Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Little-known Things About Well-known Kataragama.

The Uva-Wellassa Rebellion

Sri Lanka becoming a British colony, and its first fight against the colonial rule; the Uva-Wellassa Rebellion, both occurred at the dawn of the 19th century. The period after Uva-Wellassa Rebellion seems to have been miserable at Kataragama, and Uva at large. Robert Brownrigg, the Governor of Ceylon visited Kataragama on April 5th 1819 while on his tour through Uva and Central provinces which were devastated by the British colonial military. Medical officer John Davy who was in the team accompanying the Governor recorded his experiences in the book, “An Account of the Interior of Ceylon and of its Inhabitants with Travels in the Island”.

Part of the oldest photograph related to Kataragama Shrine. This was taken in 1819 when Governor Brownrigg visited Kataragama after crushing the Uva-Wellassa Rebellion in 1818.

Davy was expecting to see a grand, mansion of a shrine at Kataragama, which can justify its fame all over the Island and beyond. But he was disappointed to see poverty and deterioration everywhere. There were a lot of small huts in the village on the left bank of River Menik. A division of Malay soldiers under a local officer’s command was stationed there in those huts. These soldiers might have been used to crush the village-level self-sufficient economy of the local Sinhalese who were dwelling in Kataragama during the Rebellion and the period right after it. Basnayaka Nilame and the 12 Kapuralas (servants of the god) had gathered to Maha Devale (the great shrine) premises when the Governor’s convoy arrived. Davy says that their faces looked gloomy and frustrated. The reason for it might have been that they had to welcome the very person who destroyed the Rebellion in which they had their high hopes of winning the country back.

The British also gave the lands of Maha Devale as gifts to the local traitors who supported them to defeat the Rebellion. But, soon after the military protection was taken off the Sinhalese Kapuralas have come and regained the administration of Kataragama Maha Devale. Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devale stayed a Buddhist shrine since 161 BC when King Dutugemunu built it and handed over to Sihnalese Buddhist Kapuralas descending from the generation of General Nandimithra. The gold Sannas book of King Dutugemunu which contained all rules and regulations pertaining to the administration of Kataragama Maha Devale is believed to be hidden inside a rock cave at Horabokka.

John Davy says that he did not see a house with people or any recent cultivation on his way to Kataragama. There were no human beings walking on the roads. Houses seen here and there were ruined. Paddy fields were abandoned. Davy had seen a human skull under a tree with a piece of rope hanging with it. What else could have been there for John Davy to see? During the Rebellion Governor Brownrigg unleashed an imperial terror on Uva Sinhalese, which let their soldiers have a killing spree. Innocent Sinhalese, from babies to old men and women were killed. Their homes, paddy storages, and paddy fields were burnt down and the domestic animals like cows and bulls were killed and eaten. Uva Sinhalese were subjected to these crimes in order to terrorize the entire population, to make them poor, to make them starve, to make them physically and mentally weak and thereby prevent another possible rebellion against the British colonial government. Kataragama was left with a population of about 40 people. They belonged to the families of the feudal servants of Maha Devale.

Esala Festival in the 19th Century

In those early years of the 19th century, people came to Kataragama only during the Esala festival season. June, July and August are the hottest and driest period for Kataragama. In this merciless climate, scarcity of food and water would drive the wild beasts mad. Yet, the pious pilgrims traveled very long distances; through unfavourable geographic conditions, unpopulated lands, jungles full of venomous dry-zone serpents, wild elephants, leopards, bear, wild boar and most of all, mosquitoes; to the holy city of Kataragama. Devotees who came from India would sail to Trincomalee harbour, and from there they started walking via Batticaloa, Akkaraipatthu, Ampara, Thirukkovil, Sangaman Kanda, Uraniya, Pothuvil, Arugambay, Pānàmà, Okanda, Kumana, and crossed Kumbukkan Oya to enter Yala. From there they passed Katagamuwa and Vallimathagama, crossed River Menik and reached Kataragama.

Even after such tiring expeditions pilgrims were left with a completely dried-up River Menik. This made things go bad to worse. Without a good supply of water nobody was able to maintain personal hygiene which in turn made way to cholera and diarrhea. Mosquitos brought in malaria to make things worst. With all these odds against the pilgrims the entire pilgrimage was at stake. There had been occasions that epidemics broke out in Kataragama during Esala pilgrimage season and a lot of people had to die on roads.


Such epidemic breakout occurred in 1858 is prominent in the recorded history of Kataragama. Cholera broke out among the pilgrims, and many men, women and children began dying on roadsides. This caused panic among all. Those who came from far off places of the Island even started running away from Kataragama leaving behind their sick relatives and friends, even forgetting the noble motives that brought them there. The infected individuals who were among the fleeing groups too might have finally died somewhere unknown to them, and their infected excretions might surely have helped to spread the disease to more and more people. Cholera spread out from village to village like wildfire. A recorded 76 dead bodies were found along the 28-mile road from Hambantota to Tangalle in 1858 Esala Season. In the Esala season of 1869 there were 28 corpses in Kataragama, on the streets only. Consider the number of deaths which might have happened on the way and in the jungle. Those dead bodies were consumed by leopards and jackals. Death in Muruga’s territory is blessed for Hindus, and it makes them to have a better afterlife, so they were rather happy and have had courage until the last moment of their life.

The Great Kataragama Shrine today. (Compare this with the 194-year old picture at the top.)

Due to the risk of breaking out epidemics the colonial government decided to limit the number of individuals entering the holy city of Kataragama during the Esala festival. Pilgrims needed to obtain a permit from the Government Agent of the particular area they lived. Those days, the Government Agent of Uva or Hambantota had to inspect the conditions at Kataragama at every pilgrimage season. They had to inspect whether the devotees observe what was called as the ‘Camping Rules’. First of the rules was to stay in the camp during the night; second was not to jump into the river from the bridge; and the third was to strictly use toilets and nowhere else for calls of nature. Toilets were actually pits dug in the ground, probably covered around with woven coconut leaf. Soil dug from the pit was kept close to it with a few coconut shells to cover-up the excreta in the pit. Pions were employed to show those toilets to people, and to make sure they do not use any other place for this requirement. Prisoners were brought there to keep the area clean. A medical officer too was stationed at the pilgrimage site to give free medical aid to anybody in need. Big containers of drinking water were set up along the roadside for the use of pilgrims. Such primary measures of hygiene were started to be taken in 1871 and 1872. With them the death rate of Kataragama pilgrims by cholera was gradually minimized.

Assistant Government Agent of Hambantota, Mr. E. A. King writes in 1870 that Kataragama reminds him of a small unpopulated and ruined village in Ireland. He says that there were a lot of huts spread out by the side of the main road, and those nobody was living were rented out to Chetti, Muslim, Malay, Sinhalese and Tamil sellers who come there in the festival season to open their stalls. Brass items such as cups and saucers, trays, plates, lamps and bells of superb craftsmanship were for sale there at cheap rates. Kandyan pilgrims who came to Kataragama spent their money mostly to buy domestic equipment like pots and pans, cotton clothing, and rice that was sold at 18 to 19 cents per measure (Seruva). Venison, deer-hyde, salt and honey were abundant for sale at Kataragama during the festival season those days. Salt was among the top of the bestsellers.

There had been incidents that Kataragama Esala Perahera was carried out without a tusker to carry the sacred icon of the God. The records made by the government officers say that in 1872, the Basnayaka Nilame requested a tusker from the government, and while having one at Buttala the government had rejected his request. This proves that in 1872 there was no tusker for Kataragama Maha Devale. In the years 1897, 1907, and 1908 also there had not been a tusker in Esala Perahera. In 1907, the tusker who was ready to carry the God’s statue in the Esala Perahera suddenly died of starvation a month before. For all those Esala parades without a proper elephant, the kapuralas had prepared a fake elephant using big barrels fixed to a cart, and covered with black clothes and decorated to look like an elephant. The casket with the God’s icon was kept on it and the relevant Kapurala was riding the fake elephant while someone was pulling it!

Kataragama pilgrimage permit system was stopped in 1925 with the development of medical and other infrastructure facilities in Kataragama.