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The Kataragama Shrine is ancient which was built by King Dutugemunu in the 2nd century BC. But it is apparently even older than this. Katharagama drones with activity at the time of Pooja (Offerings Payers) everyday followed by a sacred schedule. Devotees laden with offerings bundled with fruits and sweets and move lightly, barefoot up the temple steps. From inside comes the sharp sound of breaking coconut as worshippers begin their devotions. A queue turns round the shrine inner walls and the people stand patiently, grasping plates of offereings heaped with fruit and flowers and decorated with brilliant red garlands dedicatedly made only for Skanda, Son of Shiva and called as the god of war and wisdom. It is said that Skanda rested on the mountain at Katharagama after defeating an army of demons. A murmur ripples through the north gate and across the courtyard to the first of three shrines.
A loft in its trunk it holds a single lotus flower. The mahout taps the elephant gently on the shoulder and it kneels, placing a lotus before a statue of the Buddha. The elephant throws itself off its knees and turns towards the next shrine, dedicated to the God Ganesh. The performance is repeated and elephant is rewarded with few bananas. It moves towards the final shrine, the Maha Devale.
The elephant glides gracefully among the crowd parts of the temple silently. The shrine doors are about to be flung open to admit the worshippers and their gifts. This gentle rhythm is broken only for the annual festival that is held on Esala Poya (Full moon), usually in late July or Early August of the year. This is a time of excited activity at Katharagama Elephants Parade, drummers and drum.
Promises are made and favours sought by devotees who prove their sincerity by performing extraordinary acts of penance; some swing from hooks that pierce their skin, others roles half-naked over the hot sands near the temple. A few perform the act of walking on beds of red-hot embers treading the flowers, as it is called. The fire walkers fast meditate and pray, bathe in the Manik Ganga (A river) and then worship at the Maha Devale (The main Shrine) before facing their ordeal. Then the fire-walkers step out onto the glowing path while the audience cries out encouragement. The next morning the festival officially ends with a water-cutting ceremony (Said to revoke the rain for the harvests) in the Manik Ganga the River of Gems.
Every year there is an old pilgrimage route to Kataragama from Jaffna extreme north of Sri Lanka and runs down along the east coast, passing through Yala National Park to honour the God Skanda for saving their lives.
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