The Kataragama Pilgrimage: Hindu-Buddhist Interaction and Its Significance in Sri Lanka’s Polyethnic Social System

Bryan Pfaffenberger

Tamil Hindu and Sinhalese Buddhist pilgrims gather each year at Sri Lanka’s most important polyethnic shrine, Kataragama, where they worship the deity Skanda (or Murukanṉ). The remarkable tone of ecumenism and tolerance there stands in clear contrast to the mutual mistrust which has recently characterized Tamil-Sinhalese interaction in other social institutions. Does Kataragama help to quell mistrust and to create a bond of common identity between Hindus and Buddhists? The role of Kataragama in Sri Lanka’s poly-ethnic social system is examined by comparing the role of the Kataragama pilgrimage in the religious lives of Hindu and Buddhist villagers. These roles are radically different; indeed, most Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims find themselves in disagreement about the qualities of the deity and about the way he ought to be worshipped. Despite the appearance of ethnic harmony at the site, pilgrims are today likely to leave with a sharp impression of the gulf that separates Tamil and Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka—yet there is evidence that the site may come to play a different role in the future.

Bryan Pfaffenberger is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Knox College. Field research on the topic of Tamil Hindu participation in the Kataragama pilgrimage was undertaken in Chavakachcheri and Kataragama, Sri Lanka, from August 1974 to December 1975 under the auspices of the Foreign Area Fellowship Program of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council. This essay was first presented in a seminar, “Ritual and Symbolism,” which was jointly chaired by Sir Raymond Firth and William Shack. Thanks are due to them, as well as to loan Lewis, Gananath Obeyesekere, and Suzanne Pfaffenberger, for helpful comments made on earlier drafts. Responsibility for the arguments made here rests solely with the author. Tamil terms are transliterated according to the system used in the Tamil Lexicon (Madras: University of Madras, 1936).


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