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Kataragama Esala Festival

The ancient Kataragama Shrine according to legend, was built by King Dutugemunu (2nd century BC). The central event which pays homage to Kataragama Deviyo is the annual Esala Festival held in late July or early August. Customary rituals of this festival starting with the Kap Situweema (ceremony of installation of a sanctified log known as Kapa at the premises of the temple) held at an auspicious time after the conclusion of Poson Poya day.

Devotees after having a bath in Menik Ganga (a river flowing near to the Kataragama temple) dressed in clean white clothes, walk across to the temple bearing offerings (Puja’s) arranged beautifully with fruit, flowers and decorative red garlands walking barefoot up the temple steps. One can hear the cracking sound of coconuts breaking as worshippers perform devotions. Around six o’clock in the evening, the evening puja devotion is performed while a long queue of devotees makes its way by the shrine's walls with their offerings to Lord Skanda, son of Shiva and the God of war and wisdom. It is to them that the main shrine at Kataragama is dedicated. It is said that Lord Skanda rested on the mountain at Kataragama after defeating an army of demons.

Devotees wait eagerly for the temple elephant as it makes its way calmly from the north gate of the temple, over the courtyard to the first of three revered shrines, holding a lotus flower in its trunk. Its mahout gently guides the elephant, signaling by a tap on the elephant’s shoulder for it to kneel, as it reverently places the lotus flower before the statue of the Lord Buddha. The elephant then lurches itself upright and makes its way to the next shrine dedicated to Lord Ganesh and repeats this performance. It then makes its way to the third shrine, the Maha Devale, wooing the onlookers with awe as it proceeds through and kneels. This signifies that the shrine doors will now be open, admitting devotees to make offerings of their gifts.

These solemn proceedings can be observed daily and on the Esala Poya (Esala Full Moon – late July or early August), the annual festival is celebrated. The Kataragama Esala Perehera is a spectacular event known as one of the most elegant, historical cultural pageants in Sri Lanka, heralded with much excitement and devotional rituals. Drummers and dancers, complemented by majestically adorned elephants as they parade the streets while devotees demonstrating their faith by making vows through performing amazing acts of self-punishment and self-humiliation can be seen. They swing from hooks pierced through their skin while yet others roll semi-clad over hot sand. Fire-walkers walk on beds of red-hot-coal which they refer to as ‘treading the flowers’ adding to the wonder and amazement of this sacred festival.

These fire-walkers fast, meditate and pray, bathing in the Menik Ganga and thereafter worshiping at the Maha Devale before performing these rituals astonishing onlookers as they step onto the glowing path of cinders within the main temple-yard following the exciting procession.

The following morning, a water-cutting ceremony (to evoke rain for bountiful harvests) is held in the fluid waters of the Menik Ganga, led by the Kapurala (official of the temple) who cuts the water of the great river with a sword. This ceremonially marks the end to this elegant annual festival after which devotees immerse themselves into the waters of Manik Ganga for purification.

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