The Story of Kataragama in the History of Sri Lanka

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If Sri Lanka may be seen as a paradigm of the rest of Asia, then the legend of Kataragama may be said to fairly encapsulate the story of all Sri Lanka, even up to the present day. Such id the esteem that Sri Lankans of all backgrounds hold for Kataragama – the symbolic capital of Ruhunu as well as the spirit or protector of the place—that even the noted historian P.E. Pieris was moved to write of Kataragama that:

…Here from remote ages was worshipped the six headed twelve-armed Kanda Kumaraya, otherwise Mahasena Divyaraja, Adhipati (Lord) of the Ruhunu Rata, the hero-god…Kataragama, say the Hindus, is his favorite adobe; in this age – the Kali Yuga – his authority extends over the entire world.

What Kataragama represents to millions of Sri Lankans is already well documented by social scientists and others. It is sufficient to remark that, from prehistoric times, Kataragama has commanded the utmost respect – even approaching fear – across lines of race and religion, such that even Christians, not to mention Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, routinely visit remote Kataragama in large numbers. Their rites of vow fulfillment by the deity, which one may see performed en masse at festival times, stand as mute testimony to Kataragama’s silent influence.

Reduced to its basics framework, the Kataragama story centers around the repeated descent and exploits on earth of the solar hero: his battles with the forces of darkness; eventual triumph in the name of truth; his love for the terrestrial princes – the human soul – and dalliance with her on earth; and final consumption in a sacrificial act that fulfills his vow to return once again, as in principio. Upon this symbolic framework may be woven any number of thematic variations, each depending upon the particular perspective taken. Thus, for example, the Kataragama hero is variously described as the first Ancestor of humanity, the servant – or even the son – of god, bodhisattva or Buddha to be, an eternal youth, or general of the divine forces in their battle against the satanic forces of darkness.

One of Kataragama’s unique features is that multifaceted story is not only related at the time of annual Esala festival, but performed as well on a majestic scale. This magnificent performance, as we have endeavored to establish in an earlier paper (unpublished), represents an initiatic tradition of mystery plays, one which has gracefully accommodated social change since well before the Common Era. Amidst the ravages of time, Kataragama preserve its timeless message.

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