The Modern conquest of Kataragama

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

With the landing of European forces in Ceylon in the sixteenth century, this contrast of east and west began to play itself out in dramatic fashion. As the most unabashed of western conquers, the Portuguese had come to the east for the professed intention of saving the souls of the heathen and relieving them of excess wealth. These early European imperialists kept hearing stories of Kataragama’s fabulous wealth, and by the mid-seventeenth century could contain their greed and avarice no longer. What has prevented them in part for so long from satisfying their curiosity were disturbing reports that Kataragama maintained a standing army of 500 men for its defense.

So, in early 1642, one hundred and fifty intrepid Portuguese commandos, under the command of Gasper Figueroa de Cerpe, marched on Kataragama, accompanied by two thousand native marines, or Lascarins. Captain Juan Riberio was among them, and his account of what followed merits our full attention:

When we came near the spot where they said the pagoda stood, we took a native resident close to that spot and our commander inquired from him if he knew where the pagoda was. He replied that he did, and that it was close by; he acted as our guide and led us through a hill covered with forest which was the only one in the district, and this we wandered round re-crossed many times. it was certain that the pagoda was at the top of it but I do not know what magic it possessed for out of the five guides whom we took, the first three were put to death because we thought that they were deceiving us, for they acted as if they were mad and spoke all kinds of nonsense, each one in his turn without the one knowing of the others. The last two deceived us and did exactly the same, and we were forced to turn back without even seeing the pagoda which is called catergao.

Captain Roberio may be excused for not realizing it, but his oversized looking party had fallen victim to the very kind of puzzling embarrassment that is Kataragama’s hallmark. The fabulous wealth they coveted was fabulous indeed, but still it proved to be enough to fire their ingrained cupidity. For the god of Kataragama, a center of riddles and mysteries, is described in myth and legend as being not only the divine strategician Skanda, but also the eternal divine child, kumara, who is forever engaged in mysterious pranks and games like hide and seek. The spirit of Kataragama was well known and alive in the heart of every inhabitant of that region. It was this ‘standing army’, represented as the 505 symbolic rajakariya tasks, that the literal-minded European imperialists, and modern historians in their wake, so totally failed to find. As to what the ‘nonsense’ was that all five native ‘guides’ provided to the invaders, we shall probably never know what it was. But, somehow or other, the Europeans and their allies had been tricked by the myth that is Kataragama.

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