Kataragama: Then and Now

Hotel Chamila located in Katharagama.Katharagama is one of the most celebrated places of pilgrimage

The English, unaware of the nature of the struggle they were engaged in, undertook a deliberate policy of scorched earth tactics-especially in hard-hit Uva province – and state-sponsored terrorism directed against the village population who supported the guerillas. The hardship and further resentment that followed the armed struggle to evict the foreigners can only be imagined today. Such was the desolation of the countryside right up to Kataragama following the uprising that years later Davy could with obvious pride report that:

Before we had possession of the country, kataragam (sic) was greatly frequented. The number of pilgrims is now annually diminishing, and the buildings are going to decay. In a very few years, probably they will be level with the ground, and the traveler such, we must hope will be their fate, and the fate of every building consecrated to superstition of this very degrading and mischievous kind.

Co-opting the ancient tradition of rajakariya into a system of unpaid forced labor to construct the roads that their military and commercial interests required, and approaching enormous tracts of village common lands to hand over to speculators later, the British did everything they could to dismantle the indigenous culture and replace it with something more acceptable to them. The fact that modern histories paint the British period as one of enlightenment and national resurgence only further suggests that history-writing itself was serving as the hand-maiden of European interests and perspectives.

In the context of what has been discussed thus fat, it is most revealing to note that the worship of Kataragama in recent times has burgeoned in popularity to a remarkable extent, co-extensive with the period since 1948 of independent nationhood. It need hardly be added that the name period has been marked by a steady erosion of the social fiber of Sri Lankan society. New historical theories are being invented all the time to explain the course events have taken and to suggest what might follow. Indeed, as many would readily agree, there is a certain pattern to events, but it seems to defy all attempts at systematization in theory.

The principal reason for this unsatisfactory state of affairs, we suggest, is the one-sided approach that sees importance only in consideration of the sort that matter to western-influenced historians, namely the expressions of forces pertaining to the lowest order of reality, the quantitative realm, denying to themselves the insights that maintained traditional civilizations in a state of homeostasis or balance in the midst of relentless change, historians must take upon themselves the responsibility for the conflict and confusion that has for so long characterized their field.

No one is suggesting that a return is possible to a simpler age, or that conflict is entirely avoidable. But it is entirely possible that historians could perform a great service to Sri Lanka, if not to humanity at large, by conceding that there are also other ways of reading and writing history than the so-called modern approaches. The lessons of Kataragama serve as a useful starting point for those having the humility and breadth of vision that such for those having the humility and breadth of vision that such an endeavor requires. Just how high the stakes may by is difficult to ascertain, but it should be self-evident by now that, as the expression goes: Time is short, and the work is vast.

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