It is an arduous pilgrimage to the sacred tamarind tree shrine of Kebilitta that lies in the jungle of the Yala Block III near the Kumbukkan Oya to seek divine blessings of God Kataragama.
The Kataragama Esala Festival, set around the historic Ruhunu Kataragama Maha Devalaya in the deep South of Sri Lanka, began last week with much reverence. An awe-inspiring annual ritual, which has been held for centuries, the festival draws thousands of devotees from various ethnicities who pay reverence to God Kataragama, the deity with six faces and 12 hands, mounted upon a peacock chariot. I thought of taking you today to the Kebilitta jungle tree shrine of God Kataragama in the middle of the jungle of the Yala National Park.
Kebilitta which is said to be the spiritual abode of God Kataragama, is believed to be a site of great divine power. Although the historic shrine of the Ruhunu Kataragama Maha Devalaya and the Kirivehera dagaba attract thousands of devotees, the belief that the divinity prefers to spend his time at the more tranquil environs of Kebilitta attracts die-hard devotees to this jungle tree shrine.
Although I have been visiting Kataragama, Sellakataragama and Vedasitikanda since my childhood, I have never been to the Kebilitta sacred site because it locates in the deep inside of the Yala wildlife sanctuary. I had a dream of visiting Kebilitta one day in my lifetime. So, I had an opportunity to make a trek to visit Kebilitta recently with my son.
Our group comprised 15 males, young and middle aged, a few first time visitors including my son and I. Our experienced guide or Kapu Mahattaya, Chetiya Chamika is a pure vegetarian from Ruwanwella. Looking at him, it is apparent he is a great devotee of God Kataragama. For years, he has served God Kataragama with great reverence, and organised journeys through the Kotiyagala village in the Southern part of Moneragala district.
The journey for which preparations are made months before the pilgrimage, is a test of one’s self and beliefs. We have heard many stories of lost pilgrims and elephant attacks on rowdy visitors who behave in unruly manner. However, one does not undertake the pilgrimage to Kebilitta for the fun of it. Many had not been able to reach the Kebilitta shrine on their first try.
The devotees offer Pooja Watti (baskets) with fruits and sweetmeats to God Kataragama at the Kebilitta shrine
Surprisingly, the drive was arduous, vehicles topple and at times winches are used to pull the vehicles as they struggle in the mud. Stories of overflowing rivers and unsuccessful travels are repeated as precautions and pre-warnings to the reckless. Abstinence is a must. One has to be a complete vegetarian for at least seven days prior to the journey. One needs to control one’s temper, refrain from using harsh words, lead a life of simplicity and not talk about the forthcoming travel.
Before we set out on the pilgrimage, we first venerated the Kirivehera at Kataragama after the early morning dip in the Menik Ganga and decided to take the route from Siyambalanduwa through Kotiyagala, which is said to be more difficult than the other routes. Since we did not have a 4×4 drive vehicle, Chetiya arranged two tractors which is the most popular mode of transport to Kebilitta.
Experienced and vigilant drivers are a must as you are travelling through the wilderness away from the city. Prior to leaving for Kebilitta, Chetiya lit a lamp, incense sticks and left the branch of a tree at the base of a tree where a small shrine had been made for God Kataragama in the form of a bequest, seeking a safe and successful journey.
We drove through Kotiyagala passing the burnt and stripped virgin forest canopy, as burnt giant trees looked at us, shedding tears on their branches since there is no one to tell their agony to. It was a tragic scene of deforestation.
The endless virgin forest of the Yala National Park spread in front of us under the towering trees as we made a 45 kilometre arduous trek to Kebilitta in a bumpy tractor ride through a gravel track from Kotiyagala. Being the dry season, we were fortunate to drive on the dried up river beds, crossing sand dunes.
The journey to Kebilitta or Maha Siyabalawa Devalaya, the spiritual abode of God Kataragama near the bank of Kumbukkan Oya which was flowing calmly with little water was a difficult journey. Yet, it is a spiritual journey with the sounds of nature along the dirt track to the jungle site. The trek has not disheartened the devotees who throng, seeking the blessings of God Kataragama.
There are two routes, one from Okanda, an entrance of the Kumana East National Park via Kuda Kebilitta. The other route lies through Kotiyagala, in Siyabalanduwa often used by local pilgrims. We used the second route, through the Kotiyagala.
The journey to Kebilitta on both routes is through the rough terrains of Yala and across the Kumbukkan Oya, where a small shrine dedicated to God Skanda and Goddess Pattini stands at the crossing. Traditionally, an oil lamp is lit every time a pilgrim enters the forest invoking a safe journey.
Beside the river bed and across the river lies the abode of God Kataragama. When we reached Kumbukkan Oya, tractor loads of devotees had already arrived to offer poojas to the Kebilitta sacred site.
As there are no facilities, camping-equipment, water, food and most importantly lamps need to be taken. All goods for the pooja too need to be taken.
We had to park the tractor along the riverside under the Kumbuk trees. After a dip in the Kumbukkan Oya, we camped one night on the right bank, sleeping under the stars after a dinner cooked on the spot. Kapu Mahattaya, Chamika, and the rest of the group started organising the various items that we had to prepare for the Pooja.
The stanzas chanted by devotees in the Bodhi pooja reverberated across the forest till 12 midnight and then the whole forest remained calm and quiet when the devotees went to sleep. The silence of the forest was broken only by the hooting voice of a bird called Ulama (Devil bird) which pierced the still air.
Domain of God Kataragama
Devotees near the seven water holes on the river bed
At 3 the next morning, Chetiya advised us to get ready for the pooja. Crossing the river and entering the domain of God Kataragama, the devotees cleanse themselves with lime and water taking a dawn dip in the Kumbukkan Oya prior to crossing the river to go to the shrine. We then dress modestly in white attire and moved into a dried up river bed and built a makeshift structure with four sticks as corner-stones and a white cloth on top to cover. A stove was built using three stones to prepare the Murthan Bath, or an offering of sweet rice. Then oil lamps and incense sticks were lit on betel leaves which was done in traditional style.
According to the instructions of Chetiya, seven holes were dug on the bank of the river, representing seven wells. Around each well, branches with leaves and oil lamps are planted and turmeric added to each well to purify the water used to cook the Murthan Batha and also wash the fruits that were required for the Pooja Watti (baskets). While the Murthan Batha was on the stove, others in the group prepared the fruit Pooja Watti which comprised red banana, oranges, lime, ripe jak fruit (Waraka), king coconut and various sweetmeats.
We worked hard to ensure that everything was prepared systematically while Chetiya too oversaw the preparation. After every item was placed in the Pooja Watti, all the baskets were covered with a red cloth which is the colour of God Kataragama. As a tradition, prior to the offering to the God, a Buddha pooja is offered to the Buddha. We proceeded to the Bodhi Tree on the river bank and offered Pooja after lighting oil lamps and incense sticks and chanting Pirith. The Bodhi tree and the main shrine do not have any permanent buildings, the trees of the jungle are the ‘walls’ and the sky is the ‘roof’.
Returning from the Bodhi Tree to the river bed where we made the pooja, we stood in a line and covered our heads, mouths and noses with white cloths to ensure that our breath would not contaminate the divine offerings. We retraced carrying the Pooja Wattis in single file to the shrine that is dedicated to God Kataragama. The shrine itself had no signs of any concrete buildings. The prayers echo through the jungle surrounding the tree shrine amid the sweet smell of fragrance and after prayers the devotees are led to a giant tamarind tree, the home of God Kataragama.
Home of God Kataragama
The tamarind tree at the shrine is small and looks just like a plant. Yet according to legend, the tree had stood on the site for many years but remained the same in size. It is said there was a massive tamarind tree at the shrine, the original home of God Kataragama. However, over the years the lighting of oil lamps had taken its toll on the tree and what remains today is a sapling, which had stopped growing after a few years.
After the first tree was destroyed, it is said that God Kataragama had chosen a second tamarind tree, which stands tall, alone in a small clearance some distance away from the main shrine. It is regarded as one of the purest sacred sites of God Kataragama.
The dense jungle of Yala stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see. It is almost inaccessibly hidden deep in the Ruhuna jungles where Veddahs worshipped in the dim past and gathered to curse, swear and seek punishment for wrongdoers.
As legend goes that when an offence was committed, both, complainant and suspect would come with suitable offerings and lay their grievance at the foot of the jungle Deviyo and retire to two rocks nearby. It was the belief that during the night a leopard was sent by the guardian goddess to dispense justice and dispose of the guilty party.
However, the place is still called Siyabalawa by the villagers of Kotiyagala and Okkampitiya in the West. They visit the place even now, trekking through the forest, offering the finest grain after harvesting, and for ceremonies involving curses and vows.
The tree shrine of Kebilitta itself has no constructions. One of the notable features of the site is that there is no permanent Kapurala (official) at the site and devotees themselves have to perform their rituals. Even with these difficult conditions, devotees make their way to Kebilitta as it is a journey one must complete at least once in a lifetime. If you prepare yourself in true faith and belief, you can also visit this spiritual and tranquil shrine of Kebilitta.
A bumpy tractor ride through Kotiyagala
Devotees prepare offerings early morning on the sandy river bed of the Kumbukkan Oya
Devotees evoke blessings from God Kataragama at the Kebilitta tree shrine