Welcome back to another instalment of my series on a trip I made to the wonderful country of Sri Lanka in early 2014 and if you want the whole tale from the beginning then you can start here.
15th February, 2014.
I woke up on the Saturday morning and went outside for a smoke where I met my friend from reception the evening before. He told me my new room was ready so I moved there. This one only had space for three or four at a pinch (one of the beds was a large single / small double) so I asked the guy if there was any chance of a coffee and moved across the pleasant complex to my new billet.
Whilst my mate was off making the coffee I was admiring a rather atrractive work of art on the wall of the communal area which you can see in one of the images above. The coffee duly arrived, in a proper porcelain coffeepot with proper cup and saucer no less. I suspect my host did not have much to do as the place was fairly quiet although I had heard a large party apparently moving out earlier which is presumably why I had been given the six bed room before.
My “new best friend”, whose e-mail I still have but didn’t fancy getting in touch with just to ask the name of a guesthouse he worked in seven years go, saw my camera and insisted on taking an image of me. I don’t really like having my photo taken but it would have been rude to refuse so you may as well see the result. Frankly, I prefer the unadorned mural!
I promised to tell you about Kateragama in the last episode so this seems like a good time to do so.
Kateragama is a small town of only about 20,000 inhabitants and it’s entire raison d’être is that it is a holy site. If there were such a thing as religious “top trumps” you might htink that Jerusalem would be the best card to hold as it is sacred to Moslems, Jews and Christians but if you held it you would lose to this small Sri Lankan town. Kateragama is a holy site and place of pilgrimage for no less than four faith systems namely Hunduism, Buddhism, Islam and the ancient religion of the indigenous Vedda people and what is more all their places of worship are in the one complex which is quite incredible.
The Kateragama Temple as it is generically known in English is home to an amazing array of places of worship and it was my principal reason for visiting. It is because of the religious significance that alcohol is completely banned within the confines of the whole town and which explains my lack of beer in the previous post.
I approached the complex across a bridge spanning the Menik Ganga where there were a number of people bathing although whether this was for religious purposes or merely cooling off I could not say. Beside the bridge was a tree adorned with what I presume were offerings and bizarrely many of them were number plates from vehicles. The third image obviously shows times which I am guessing must be religious services.
When I got into the complex the first place of worship I saw was the Sivan Kovil which looks like an ordinary secular building and this is a feature of Kateragama, there is little in the way of ostentatious external decoration anywhere. The absence of any representation of a god or gods externally is unique in Hindu temples anywhere in India or Sri Lanka.
Kovil, which is also rendered as Koyil or Koil, is a Tamil word which means a place of worship or house of God and is associated with a particular type of Hindu temple with Dravidian (Southern Indian) architecture. This in itself is worthy of note as the vast majority of Tamils in Sri Lanka are Moslems. I did wonder if the word Sivan was something to do with the god Shiva / Siva but I have been unable to find out.
Next to the Sivan Kovil was another similarly plain building and I have included the second image to show the railed area with the coconut halves on the ground. Several times I saw people breaking coconuts open and depositing them, presumably as some sort of offering.
The Hindus have dedicated their shrines here to to Kartikeya, known as Murugan in Tamil language, who is the God of War, son of Shiva and Parvati and brother of Ganesh (my particular Hindu deity). For many centuries he was believed to be the protector of the country. Interestingly, in the religious mix that is Sri Lanka, Buddhists also revere this god, calling him Kumaradevio or Skanda-Kumara.
Only a matter of yards from these two kovils I saw a compound that could only have been Moslem and indeed it was. The predominance of the colour green which is the Moslem colour, the Arabic writing on the front wall and the crescent moon and star motif on the gatepost and water cistern were easy to spot.
The site is holy for Moslems as a number of Islamic holy men, including one named Hayathu migrated here from Northern India centuries ago and Hayathu’s simple home is now the mosque. Another one of the holy men, Karima Nabi, is supposed to have found a source of water which provides immortality. The Moslem people refer to Kateragama as al-Khidr which means land of Khidr.
To complete the triumvirate I have included here an image of one of the many Buddhist shrines in the complex. Buddhists, in addition to believing in Skanda-Kumara as I mentioned, also adhere to the cult of Kataragama deviyo, the principal deity associated with the site. This presents difficulty for Buddhist scholars as Buddhism is a nontheistic belief system yet it is very popular amongst Sri Lankan Buddhists. Kataragama deviyo has the power to curse which is another particularly Sri Lankan facet of their Buddhist faith. The deity is said to receive sacrifices beside the Menik Ganga, the river I crossed to get in here.
Wait a moment, I just said triumvirate but didn’t I say earlier that there were four belief systems represented here? Yes, I did. The fourth is the Vedda people but they do not build shrines, at least not permanent ones. Neither do they believe in the cult of Kataragama deviyo. Their principal deity is Gale Yakka (Lord of the Rock) who is to be worshipped particularly before hunting.
The Vedda build a shrine of thatched leaves with an arrow or spear in the middle of it to ensure a successful hunt but obviously these decay quickly. They believe that the Gale Yakka (Lord of the Rock) originally lived on a nearby mountain called Vaedihitti Kande (The Mountain of Veddas) but after marrying a Vedda woman he came off the the peak to settle here, hence the reverence of the site by the Vedda.
Many Vedda still make long barefoot pilgrimages to visit Kateragama.
A large part of Buddhist and Hindu worship involves making offerings. In addition to the smashed coconuts I mentioned above, bananas and flower garlands seem to be the most popular choices and there is a thriving market to ensure the faithful can purchase an appropriate gift for the deity of their choice.
There you are then, the Kateragama fourfold religious site but I fear that not even the combined might of all this holiness could convert me nor deflect me from my next move.
I did see this sign at the entrance to the complex which I had missed on the way in and which brought a wry smile to my lips. Even if you were so ignorant as to contemplate doing such a thing you would struggle for the reasons outlined above i.e. no drink in the town of Kateragama but I had a solution.
On the principle of always seeking local advice I had spoken to my friend in the guesthouse and he told me the thing to do was to to get a tuk-tuk out the Tissa Road and there were several hotels up there that had bars. Well, I nothing to do and all day to do it so I thought I would skip the three wheeler and go for a walk. I knew there was a lake out that road and thought I’d have a look at it en-route.
It turned out to be a bit of a trek until I found the first hotel but it was pleasant enough and the lake was attractive. The only problem was that the footpath (sidewalk) was noticeable by it’s absence for most of the way. This was fine in the daylight but I wouldn’t have fancied it after dark.
The first likely looking place I came to was the Hotel Chamila and I was in like a shot. It looked very pleasant with a good sized swimming pool out the front but I was as reasonably dressed as I ever am on the road with trainers instead of flip-flops and trousers taking the place of my favoured shorts. I had not been sure if shorts were appropriate for the temple.
Even on a Saturday afternoon the place was virtually deserted but I was getting used to that by now. I picked a seat looking over the pool and with views back over the Detagamuwa Wewa, the lake I had just walked past and on over the town. Being slightly up the hill there was the faintest of breezes to knock the edge off the heat. So pleasant was it that I did not move for the rest of the day.
I had worked out that there was nothing more I wanted to see in town, there was no chance of a drink so what else was I going to do? I had picked up my netbook on the wat past so I spent a pleasant afternoon / evening trying in vain once again to catch up on my travel writing. Service was efficient and friendly although I could not work out why they had three opr four staff on fo, at “peak time” about half a dozen customers. Perhaps they were hoping for an unbooked coach party to turn up or something.
I didn’t fancy that road after dark so I got the waiter to call me a tuk-tuk but I wasn’t late back and headed for an early bed in my new room.
16th February, 2014.
I hope you know by now that I like to report honestly and the simple truth is that if I had not pre-booked my room for that night I would have probably jumped on a bus and got out of town. I was effectively killing time and the best place I could think of to kill it was in the Hotel Chamila again so it was back up the hill to work up a thirst and much more of the same that afternoon and evening.
The only differences this day was that I took a good walk round the quite extensive grounds of the hotel and noticed that every effort had been made to make the establishment as accessible as possible. This is not always the case i Sri Lanka, or at least was not in 2014, so full marks for that.
The other difference was that I had something to eat that evening, something I had omitted to do the day before although that is not unusual for me. As the image shows it was somewhat of a strange concoction consisting of vegetable rice with the usual fried egg, bacon and some sort of skewered meat. Sadly, memory does not allow me to tell you what exactly it was but it must have been OK as I tend to remember bad meals.
A few more beers and it was time for the tuk-tuk home and another relatively early night because I was definitely on the move in the morning.
In the next post I make a move, make a half-baked attempt at some nature photography and a much more serious one at emptying a bar of Lion lager and have a couple of lovely meals. I am not going to tell you where all this happens now so you’ll have to stay tuned and spread the word.
8 thoughts on “Temple total theology – SL#27.”
Lars / Askla, thanks so much, I had an idea that was what it was but it is nice to have it confirmed as it is nice to hear form another VT’er here. I hope you are keeping well and thank you for reading my blog and taking the time to assist me.
The texts on the tables are in singhalese (the upper) and tamil. They state the prayer times on Sundays down to Saturdays.
You was wondering about the name Sivan. Yes it is another name for Shiva.
Regards Askla, as my VT name was.
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That will be amazing, they really are an ancient people not unlike the Australian aborigines I think. Where is that meeting? Yala? Ratnapura? I know there are not many of them left in their natural environments (a few hundred? Nobody really knows as they don’t go in for censuses), the modern world has just swept them away like so much else.
I know the way you and Chris like to travel and believe me, you will love SL, it is just made for you.
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It’s in Gal Oya NP: https://www.galoyalodge.com/
I envy you that and sad as it is to say it, there is probably only one more generation of the Vedda left, if that. The 21st century world just does not seem to have room for the “ancients”.
How interesting to find a place that is holy to four religions!
I can think of no other place like it. I know a building in Brick Lane that has been a Hugenot Church, synagogue and is now a mosque but four is a record for me. #
The Vedda fascinated me when I read about them, they really still live a fairly primitive existence even now.
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We are hoping to meet some Vedda. One of the camps we plan to stay at offers the opportunity to meet the local Vedda chief and learn something of their culture from him
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