and over fire without being harmed, not even a scratch. Many cultures across the globe, from Greece to China, used fire walking for healing and faith. 

Devotees who intend to perform this ritual spend some days without consuming alcohol and meat. Before walking on the bed of fire, they bath in the Manik River. 

Water cutting ceremony – The water cutting ritual at Kataragama devale is performed on the last day after the ‘fire walking’ ritual. This is one of the most sacred and significant rituals performed at every devala and temple perahera. This ritual is to bring rain and prosper to the country by pleasing the gods of water and rain. 

The priest (Diya kapana raala) who is performing the ‘water cutting’ is escorted to the historical port Jeewamali thota at the Manik River in a palanquin. He is escorted to the sacred port in utmost secrecy. Then he enters the covered place at the port with a gold sword and a gold pot. The public is not allowed to witness what is happening here, as the entire place is covered with white curtains and the palanquin with tree leaves. Diya-kapana-raala cuts the water using the gold sword. He fills the splashing water into the gold pot. This water filled pot is kept until the next year inside the main devale. This ritual is followed by a number of other offerings and rituals performed till the night. At night, after all the rituals are over, the final ritual is performed by the Diya-kapana-raala on the ‘mandapa’ or stage near the bo tree. He cleanses himself by bathing and then touches a goat or a cow. This is to ward off any evil eye casted upon him during the water cutting ritual. Even after the ritual is performed, Diya-kapana-raala is vowed to live a life devoted to god for three more months. 

Aalththi pooja – Alaththi pooja is a notable ritual performed at Kataragama devale, Saman devale and at the temple of tooth, Kandy. This ritual is performed by women and they are referred to as Alaththi amma. Alaththi in Tamil means ‘invoking blessing’. Alaththi pooja was an age old tradition practiced in royal palaces and temples in Sri Lanka. Legend says that Alaththi bama was performed in front of the king as he wakes up in the morning. The women lit lamps on their palms and move them in a rhythmic pattern chanting poems. It is believed that by doing so they invoke blessings towards the king. This ritual is not performed at Buddhist temples, but only at devales. 

These ladies are dressed in white and they moves the oil lamps in a rhythmic pattern, standing in front the devale. The dress is a simple white cloth covering the entire lower body and a white jacket covering the upper body. Alaththi ammas’ at Kataragama wears a piece of colored scarf around the breast, leaving a bare back. Hair is tied as a knot. 

At Kataragama, they are believed to be representing the twelve maids of to Walli amma. These twelve maids were the first Alaththi ammas to perform at Kataragama. As a continuation of this practice Alaththi ammas are performing at the devale daily and in the perahera.  At Kataragama, in old days Alaththi ammas were usually upper caste women and they were rewarded for their task. They also take part in the ‘Nanumura’ ceremony. 

Historical records state that there were thousands of Alaththi ammas to bless the king during the Kandyan kingdom period. It is fair to believe that during the Kandyan period the Alaththi ammas’ who were attached to the royal palace would have been dressed in glamour and splendor. But as it was adopted in devalas for a religious purpose, their outfits and looks became simple and pale, in order to retain the sacredness. 

Some scholars tend to see a connection between Alaththi ammas and Devadasis in India. The ritual of alaththi can be seen in India, especially during Tamil weddings and other cultural and religious festivals. They light lamps and recite poems at these functions. Devadasis in India shows very less or no similarity to Alaththi ammas. Alaththi ammas do not dress in glamour and do not perform dances as Devadasis do. Moreover, Devadasis are considered as consorts of gods. Alaththi ammas are not considered so and live an ordinary domestic life style, away from luxurious and glamour. Young girls are being sold to kovils/devalas by their families as Devadasis, but Alaththi amma is a sacred profession that is passed down from generation to generation. 

Pada yatra- Pada yatra is a strenuous lengthy walk starting from the far North of the island. Sinhala and Tamil devotees walk for days across the North – Eastern coast of the island, and across Yala national park, reaching Kataragama to attend the perahera during the month of Esala. 

This tiring journey is all about faith and devotion towards god and according to folklore it may resemble the walk of Skandha or an ascetic once traveled to Kataragama from India. 

Kap situ weema, bathing from the holy water of river Manik (river of gems), pol gasima( Smashing coconuts), gini paagima (walking on fire) are significant rituals performed at the Katharagama devale Esala perahara.  Many tend to easily believe that these rituals are Hindu influences. However, it is not fair to come to such conclusions as all these practices are common in many ‘non-Buddhist’ beliefs. Devotees perform painful and sacrificial practices to please gods, due to the fear they have towards gods. The oldest known fire-walking ritual is heard from ancient Greece.

Fire walking and Water-cutting rituals are few rituals which cannot be explained by modern science. What devotees believe is that the faith and righteousness of character that protects those who walk on fire. No modern scientific explanation has been able to solve why and how devotees are not being burnt or why rain falls after the water-cutting ritual. Water has always been associated with agricultural prosper, and other worldly pleasures. Water is used in rituals in almost all cultural and religious festivals in many ancient cultures. Various water festivals and water sports were held by Sinhalese monarchs for pleasure and prosper. 

Tusker leaving the main entrance of the devale

Aalaththi ammas performing rituals

Traditional performers in the perahera

Beautiful dancers dressed as peacocks

Uncategorized, esala perahera, god of war, kataragama devale, kataragama devi, kataragama perahera, mahasen devi, perahera of Sri Lanka, skandha